Christian Life

The Disciplines: Structure and Space for Spiritual Formation

I regularly meet Christians who desire to have a deeper life in Christ. They often express it in statements very similar to these: “I feel so shallow! I am struggling with prayer and I don’t feel that I am getting very much out of my Bible reading” or “I am spiritually dry and rarely, if ever, sense God’s love and assurance”    My follow up questions often reveal two things. First, the lack of a consistent investment of quality time in the development of their spiritual life.  Second, they clearly lack the knowledge of how to develop spiritual depth.  Almost without exception, the person asking the question is part of a church where there is no general culture of practicing the spiritual disciplines nor is there any place given to teaching about them.  And when the disciplines are ignored, you will find a group of men and women with desire and desperation gnawing at their hungry souls – longing to be led deeper into what they have already found in Christ.

The classical disciplines of the spiritual life have been practiced by Christians for centuries as a means or channel for the Holy Spirit to do His work of developing vigorous, dynamic spirituality.  The church has always linked the desire for more of God to intentional practices, relationships and experiences that gave people space in their lives to “keep company” with Jesus.  The disciplines or practices followed by the first believers are found in Acts 2:42: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [a practice] and the fellowship [relationships], to the breaking of bread [an experience] and to prayer [a practice].”  These intentional practices, relationships and experiences are what we know as spiritual disciplines.

The Role of the Disciplines? 

The disciplines are a way of ordering our life around values, practices and relationships that keep us open and available to God for the work of spiritual transformation that only God can bring about.  Dallas Willard says, “We meet and dwell with Jesus and His Father in the disciplines for the spiritual life”. Participating in these spiritual practices is one way we cooperate with God in making room for Him to work in our lives.   Though the various spiritual disciples are not salvific nor do they make a person spiritually superior, they do create the conditions in which grace may flow more freely into our lives.

The disciplines are means of providing structure and space for spiritual formation to occur.

John Wesley called these practices the “means of grace.”  By this he meant the specific channels through which God conveys grace to His people.  While He acknowledged that the means of grace themselves have no salvific worth, he saw them as channels by which the Holy Spirit ministers grace to our hearts. He further believed that through participation in the instituted means of grace a person can be made aware of the pardoning and empowering presence of Christ on a regular basis.

The Disciplines Are Not Transformation by Human Effort

No one claims that the various spiritual disciples have saving value in themselves. Righteousness is a gift from God that we graciously receive (Rom. 5:17).  The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. It is not the spiritual disciplines that transform us into the likeness of Christ.  That is the work of the Holy Spirit (II Cor. 3:18) and without Him these practices are fruitless.  Willpower and discipline alone can never fix the soul. Striving, pushing and trying harder will never bring spiritual victory over sin or transform ones inner man into the likeness of Christ. Paul makes it clear that regulations, disciplines and all forms of self-imposed human effort will fail when he says, “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col. 3:23).  Actually, disciplines done for the wrong reason will sabotage transformation and numb us toward God and the truth.

Spiritual practices do not “twist God’s arm” into getting what we want.  They do not give us “spiritual brownie points” or help us “work the system” for a passing grade from God. Simply put, spiritual disciplines help put us in a place where we can begin to notice God and respond to His Word to us.  They give the Holy Spirit space to brood over our souls, birthing the ever-fresh Christ-life within.  They provide us with the space to “keep company” with Jesus and find His rest for our weary souls (Matt. 11:28-30).

Partnering with God

However, once we understand that inner transformation through the human powers of will and determination will end in failure, we are in danger of an error in the opposite direction. We are tempted to believe there is nothing we can do.  There are those who have abandoned the disciplines and the whole idea of spiritual formation as an erroneous view of sanctification.  However, to reject the disciplines wholesale is to insist that growth in the spirit is something that just happens all by itself.  It is hard to see how any serious disciple of Jesus could possibly believe that.  Paul says, “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8). Paul’s analogy of farming activity is very helpful.  A farmer is helpless to grow anything; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of a crop. He plows the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the crop.

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 within us and transform us. Any discipline that does not help us to partner with the Triune God for spiritual growth is an empty worthless act and a perfect waste of time. The disciplines must, by their very nature, get us to the place where God can do something in us.  They are God’s means of grace.  While at the same time it is up to us to arrange our lives and put into practice the disciplines. Dallas Willard’s famous quote says it well, “Grace is not opposed to effort it is opposed to earning.”

The Disciplines

Historically the spiritual disciplines are divided into three areas: inward, outward and corporate.

Inward

The inward disciplines are practiced in the privacy of our own personal walk with Jesus. They focus on the transformation and development of the inner aspects of the human person.  These practices nurture the heart and soul of the believer. They include prayer, Scripture reading, meditation, silence, fasting and journaling.

Outward

The outward disciplines focus on the social and behavioral aspects of spiritual formation.  The outward spiritual practices include: blessed subtraction (taking away specific things in your life), solitude, acts of mercy, physical exercise and tithing.

Corporate

The corporate disciplines help us participate in practices of accountability through community and worship.  The corporate spiritual practices include public confession of sins, participation in public worship, celebration and accountability by a spiritual director or small-group leader.  This aspect of spiritual formation acknowledges that our formation takes place in the context of community and social interaction.

Dallas Willard takes a different approach and divides the disciplines into disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement.

Abstinence

The disciplines of abstinence detach us from hurry, clutter and busyness.  They help to create space to be with God alone.  The word “asceticism” is the correlate of a Greek word for “training”, as in an athlete training for a race.  If you practice self-denial, then you will know that those who deny themselves will be sure to find “their strength increased, their affections raised and their inward peace continually augmented.”  The disciplines of abstinence include: solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy and sacrifice.

Engagement

The disciplines of engagement connect us to the needs of others and the call to be God’s heart and hands in this world.  They help the soul to be properly engaged in and by God. The disciplines of engagement include: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession and submission.

The spiritual disciplines are truly God’s gifts to us.  They are a means of grace – a spiritual practice – a way we connect to God and participate in our relationship with Him. As we open up our souls to God, He pours His own life and the grace we need into our hearts. When that happens, we will change; we will be formed and transformed into the image of Christ!