I recently finished writing a book in which I spent four years practicing the disciplines my dad wrote about in Celebration of Discipline. The book is a narrative about my experiences, successes, failures, what worked and what didn’t. During the project I uncovered a number of spiritual exercises that sounded genuinely interesting, but I didn’t have a chance to practice them. The thought occurred that I could use these email letters as an opportunity to work with some new spiritual exercises and then share my experience along with a teaching.
Recently, dad mentioned to me that he was concerned that people who are interested in spiritual formation, and even some “spiritual formation pastors” do not really understand the disciplines.
I am concerned that spiritual formation will easily become just another fad in the vast kaleidoscope of Western Christianity. Often people think of the spiritual disciplines in terms of legalism. For them, the disciplines become simply another task to add to an already overcommitted ‘to-do’ list. Some consider the disciplines as giving special merit or righteousness before God. Others think of them as a way to gain status in certain religious circles. Also, people will tend to think only in outward terms and miss the importance of the inner transformation of the heart.
All of these notions miss the mark entirely. They fail to understand the spiritual disciplines as a means of God’s grace for the ongoing formation of the human personality, body, mind, spirit, soul. They miss the critical point that God has ordained them for our training in the way of Christ. The disciplines are not only how we grow spiritually but how we follow Jesus.
While I tease my father for his overly pessimistic tendencies, he probably has a point. So, in the spirit of keeping things simple, I’d like to explore the foundation of what spiritual formation is about by giving a brief overview of the spiritual disciplines.
The only thing we have any control over is the actions we take at each and every moment. I can’t control the past, nor can I control the future, but I can do things to influence my future. What I control is how I spend this very moment, and even those actions are most often influenced by my desires, conscious and subconscious pressures, and the habits I’ve acquired throughout the years. In a sense the disciplines are about consciously choosing how we want to live. They’re about redeeming each moment and tearing down the divide of sacred and secular. When I take time to practice Christian spiritual activities, even in the midst of my everyday life, these behaviors become simply a way of placing my will and my life before God as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).
Dallas Willard often said that the outcome of our spiritual activities far exceeds what we put into them. In this sense the disciplines are all about grace, God taking our little offering of time and action and using it to transform us into people we were previously unable to be; people who naturally live lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Certainly spiritual activities—things like prayer, study and service—become ingrained into the habitual structures of our lives, but the real outcome we are looking for is the fruit of the Spirit organically flowing throughout our lives. The disciplines are about the transformation of the human personality into the image of Jesus Christ. And in time, we become people able to respond to life as Jesus would if he were to live our lives.
The disciplines are not about doing something for God, or earning righteousness from God. When people use the disciplines in a pharisaical manner by creating new legalisms for themselves or others, they have missed the point entirely.
We enter into spiritual exercises as an active response to God’s love.
The disciplines should never be used to bring self-condemnation. Please do not set plans and goals in your spiritual life and then end up using your failures as ammunition to prove you don’t measure up. That is the way of the world, not the way of Christ. God is ever eager to meet us where we are, not where we think we should be.
The disciplines are an invitation, not an obligation. Joy, freedom, and laughter are where this journey is taking us. Now certainly the disciplines require energies. And, sometimes they lead us to suffering as self-centeredness works its way out, but spiritual training is largely a movement of freedom, a light burden, and an easy yoke.
One of the things I think helps people enter into spiritual practices is to undertake activities that are relevant and helpful to our particular time and season in life. Don’t be bound to doing a discipline the way others do it. Listen to the Spirit. What are you being led into? Where would God like to meet you today?
You begin where you are. For some of us this may just mean getting enough sleep in order to begin restoring some sort of balance to life. For many, the best thing they can do is just carve out space to quietly soak in God’s love and affection. It is difficult to actively respond to God’s love when we know nothing of it. Of course, this practice will ultimately lead us into joyfully taking up other disciplines when the time and season is right. Don’t compare yourself and your practice to others, don’t judge yourself as committed or not, simply just begin.
Remember the disciplines are not about self-help. While undoubtedly there is a certain practicality to doing activities that pull us from the pressing chaos of life or things that move us towards serving others, but, as best we can, we will want to turn our attention to being present before God in the activities we undertake. We are entering into a life lived with God: attentive, submitted, joyfully obedient. We are learning how to die to ourselves for love of God and others, not selfishly chase what feels good to us. Yet, of course, the disciplines can be fun, and enjoyable. God is good like that and we can receive it.
One final thought before we begin this journey together: the forming of the human heart is slow work. This reality shouldn’t be fought, but rather embraced. God seems to have designed human transformation in the way he designed change in his other creations; measured, gradual, moving from one season to the next, life and death. The created order is in a perpetual state of change. So we begin slowly, we pace ourselves for the long haul. And in keeping with this theme, the discipline I’m planning to practice this month is just that: “slowing.”