What are spiritual disciplines?
This post is adapted from Conformed to His Image: Biblical, Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation and the Conformed to His Image video lectures, now streaming with a 14-day FREE trial on MasterLectures.
The spiritual disciplines are the product of a synergy between divine and human initiative, and they serve us as means of grace insofar as they bring our personalities under the lordship of Christ and the control of the Spirit.
By practicing the spiritual disciplines, we place our minds, temperaments, and bodies before God and seek the grace of his transformation. In this way, we learn to appropriate the power of kingdom living.
These disciplines are both active and passive, both initiatory and receptive; they connect us to the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who manifests the life of Christ in us and through us. Thus we should work hard but receive everything we are and have by God’s grace. It takes the touch of God on our lives for us to form habits that are alive and pleasing to him.
20 Spiritual Disciplines
There is no standardized list of spiritual disciplines, but some are more prominent in the literature than are others. For example:
- Richard J. Foster develops a threefold typology of inward disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting, and study), outward disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission, and service), and corporate disciplines (confession, worship, guidance, and celebration).
- Dallas Willard divides the disciplines into two classes: disciplines of abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and disciplines of engagement (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).
- Other writers categorize other activities, including journaling, dialogue, witness, stewardship, and listening, as disciplines.
In this post, we’ll begin with a concise description of twenty disciplines.
Remember, however, that these disciplines are merely tools to help us grow. It would be a mistake to claim that every follower of Christ should practice all of these disciplines in a consistent or rigorous way. Some will be more essential for you at one time, and some will serve you better at other times. You will find that some of the disciplines are nonnegotiable while others can be pursued intermittently.
Depending on your temperament and circumstances, you will be drawn to some and indifferent to others. Still, it is wise to engage occasionally in the ones you would normally dismiss, so that you can experience their unique benefits.
Solitude is the most fundamental of the disciplines in that it moves us away, for a time, from the lures and aspirations of the world into the presence of the Father. In solitude, we remove ourselves from the influence of our peers and society and find the solace of anonymity. In this cloister we discover a place of strength, dependence, reflection, and renewal, and we confront inner patterns and forces that are alien to the life of Christ within us.
Silence is a catalyst of solitude; it prepares the way for inner seclusion and enables us to listen to the quiet voice of the Spirit. Few of us have experienced silence, and most people find it to be uncomfortable at first. Silence is at odds with the din of our culture and the popular addiction to noise and hubbub. This discipline relates not only to finding places of silence in our surroundings but also to times of restricted speech in the presence of others.
Prayer is personal communion and dialogue with the living God. Seen from a biblical perspective, prayer is an opportunity and a privilege rather than a burden or a duty. It is the meeting place where we draw near to God to receive his grace, to release our burdens and fears, and to be honest with the Lord. Prayer should not be limited to structured times but should also become an ongoing dialogue with God as we practice his presence in the context of our daily activities.
Many people have found that keeping a spiritual diary heightens their understanding of the unique process of spiritual formation through which God has been taking them. By recording our insights, feelings, and the stream of our experiences, we clarify the progress of our spiritual journey. This discipline relates closely to those of prayer, meditation, and study; journaling enhances personal reflection, encourages us to record perspectives we have received from Scripture, and serves as another form of prayer.
The discipline of study is central to the process of renewing the mind in such a way that we can respond appropriately to the truths of God’s Word. Study of Scripture involves not only reading but also active involvement in observation, interpretation, and application of its contents. This discipline also includes devotional reflection on the beauties and intricacies of nature as well as exposure to gifted writers and teachers in the past and in the present.
Meditation is a close relative of the disciplines of prayer and study, and it also depends on the disciplines of solitude and silence. Meditation has become such a lost art in the West that we typically associate it with Eastern religions. Far from emptying the mind, however, Christian meditation focuses the mind on the nuances of revealed truth. To meditate on the Word is to take the time to ponder a verse or a passage from Scripture so that its truth can sink deeply into our being. (One method of meditation is lectio divina, or sacred reading, which will be discussed more later in this chapter and in the section on devotional spirituality.)
The spiritual discipline of fasting is abstention from physical nourishment for the purpose of spiritual sustenance. This difficult discipline requires practice before it can be effective, since it is not natural for us to pursue self-denial. There are different methods and degrees of fasting, but all of them promote self-control and reveal the degree to which we are ruled by our bodily appetites. Fasting can also consist of abstention from other things that can control us, such as television and other forms of entertainment.
The discipline of chastity is relevant to all believers, whether they are single or married. This discipline recognizes that the sexual appetite is a legitimate part of our natures, but it encourages us to resist the painful consequences of improper feelings, fantasies, obsessions, and relations that are so frequently reinforced in our culture. Chastity elevates loving concern for the good of others above personal gratification.
The practice of secrecy is dependence on God alone for what should and should not be noticed by others. Secrecy is the opposite of grasping and self-promotion, since it teaches us to love anonymity and frees us from the bondage of the opinions of others. Secrecy is not a false humility but a heartfelt desire to seek the praise and approval of God regardless of what people may think.
This discipline sets us free from the burden of hidden sin, but it requires transparency and vulnerability in the presence of one or more people whom we implicitly trust. When we uncover and name our secrets, failures, and weaknesses, they lose their dominion by virtue of being exposed. We are generally more concerned about the disapproval of people, whom we can see, than we are about the disapproval of God, whom we cannot see, and this makes repentance and confession before others difficult.
