Author: Debbie Bryant
Prayer, worship, and even giving are commonly recognized spiritual disciplines and the reasons for them are pretty obvious to the believer. But what about fasting? Memorizing scripture? Observing a Sabbath? Confessing our sins? What are the purposes of these and other less-frequently discussed disciplines we see in scripture?
Let’s back up a bit. Why did Christ save us? (Spoiler alert: it’s not all about us!) Christ saved us for our benefit, yes, but also for others and ultimately for his benefit!
In his love for us, He commissions us to be his disciples and to make disciples. He wants a big family!
And he wants his family to enjoy freedom in him beginning now. He is not willing that any should perish, and he wants us to partner with him to invite others into his family. The world needs to see Jesus in us to do that, but to be like him is a tall order!
How do we become like Christ? How do we follow him? In Ephesians 4:1, Paul says “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” How do we learn to do this?
Praise God, it is in and through him. He gives us his Word to teach us who we are in him and how to live. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come; The old has gone, the new has come!” When we accept Christ as Lord of our lives, he makes us a new creation.
We are now “dead” to sin. We are actually free from it.
(Romans 6:11,18) It is no longer natural for us to sin! So why then is it so easy to sin? We still have our flesh – our body and mind – with its memories, habits, old ways of thinking, old ways of behaving, all of it. Even Paul talks about this struggle between his spirit man and his flesh in Romans 7:15-25. So God gave us spiritual disciplines, or fundamental, “atomic” habits, and commanded us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:2) This is where our relationship and partnership with God comes into focus.
We have to choose to get to know Jesus and not just about him.
We need to relationally get to know Father God and Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. He promises he will come near to us if we come near to him (James 4:8), and that if we seek him, we will find him if we seek him with our whole heart (Jeremiah 29:13). It is in this process of coming near and seeking that our relationship with Jesus is lived out.
The spiritual disciplines that Jesus himself modeled for us are frameworks within which we can truly get to know God in deep and intimate ways.
They are new paths for us to explore with him. Discipline itself is an act of faith and surrender, putting him first as we intentionally commit our time and effort for the purpose of being with him and getting to know him and how he thinks. Time in his presence through the various disciplines not only allows us to experience him, it gives him access to change us from the inside out. It is Christ in us that does the work.
Time with him builds hunger for more of him and creates the desire to obey him out of love and not duty. The disciplines help facilitate that connection.
Paul describes it as a race. He says “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14) Forgetting what is behind – he trained his mind to think how he wanted to think. (Both Philippians 4:8 and 2 Corinthians 10:5 tell us how and what to think!)
The effort it takes to change how we think has been compared to cutting a new path through a jungle or trying to walk through very deep snow. It can be difficult, slow, and perhaps even painful at first. But as that path gets used more and more, it becomes more established. There are fewer obstacles. With frequent use, it even becomes a habit or “second nature” to use that path. Eventually, that path will be a part of our “auto-pilot.” However, getting to that point takes consistent, intentional discipline to keep choosing that path, that new way of thinking.
Spiritual, atomic habits help us identify God’s ways and to adopt them as our own.
A word of caution though – spiritual disciplines do not make us more holy. When we accepted Christ’s redemption for sin, we were given his holiness and righteousness. They do not put us in better standing with God or give us any kind of bargaining chip. It is by grace we have been saved, not by works so no one can boast (Eph 2:8-9).
The disciplines in and of themselves have no power outside of the yielded heart to the Holy Spirit.
If we want the disciplines to be transformative, we must approach them with a heart that wants to know and be with God. Performing the tasks of the spiritual disciplines to check a box or to feel good about ourselves limits our ability to see fruit from them. However, when we come to the Lord truly seeking him, the spiritual disciplines provide practical means to do what he commissioned us to do: We become more like him – as his disciples – and thereby “shine like stars” with Jesus’ love, enabling us to lead others to become his disciples. (Phil 2:12-16)
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” Titus 3:3-8
“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:3-8