The Spiritual Disciplines: Introduction
January 15, 2014
by Peter Amsterdam
The Spiritual Disciplines: Introduction
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Trying to live according to the teachings of Jesus and to be more like Him is a personal goal for me, as I know it is for many of us. We want to follow His example of being loving and compassionate, generous, forgiving, kind, prayerful, Spirit-led, and of having a deep relationship with the Father and the determination to do God’s will.
As Christians, we aspire to pattern ourselves after Jesus. We desire to be godly, meaning that we live in a manner which honors God, which is based on the knowledge of His Word, and with the awareness of, and reverence for, His constant presence within us. In short, living in a way which is pleasing to Him. The question is: How do we do that effectively? What steps can we take to help us to live godly lives?
The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, a young man he was mentoring, telling him that he should train himself for godliness, that he should pursue it, as there is great gain in doing so. The Greek word Paul used for training was gymnazō, which the English word gymnasium comes from, and which means to exercise vigorously. In other words, Paul was saying that Timothy should put effort and exercise into becoming godly.
We all know that if we wish to become proficient at something or to become an expert or professional in some aspect of life, we must train and practice. When I was fourteen years old, I learned the basics of how to play the guitar. I could eventually play well enough to accompany myself or others when singing, but I never progressed further. I always admired those who were good guitarists, who could play more than the basic chords, which was the extent of my skill. Some years ago, I was talking with a young lead guitarist who in my opinion played amazingly. He told me that he could play lead guitar so well because throughout his teen years he’d practiced the scales over and over again. He was proficient because he’d put in the time and work to become so.
Besides not becoming proficient in my guitar playing, when I was ten I gave up playing the piano after a few years of lessons because I wasn’t willing to keep up with the tedious hard work and practice that was necessary to play proficiently. Similar to my guitar playing, I learned the basics, but I never became skilled. I’m using music as an example, but this holds true whenever one wants to become skilled in some field. It requires effort, practice, time, and energy to become adept.
Sports stars perform with such skill because they work at it regularly. They practice daily, they sacrifice, they take care of their bodies, they work on the areas in which they need to improve, they listen to their coaches. They consistently train for what they do. So often we see experts make their skill look simple—an ice skater who makes a beautiful move, an artist who sketches a perfect likeness, a high-diver who performs a flawless dive. It looks effortless, yet we know that to reach that level of proficiency has required a commitment to practice long and hard. They didn’t start out as champions or experts; they started with a desire to become proficient and were willing to work at it.
Living lives which reflect Jesus’ light and love to others, living in accordance with God’s will, being attuned to the Holy Spirit, making godly choices, cultivating a close relationship with our Creator, all of this requires effort on our part. Paul was making this point when he told Timothy to train in godliness.
How do we train for godliness? By applying ourselves to doing those things which put us in a position to receive God’s blessings and strength; by doing what is necessary to align the inner attitudes of our heart with God’s Spirit, Word, and will. Living a God-centered life isn’t something that happens on its own; it requires effort and commitment on our part. It calls for spiritual growth, which will contribute to developing such a life. As we mature in our faith, as we walk closer with God and as we live in alignment with His will, we are inwardly transformed, which in turn manifests itself in our outward life, helping us to be more God-centered and Christlike.
One means of such spiritual growth is practicing what are referred to as the Spiritual Disciplines. Learning about and applying the Spiritual Disciplines can help you deepen your love for the Lord and your connection with Him in significant ways. They can help you align your life with God’s will and put you in a position to receive God’s blessings. Practicing the Spiritual Disciplines is similar to becoming proficient in any field; it entails making decisions which require self-discipline. It isn’t easy, but it is rewarding.
In his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald S. Whitney quoted Tom Landry, who coached the Dallas Cowboys football team for thirty years, as saying:
The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.
Whitney went on to say:
In much the same way, Christians are called to make themselves do something they would not naturally do—pursue the Spiritual Disciplines—in order to become what they’ve always wanted to be, that is, like Jesus Christ. “Discipline yourself,” says the Scripture, “for the purpose of godliness.”
This series of articles will touch on the Spiritual Disciplines. The Spiritual Disciplines are not a means of gaining God’s love or favor for works we are doing or sacrifices we are making, nor are they a deal or contract between you and the Lord which states, “If I do this, then God will do that.” Rather, engaging in the Spiritual Disciplines is a means by which you put yourself in the position to receive God’s grace.
