Being disciplined is one of those things that most of us agree is worthwhile, but lack the energy to really pursue. The “spiritual disciplines” sound like a great project for when we get the rest of our lives in order. In the mean time, our spiritual lives content themselves with a little church attendance, some vague sense of goodwill and strong beliefs.
It’s a familiar story. It’s how mine started.
But then I went looking. I needed something more. Like so many, the brand of Christianity I’d known had run its course. It had grown shallow. So I embarked on what would turn out to be a four-year journey intensely and intentionally practicing twelve ancient spiritual disciplines—practices like prayer, fasting, meditation, confession and simplicity.
What I discovered permanently changed not only my view of God, but also the way in which I engage in spiritual life. Here are three takeaways I gleaned.
Practice Responding to God’s Love
Spiritual activities work best as an active response to God’s love.
Engaging in spiritual practices as a guilt-motivated duty is just not helpful. The disciplines are an invitation to an adventurous, wild romp with a God who is absolutely crazy in love with us. They are not an obligation, and are best practiced simply as an active response to God’s love.
Serious practice of the disciplines for other reasons is potentially dangerous. For example, if we perceive failure at our spiritual exercises—and were not rooted in God’s love—then we just found a new reason as to why we don’t measure up and the disciplines become just another tool we use to self-shame.
Almost worse, if we are not grounded in God’s love for us and we become successful in practicing the disciplines, pride works its way in. We start thinking we have earned something. At that point, we’re on our way to becoming bitter and resentful—the hidden bondage of a smug and judgmental soul that only legalism can create. In other words, our spiritual exercises become Pharisee training.
We have to start where we are. If we don’t know that we are loved unconditionally right here right now—not as we should be, but as we are—then that’s where we begin. For some people, the best practice they can do is to simply sit in silence and prayerfully ask God to reveal how He sees them.
In working with the disciplines, we’re simply pursuing ways to be present before God. For some, slowing down or getting adequate sleep just might be the most helpful practice to place them in a position to be attentive. Wherever we are, it’s critical we don’t try to be heroic and overdo it. Spiritual formation is a long and slow work. Therefore, setting unattainable goals as an attempt to be super-spiritual is only a set up for failure.
The disciplines can be creative and fun.
There is much to say about suffering and how deeper movements toward God can be unsettling and painful. In fact, many of my experiences with the disciplines revealed this. However, we needn’t shy away from such things or be afraid. God is good and constantly birthing beauty into our lives.
Conversely, and even surprisingly, I found a great deal of my work with the disciplines could be creative and fun. God seemed enthusiastic to meet me in the midst of my life.
Ways to practice the disciplines specific to my individuality as a human and my personal circumstances in the ordinariness of life seemed to find me. For example, for the discipline of submission I learned to submit to God while submitting to the wind on a 100-mile bike ride.
I learned about prayer from touching the hand of a recently deceased friend and while praying for strangers in boring meetings. I did various food fasts, but also fasted from email, technology, and sex. As a way to serve others, I passed by all the good parking spaces and opted for the long check out lines. For the discipline of celebration I took my wife to a prom for adults. I even found cleaning my house could be a spiritual act.
All of this was done before God as a way to lay my will and life before him as a living sacrifice, as an active response to his love.
The disciplines are about growing in Grace.
Grace is not just something that “saves” us. It’s much more than unmerited favor that determines how we spend the afterlife. Dallas Willard used to often say that what we get out of the disciplines far exceeds what we put into them. This is grace.
I take my little effort and carve out some time to pray, to study, to fast, or to submit. Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t, but what really happens is far beyond what I can see and understand. God is deeply at work shaping, molding. and helping me become a person I was previously unable to be. This is grace.
The concept of the spiritual disciplines is really quite simple: We do the practices that Jesus did. Over time these practices become habitual, thus enabling us to respond to life in a way more like Jesus would if he were to live our life.
As we submit our will to spiritual practices, God’s grace brings forth character transformation. This seems to be the dominant means God uses to bring about change in our lives.
Christian spiritual formation is the process of becoming people formed into the likeness of Christ’s character. If I want to respond to life with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, I can’t just force or fake it. When someone cuts me off in traffic, I quickly learn the quality of my spiritual habits.
The disciplines are not about trying; they are about training. And, like most training it takes time, lots of time. Don’t make the mistake of thinking about the spiritual disciplines as something you only do for 40 days or even 40 months. The process of becoming people who organically love God and others well is more like 40 years.
Nathan Foster is a professor at Spring Arbor University where he holds the Andrews Chair of Spiritual Formation. He chronicled his experience with the spiritual disciplines in his recent book, The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines.