Spiritual Disciplines: The Heart of Joyful Obedience
Updated: Feb 28
Discipline. What comes to mind when you hear the word? You may consider the willpower it takes to wake up early to go to the gym, to bring consistent performance to work, or even to establish a simple habit like flossing or taking vitamins. For me, I think of time spent on the receiving end of discipline: the countless hours I clocked in time-out as a child, pouting in the corner after a much-deserved rebuke from my parents, or running sprints at soccer practice as a punishment for being late or slacking. On some level, everyone understands that discipline is the difficult avenue by which some desirable end is achieved, whether modified behavior, commendable character, or the promise of an extrinsic reward.
When it comes to our faith, how should it function as the spiritual grit with which we seek the Lord?
Sure, we don’t work our way into the kingdom of God in the same way that we work our way toward washboard abs — Ephesians 2:8 assures us that only by God’s grace is anyone saved — but we do need daily discipline to fully engage our heart, mind, and strength in encountering God. By opening the hours of our day to Him, we place ourselves in the path of the Spirit so that He can cultivate fruit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23). Our disciplines are simply the water.
"In pointing out these things to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have been following. But stay away from worthless stories that are typical of old women. Rather, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily training is just slightly beneficial, but godliness is beneficial for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." - 1 Timothy 4:6-8
As we pursue intimacy with God and conformity to the image of Christ, we push back against a shallow, hurried, lifestyle in which productivity is equated with worth, and build a solid foundation by knowing Him at a deeper level (Matthew 7:24-27).
When we accept Jesus Christ as Lord, he alone does the continual work of sanctification in our hearts, but we declare in our action (the routines that fill our days) and our omission (what we refrain from in pursuit of holiness), who is truly Lord of our lives. We are fallen creatures who cannot muscle our way to righteousnesses, so we must come before him with every sunrise in a posture of surrender. Donald Whitney says that “while we cannot be godly without the practice of the disciplines, we can practice the disciplines without being godly if we see them as ends and not means.”
If our motive is to earn favor with God, we're dancing with legalism, but if we're neglecting them altogether, we're abusing his grace. Therefore, we must submit to the authority of scripture and pray for purity of heart to land rightly on this spectrum. Timothy Keller brings the point home further in his book, Prayer: "Only when we see that we cannot keep the rules, and need God's mercy, can we become people who begin to keep the rules. The rules do not earn or merit God's attention but rather align our prayers with who God is — the God of free grace — and thereby unite us to him more and more." Humility before God is the crucial first step.
As Ruah Church strives to live out radical biblical fellowship and outward obedience, we recognize that what we do behind closed doors is concurrently shaping each of us; Our private devotion to God should line up with who we want to be before the public eye.
In pursuit of this authentic integration, we will be exploring several inner disciplines over the course of the next few months: silence and solitude, prayer and fasting, and study and meditation. Their categorization varies depending on who you ask, but this list highlights a select few that are emphasized in Scripture as especially valuable.
If we were to open the journals of influential Christian leaders across history, the pages would evidence devout daily devotion. From George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley to Charles Spurgeon and R.C. Sproul, it would be near impossible to find a man of good repute from the pulpit who was not also implementing secret routines such as scripture memorization, solitude, and several-day-long stretches of fasting and prayer. Martin Luther was famous for saying“I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
If we rewind to the eighteenth century, Christian thinkers in that time were typically preoccupied with things that they could not see. Whether this took the shape of a Great Awakening or Spiritualism or church revivals, the early Protestant congregation was arguably more focused on the life to come than the modern congregation and its flashy distractions. However, by the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the rapid growth of technological advancement sparked by the Industrial Revolution led to questions about where God fits with science and how power at the fingertips of man was to be reckoned with. From stone tools to the printing press to the iPhone, humans have only grown in knowledge and become more coddled by the illusion of control. The modern man is focused on what is right in front of him. Even western spirituality has become obsessed with the here and now - i.e. humanism and the mystic practices that fall beneath the New Age umbrella (yoga, astrology, herbal remedies, etc.).
While these beliefs may seem harmless, any worldview that focuses on living “our best life now” is dangerously oppositional to what the Bible clearly teaches: We must die to ourselves and follow Christ (Luke 9:23; Romans 12:1-2; Galatians 2:20). Christian spirituality should not parallel the many neighboring "spiritual" practices, which begin and end with the glorification of self. Our disciplines should not service our own peace and pleasure but the glory of our Creator. Inner peace is not attached to our circumstances; Our hope is in heaven:
"If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." - Colossians 3:1-4
In our time on earth, we will fight with our fleshly desires daily. There is grace for days when our humanness is especially apparent — manifested in the snooze button, rushed prayer, and half-hearted time in the Word — yet the heart behind our obedience is that should desire to give our ALL to the God who has given us every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). Stay tuned as we delve into each of the disciplines in turn.