Bible reading. Prayer. Meditation. Fellowship.
If you’ve spent some time in the church (or even on TheReb), you’ve probably heard a lot about these. You’ve probably also heard about some lesser-known practices like fasting, solitude, secrecy, or celebration.
These are spiritual disciplines. Maybe you’re dedicated to practicing some or all of them. Maybe you think it would be a good idea and want to start eventually. Maybe you don’t understand the point.
The spiritual disciplines are practices instituted by God to enable us to grow closer to him. They’ve been proven by generations of Christians. They were practiced by Christ himself. And they’re very, very relevant to us today.
How to Become a Better Christian… Or Not
How many times have you sat down to read your Bible because it makes you a better Christian? How often have you spent time in prayer because it would make you more spiritual? Or maybe you have other reasons—to make your parents happy, to fit into church or youth group better.
These are the lies we tell ourselves, the lies our enemy would like to pound into our brain: that we can become more right with God, more accepted, more loved, or “more Christian.” That something we do can do more than what’s already been done for us.
The spiritual disciplines are effective, time-tested, and (in some cases) explicitly commanded by God. But their effectiveness is rooted in the gospel—the fact that we can’t do anything to make ourselves right with God. We couldn’t restore the relationship; he had to do it for us. And now we are infinitely, perfectly loved by God. Nothing we do can ever change that (see Romans 8:35-39).
A Path to Relying on Christ
More than anything else, the spiritual disciplines are meant to point us to Christ. Prayer, Bible study, and the other disciplines bring us to the foot of the throne and cast us on the mercy of God. Their purpose isn’t to make us more sufficient or independent as Christians. It’s to bring us into more reliance on our Savior. More dependence on him.
Just like we can’t make ourselves right with God, we can’t “work out [our] own salvation” in ourselves either (Phil 1:12). We don’t have it within ourselves. All we have is faith—faith to rely on God who “works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 1:13).
The same grace that saved us is what sustains us. As we work to follow God and obey him, our first and ultimate goal has to be to become more and more dependent on his grace and let him work in us.The same grace that saved us is what sustains us. As we work to follow God and obey him, our first and ultimate goal has to be to become more and more dependent on his grace and let him work in us. Click To Tweet
So how do the spiritual disciplines help us do this? The answer is practice.
I’ve played violin for almost eight years now. Unfortunately, I’m nowhere near as good as I could be for having played that long, and it’s not because I’m naturally bad at violin. I just don’t practice very much. If I practiced every day, my skill at violin would grow in leaps and bounds—and I know that, but I still don’t practice. I just don’t have time, or it’s not a high enough priority.
My brother goes to the gym nearly every day, and he can lift an impressive amount of weight at this point. Why? Because he’s been practicing—regularly, intensely, for months.
There’s incredible value in consistent, prolonged practice. It’s not as fun—sometimes it’s quite boring. Sometimes it feels easier to take a weekend retreat where you read the Bible for hours than to set up a consistent schedule of reading the Bible a little bit every day. But it’s the little bit every day that’s going to create change in the long run.
The spiritual disciplines allow us to practice godliness. They help us form habits that will be life-giving and grace-receiving. Maybe I don’t know how to “pray without ceasing,” but making a habit of praying every morning, even if I don’t want to, will help me to eventually have a life permeated by prayer. It will make me more dependent on God, more apt to seek him moment by moment through the day, more ready to turn to him in a moment of decision or crisis.
Dallas Willard writes,
“My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing—by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father (Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Preface).
Of course, we must not lose sight of the fact that the things we practice are in themselves powerful. It’s not just meaningless practice to achieve a good end (like playing scales or running laps). Every time we read the Bible, we’re imbibing the living words of the eternal God. Every time we pray, we’re approaching the throne of the King of kings. Our seemingly mundane practices bring us face to face and hand in hand with an eternal reality we can’t begin to imagine.
The change doesn’t happen just because of our discipline. As we engage in these practices, we behold the face of Jesus Christ. The sight of his glory will change us from the inside out—little by little, day by day” (2 Cor 3:18).
A Final Note
In this article I’ve mostly talked about Bible reading/study and prayer. That’s because these practices are directly commanded by God—but there are many other disciplines that have been practiced and found helpful by believers throughout the centuries. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t!) try to implement them all into your life at once. Pray and talk with your parents or a mentor to determine which would be helpful for your spiritual walk.
If you want to learn more about spiritual disciplines (and following God in general), I highly recommend the book Habits of Grace by David Mathis. I found this book extremely helpful in my own life. It’s a good introduction to the subject—simple, easy to read, but packed with truth.