Before Richard Foster wrote Celebration of Discipline in 1978, words like “meditation” and “simplicity” and “solitude” were relegated to the strange vocabularies of cloistered mystics and monks. Foster freed them, brought them to mainstream evangelical America.
Of course, “spiritual disciplines” have strong biblical foundations and have been practiced by saints for two thousand years. But the disciplines were slowly forgotten by most non-Catholic followers of Christ as the rational modern scientific world around us seeped into our thoughts and choked out these ancient good habits. Too often the hussle of my own modern life has given me this sort of amnesia too. Here’s what I’d be better off remembering about spiritual disciplines.
For The Purpose Of Godliness
Practicing the spiritual disciplines places our emotions, volition, and intellect on the wheel for the Potter to mold – to mold us into the image of Christ. Paul told Timothy “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).” He said to “sow to the spirit” (Galatians 6:7-9 ) and “pursue holiness” (Hebrews 12:14). Holiness and godliness are gifts from God we cannot earn but practicing the disciplines makes us receptive to these gifts somehow.
For The Purpose Of Intimacy
The disciplines help us tune into God’s voice a bit better, and allow us to talk back as He nudges. The sheep learn the Shepherd’s voice by listening to it (John 10:27) and learn to “abide” in Him or stay dependent on Him because otherwise they can do nothing (John 15). The disciplines maintain our intimate dialogue with God.
I haven’t consistently practiced the disciplines over the years – but I’ve consistently returned to them. When I stop their practice I eventually find yesterday’s want to’s have become today’s should do’s. I love my wife because I promised to. I write songs because it pays the bills (in theory). I read the Bible because it’s my job to teach it. All of life becomes action without power, love or passion. So I return to the disciplines – back to the basic tools of “sowing to the spirit” and maintaining intimacy with God.
Here’s what practicing a few of the disciplines looks like on an average (good) day for me:
Before the kids wake up, I walk upstairs to my office, lock the door and sit by the window. I’ll need about an hour alone.
I shoot straight with God, tell Him I’m tired and that while part of me wants to spend time getting to know Him better, part of me also wants to sleep or check e-mail or eat. I ask Him to help me focus and wake up. I ask Him to guide me as I try to get to know Him better, to speak to me, to help me hear Him.
I open the Bible and read one chapter, expecting God to speak to me. This week I’ve been in Galatians. So, on Monday I read Galatians chapter one. I read it slowly and out loud. I read it again. One line stuck out to me: Verse 4 says “…[Jesus] gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father…”
I may do one of a number of things to meditate at this point – or all of them. The goal isn’t to clear my mind and get in touch with my inner self as in Eastern religious meditation. The goal is to fill my mind with truth and get in touch with its Author.
I may put myself into the verse: Jesus gave himself for my sins to rescue me from the present evil age, according to the will of God my Father.
I may amplify the verse: Jesus gave, gifted, donated, surrendered, laid down himself for my sins to rescue, release, free, liberate me from the present evil age, according to the will, the wishes, the plan, the desires of God my Father.
I may pray the verse: Jesus, thank you for giving yourself for my sins. Thank you for rescuing me, not just from death someday but from evil right now. God, show me the evil in my own thoughts and heart. [I spent some time confessing and thanking God for His forgiveness.] What do you want to rescue me from today? [I listened and prayed to be rescued from everything that came to my mind. I prayed through the day’s worries and struggles I knew were coming.]
Then I ask God to still my mind, to shut me up and allow me to listen. I tell Him I’m open to convictions, inspirations, visions, prayer requests, to anything He wants to speak. I imagine my mind is a silent theatre with a blank screen. Then I’m still and quiet, but not relaxed. I’m attentive and on the edge of my proverbial seat listening intently – watching the screen for any sign of God.
One day recently, I saw a dark skinned girl in my mind’s eye, South American maybe, about eleven years old wearing a red shirt. She was under short green trees, maybe in an orchard and she was smiling with her lips together. I don’t know who she is or if I ever will but I prayed for her the best I could knowing nothing about her. Another day recently, an artist came to mind and I immediately felt intensely envious and angry toward them and I asked God to change that in my heart, to make me grateful for my life and theirs and then I prayed for that artist’s success.
Often God is silent – or I’m not that good at listening. So I pray through my family and friends and about any concerns I have and then thank God for every good thing that comes to mind.
With practice this process loses its beginning and end. If I’m in a habit of practicing these disciplines, they run under my whole day no matter what I’m doing. All day, long after I’ve unlocked that door and walked downstairs, I’m being gently urged to pray for this person or that, confessing this sin, releasing that worry, thanking God for that sight or smell, asking Him to comfort that stranger on the shuttle bus. And this destroys the artificial barriers between sacred and secular, work and worship, solitude and community, prayer and thought, meditation and the rest of life.
There’s no requirement in scripture to follow anyone’s particular prescribed method here – this isn’t law, it’s relationship. But Richard Foster’s writing is a good guide to start with, offering biblical foundations for each of the disciplines and more practical advice on how mere mortals can begin practicing them. If you’re of more of a Calvinist bent, check out Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life – less mystical and more rational and systematic but an equally excellent introduction to the disciplines just the same.
For what it’s worth: This works for me. And when I drift out of these practices nothing seems to work at all.