For some people, enjoying community is not a discipline but a delight. But in our individualistic culture many people are more inclined toward autonomy and independence than to body life. For them, a willingness to seek mutual encouragement and edification is a discipline that will eventually pay dividends through regular exposure to a diversity of natural and spiritual gifts. We will discuss and develop the discipline of community in the section on corporate spirituality. There we will see that our experience with God is mediated through the body of Christ and that koinonia (communion, fellowship, close relationship, association) with other believers plays an essential role in our spiritual formation. This dynamic of fellowship should not be trivialized by reducing it to punch and cookies or potluck suppers. It’s also important in today’s society not to allow our fellowship to be mediated, at least not exclusively or even primarily, by technology. Relationships are analog, not digital; while mobile technology can serve as a helpful tool in relationship building, there’s no substitute for actual, in-person presence.
The discipline of voluntary submission to others as an expression of our submission to Christ is based on the biblical mandate for us to seek the good of others rather than our rights. Mutual subordination and servanthood free us from having to be in control and to have things go our way. By imitating Christ in this discipline of self-denial, we become increasingly concerned with the needs of others.
The discipline of guidance involves the recovery of spiritual direction. In recent years, the evangelical community has become aware of the need for seeking spiritual guidance; this comes through accountability to mentors whose credibility is established by experience and maturity. Guidance is also a corporate discipline in which a body of believers seeks a Spirit-directed unity.
These disciplines reinforce each other, since they relate to our attitude and use of the resources that have been placed at our disposal. The discipline of simplicity or frugality refers to a willingness to abstain from using these resources for our own gratification and aggrandizement. A mindset of simplicity helps us resist the cultural endorsement of extravagance and consumption that entices us away from gratitude, trust, and dependence on the Lord. This discipline frees us from the multiplicity of fleshly desires and anxiety over trivial things, and it helps to deliver us from the bondage of financial debt.
The related discipline of stewardship encourages us to reflect on our lives as managers of the assets of Another. In addition to the usual trilogy of time, talent, and treasure, I include the stewardship of the truth we have received as well as the relationships with which we have been entrusted. In this discipline, we periodically review the ways we have been investing these assets.
Sacrifice is a more radical discipline than simplicity in that it involves the occasional risk of giving up something we would use to meet our needs rather than our wants. This is a faith-building exercise that commits us to entrust ourselves to God’s care.
To worship is to be fully occupied with the attributes of God—the majesty, beauty, and goodness of his person, powers, and perfections. For the individual, worship often involves devotional reflection on the person and work of Jesus Christ as our mediator to the Father. In a corporate setting, believers are united in heart and mind to honor and extol the infinite and personal God. The discipline of worship expands our concept of who God is and what he has done.
Celebration focuses on all that God has done on our behalf. It is the discipline of choosing gratitude rather than grumbling and remembrance rather than indifference. When we celebrate, we review and relive the history of God’s blessings, and this stimulates a renewed sense of devotion. Celebration, whether individual or corporate, is taking pleasure, amazement, and joy in how good God has been to us in specific ways and times. To revel in God’s goodness is to gain a new sense of perspective.
The discipline of service does not call attention to itself but concentrates instead on the needs and concerns of others. True service does not look for recognition but is born out of love for Jesus and a desire to follow him in washing the feet of the saints. In this discipline, we take on roles that are passed over and that do not call attention to ourselves; we steadfastly refuse to live for appearance and recognition, choosing instead to show kindness, courtesy, sensitivity, and concern for people who are often overlooked.
The reason many believers are not involved in evangelism is that they do not see it as a discipline that requires a corresponding lifestyle. To witness is to choose to go beyond our circle of believing friends and to walk dependently in the power of the Spirit as we invest in relationships with those who have not yet met Christ. The discipline of witness takes seriously the biblical mandate of bearing witness to Jesus by building nonmanipulative relationships with eternity in view.
The Spiritual Disciplines are useful means but inadequate ends.
The disciplines of the faith are never ends in themselves but means to the end of knowing, loving, and trusting God. As we implement them in a consistent way, we cultivate holy habits. As these habits grow, they guide our behavior and character in such a way that it becomes more natural for us to live out our new identities in Christ.
Our daily choices shape our habits, and our habits shape our character. Our character in turn guides the decisions we make in times of stress, temptation, and adversity. In this way, the godly actions of maturing believers are outward displays of increasing inner beauty.
If we fail to see these disciplines and habits as responses to divine grace, we will slip into the trap of thinking that they have value in themselves. Those who think this way suppose that when they meditate or fast, they are spiritually superior to those who do not. Their disciplines become external, self-energized, and law-driven. They are tempted to quantify spirituality by reducing it to a set of external practices rather than an internal, grace-drawn process of transformation.
Instead, we must see the disciplines as external practices that reflect and reinforce internal aspirations. Spiritual growth is inside out, not outside in; our focus should be more on the process of inner transformation than on outward routines. This understanding will free us from thinking that the disciplines we practice are magical in themselves or that others should be engaging in the same activities that we practice. Spiritual disciplines are good servants but poor masters; they are useful means but inadequate ends.
Learn more in Conformed to His Image: Biblical, Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation and the Conformed to His Image video lectures, now streaming with a 14-day FREE trial on MasterLectures.
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