Why is Spiritual Discipline So Hard?
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not about what we can do to earn God’s favor, it is about what God has done in Jesus to reconcile us to Himself. But while this salvation is a gift of God, God does require that we participate with Him through faith resulting in obedience so that we can be conformed in His image. How do we do that? Here’s one way: discipline.
Discipline has a negative connotation though, right?
Many will assume the worst when they think of discipline when it could be exactly what is needed. Yet, only one aspect of the definition of discipline implies punishment. The majority are focused on training, systems and practices for the purpose of improvement or development.
Most have areas in their life where they lack a measure of discipline. Maybe it has to do with eating, or exercise, or finances, or time management? Either way, discipline is oftentimes difficult because of what it implies: it implies that we are inconsistent in something and it requires intentionality in training, systems or practice in order to accomplish something we desire in or for our lives. Spiritual discipline can easily find its way on that list for most (if not all) Christ followers.
Summarizing a few key points from the book “The Spirit of the Disciplines” by Dallas Willard, the author explains the history and importance of spiritual disciplines through specific scriptural references, the nature in which we were created (our life and body) and examples from Jesus, the apostle Paul and others. The specific disciplines noted (albeit, not an all-inclusive list) were separated into two categories: Disciplines of Abstinenceand Disciplines of Engagement.
Disciplines of Abstinence include solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy and sacrifice.
Disciplines of Engagement include study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession and submission.
Sounds like a party, right?
Wisdom would encourage us to see value in the practices and disciplines of those who came before us vs assuming that we know better.
Why are these disciplines so important for our spiritual life? In short (paraphrasing Willard), I think they recognize that spiritual growth and vitality stem from what we actually do with our lives – from the habits we form and from the character that develops. Willard states that “Every Christian must strive to arrive at beliefs about God that faithfully reflect the realities of their life and experience – so that each may know how to live effectively before Him in this world.” These two thoughts/statements speak very clearly to having a whole picture of the gospel reflected in our lives. There is more to the Christian life than belief – there is ongoing action and character development required for a life to fully be a testament to the whole gospel.
Simply put, these disciplines help to develop and refine our spiritual life toward a desired outcome: to be Christ-like. The disciplines aren’t an end in themselves but a useful tool along the way to help us remain sensitive to the Spirit in us that enables us to be Christ-like.
If there are some disciplines mentioned above that you have not considered, I encourage you to seek God about them and get a better understanding of the reason behind the discipline. The book referenced is a great resource in that regard.
Beyond these disciplines being difficult on their own, I think our lack of understanding ourselves contributes to the difficulty. Another great book on this topic is “Sacred Pathways” by Gary Thomas. Similar to personality temperaments, the author outlines nine “sacred pathways” that describe the way we relate to God and how we draw near to Him. These nine pathways include:
- Naturalists (loving God outdoors)
- Sensates (loving God with the senses)
- Traditionalists (loving God through ritual and symbol)
- Ascetics (loving God in solitude and simplicity)
- Activists (loving God through confrontation)
- Caregivers (loving God by loving others)
- Enthusiasts (loving God with mystery and celebration)
- Contemplatives (loving God through adoration)
- Intellectuals (loving God with the mind)
Better understanding how God has wired people in showing Him love has helped me to not only focus my spiritual disciplines to align with my temperament/pathway, but also to be more sensitive to how others may show God love – even if it is not in line with my preferences. For example, I feel closer to God when I am outdoors, when I serve others and give proper priority and added time to reading, study and education. I can’t do these things all the time, but I know they help me as I try to discipline myself toward deeper spiritual formation. And those who are more enthusiastic or traditional in their worship are not “weirdies”, but expressing love to God in a way that makes their spirit come alive. If you can’t immediately identify what pathway aligns to your personality, I would recommend you pick up that book as well!
How about you? What disciplines are in your life that help you strengthen, refine and develop yourself spiritually?