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Discipline: Such an Unpleasant Word

Discipline. If you are anything like me, it is not a word which brings up warm, happy feelings. No, I think of the consequences I experienced as a child when breaking the rules of the house or disobeying my parents. I think of looking longingly at the chocolate dessert I have to pass up when I’m trying to eat healthy. I think of getting up early (something this night owl does not enjoy) just to workout. I think of long hours immersed in the required reading for a grad school class instead of diving into the latest novel by a favorite author or binge watching the latest season of a favorite TV series. Discipline is not a word which brings me warm, happy feelings.

In all honesty, I wish I could have the results of a disciplined life without actually having to live a disciplined life. I wish I could have grown up to be a responsible adult who knows how to be respectful, kind, and solve problems without ever having the need for my parents to offer some course correction. I wish I could thin, athletic, and healthy while eating whatever I wish to eat and sitting in a big, comfy, over-sized chair reading a book. I wish I could have earned my college degrees without having to write papers or take tests. We all generally like the results of discipline, even if we don’t enjoy the discipline.

And because of the results, discipline is important in all aspects of our lives. Not just diet and exercise, or homework and study, but also how we choose to spend our money, maintaining a healthy work/life balance, and in generally living a life of integrity. For the person of faith, discipline is also important when it comes to maintaining and growing deeper in our relationship with God. So for the next few months, we are going to be spending some time looking at spiritual disciplines.

Let’s start by defining what exactly is a spiritual discipline. While there is some variety in how to define this term, I am going to focus on those things which are most common amidst the variety to come up with our working definition. The one thing which everyone agrees on is that spiritual disciplines air and encourage our growth as disciples of Jesus Christ and deepen our faith in and relationship with God. Another thing which is commonly agreed upon is that spiritual disciplines are something you generally have to choose to do, they don’t happen accidentally. They aren’t explicitly labeled and listed in Scripture but they are all modeled or encouraged in Scripture.

Professor Don Whitney offers some helpful guidelines in providing six key aspects to consider when seeking to define what is and is not a spiritual discipline:

1. There are both personal and corporate expressions. For example, we are called to pray both as an individual and with others.

2. They involve both doing and being. In other words, they are practices, not attitudes, beliefs, or opinions. We read our Bible (doing) so that we may learning what it means to be Christ-like (being). In this we are reminded that our motivation for doing something matters.

3. Spiritual disciplines are modeled in the Bible. While we can and do experience God’s presence in many of our activities and hobbies, such as gardening, running, painting, etc, not everything we do is a spiritual discipline. Jesus modeled for us times where he would specifically seek out a deeper connection with his Father.

4. They are promoted or talked about in Scripture. Growing deeper in one’s relationship with God has been happening for thousands of years now. Spiritual disciplines have a sort of timelessness to them that hobbies don’t possess because God is timeless.

5. Spiritual disciplines flow from the Gospel, they are not separate from the Gospel. They will always take us into a deeper understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

6. And finally, they are a means, not an end. Just because you pray, or read your Bible, or fast, or…well, anything doesn’t make you more holy, more like Christ. Spiritual disciplines are the tools, the vehicle, by which you experience God.

So, with that being said what actual disciplines are we going to be talking about in this series? Another thing that most of my research has agreed on when creating a list of spiritual disciplines is a combination between two primary books on the topic: Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth” and Dallas Willard’s “The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives.” Between these two books, the most commonly used list of Spiritual Disciplines emerges as:

- Meditation

- Prayer

- Fasting

- Frugality

- Chastity

- Study

- Simplicity

- Solitude/Secrecy

- Submission

- Service

- Sacrifice

- Confession

- Worship

- Guidance

- Celebration

- Fellowship

In the weeks ahead, we will take the time consider one or two of these disciplines with each post and what it looks like to engage them regularly in our faith life. To some extent, each of these should already be present in the life of a mature believer. We should all pray and study, we should all serve, we should all worship and fellowship. We should already be doing each of these, in some way, on some sort of regular basis. However, what we also need to remember is that there are often seasons in our Christian life were God calls us to invest in one or two is a special and purposeful way. So please, dear reader, don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel you aren’t doing enough in one area as we go through this series. It is likely God has a different way he is seeking to connect with you for this season in life. At the same time, I also ask you to be open to God asking you to try something new and different, something which pushes you beyond your comfort zone. You never know, you might discover something beyond amazing when you seek to God in new and different way.

Follow Up:

- In looking at the list, what do you already do intentionally at least on a weekly basis? Is there anything which you have not tried before? Is there anything which you have not done for a very long time?

- Is there anything you think should be on the list but isn’t?

- The season of Lent will begin soon. It is a season which is often a popular time to emphasize several of these disciplines within faith communities. Consider if this year God is calling you to engage in a spiritual discipline in a special way.

Primary Resources Used:

From - "What Are Spiritual Disciplines?"

From Groundwork: Biblical Foundations for Life - "What Are Spiritual Disciplines?"

From Zondervan Academic Publishing - "What Are Spiritual Disciplines?


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