Grace in the New Testament generally refers to God’s gracious gift of salvation through Jesus. However, the word grace is not limited to salvation. Throughout the Bible grace is used in the sense of loving-kindness, showing favor, performing compassionate acts which arise out of affection and goodness. Grace is God’s unmerited and compassionate favor which He bestows, not because He must or is forced to, but because of His love for us. From my experience with the Spiritual Disciplines, I can say that through them I have felt God’s grace in my life.
Author Richard J. Foster wrote:
The apostle Paul says, “He who sows to his own flesh will reap from the flesh corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:8). Paul’s analogy is instructive. A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines—they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where He can work with us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace. The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where He can bless us.
The Spiritual Disciplines aren’t magic bullets which will change your life immediately; instead they are a way of life that puts you in the position to be transformed by God. They are a means to a deeper relationship with Him, to living as Jesus did. In fact, they include many of those things Jesus did when He walked the earth, such as prayer, spending time alone with His Father in quietness, fasting, sacrificial living, service to others, and more. It logically follows that if we want to be like Jesus, we would want to follow the example of how He lived, especially in regard to communing and connecting with His Father, and doing our best to serve as an example of God’s love and compassion to others.
There are three main avenues which God uses to help us grow into Christlikeness. The first is people—our loved ones, spouse, friends, coworkers, teachers, mentors, and even those who oppose us. All of them can be catalysts for change in our lives.
The second avenue of change is circumstances—the challenges we face, whether with health, finances, losing a job or getting a new one, moving locations, or any other things which require stretching and moving out of our comfort zones. God uses circumstances to bring change and growth to our doorstep. When He uses people and circumstances to bring spiritual growth, He is using outside influences which are generally beyond our control.
The third avenue is the Spiritual Disciplines, which work from the inside out. While we have limited control over the outside influences and circumstances which draw us closer to God, the Spiritual Disciplines can generate change and growth from within. It’s each of us making a decision to take action for the purpose of inward spiritual change and growth. With the other two avenues, we have little choice or control; however, with the Spiritual Disciplines, we can choose to use them as a catalyst for growth, and we can choose which ones to practice and when.
The disciplines which will be covered in this series are Bible intake, prayer, stewardship, simplicity, giving, wise use of time, fasting, solitude and silence, journaling, learning, confession, worship, celebration, service, fellowship, and evangelism. Different authors categorize the disciplines differently and some list additional disciplines. The ones that will be included in this series are those which most authors cover and which virtually all agree are considered Spiritual Disciplines.
How deeply we dwell in communion with God, how open we are to His influence, how much we choose to do His will, how dedicated we are to maturing in our faith, are things that we each decide. How important is your connection to the Lord? What are you willing to do about it? These are questions that only you can answer. But if you have the desire to dwell in Him and let Him dwell in you, to grow in faith, to be in the position where He can bring the spiritual growth you seek, then I suggest you practice the Spiritual Disciplines on a regular basis.
Using the Spiritual Disciplines is a private matter between you and the Lord. While there are some which should be practiced daily, such as Bible intake, meditation, prayer, and praise, there are others which are generally used less frequently. It’s up to you, in communion with the Lord, to determine which ones to practice and when.
While many great Christians of the past practiced the principles brought together in the Spiritual Disciplines, they aren’t reserved for those who have reached such spiritual heights. The disciplines are for everyday Christians like you and me. They are for mothers and fathers, those in the workplace, students, missionaries, and anyone who loves Jesus and wants God to be involved in their lives.
The Spiritual Disciplines that will be covered in this series are ones that I’ve selected from three prominent books on the subject: Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster, The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard, and Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney.
The goal of this series is to bring about awareness of the Spiritual Disciplines, to provide a basic explanation of them so that you will have the tools in hand to strengthen your spiritual life and to help you reach your goal of being more like Jesus. It will also be a help to those of you who are teaching, ministering to, or discipling others, as you will have this means to teach them about the disciplines. My prayer is that you will find the Spiritual Disciplines a blessing to you and those you minister to.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).
 Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11).
 Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment … (1 Timothy 6:6).
 Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), 21.
 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (New York: HarperOne, 1998), 7.
 Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 18.
 Ibid., 18.