Saturday, July 31, 2010

What is the Role of Spiritual Disciplines in Spiritual Formation?

Spiritual growth is intentional. We have an active role to play in our progress in the faith—that is why much of the New Testament is addressed to believers. 2 Peter 1:5-7 calls us to make every effort in our growth as Christians, adding to our faith “goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.”

Our responsibility in spiritual formation includes our rhythms of prayer, Scripture, solitude, listening, fasting, service, worship, evangelism and other actions that align our head, hearts and hands with God’s will. Although these are “disciplines”—things we do in a consistent, disciplined fashion as disciples of Christ—many prefer the term “rhythm.” These activities are like breathing in and out—the regular rhythm of life for a believer.

Spiritual disciplines never earn salvation (Ephesians 2:5-11). Nevertheless, we are called to train ourselves in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). That word “train” is the Greek term askēsis, from which we derive the English words “ascetic” and “asceticism.” Ascetic practices, then, are the spiritual training exercises—the spiritual disciplines—that help us grow.

Rather than earning us anything, these activities are ways that we make time and place to cultivate our relationship with the Lord. As well as simply enjoying God’s presence during our time set apart for him, we allow him to work in our lives. We open our minds, our hearts and our wills to receive what the Lord has for us—whether to encourage us, direct us, confront us or conform us in ways of which we are not even aware.

As we spend time in Scripture—reading, studying, memorizing, meditating, praying a passage back to God, or doing a combination of the above via Lectio Divina—we are listening for God’s Word to address our lives. Simply keeping up with a reading program, and even memorizing Scripture, is not sufficient, as the Pharisees so clearly demonstrated. Mentally they knew the Bible inside and out, but they failed to allow God’s Word to impact their lives. We need to soak in Scripture and allow it to renew our minds (Rom 12:1-2) and refocus our hearts. Continually we ask the questions: What do I need to learn from this? How must I change? What does this passage say concerning my life? How do I see God’s love for me? Then, we must be ready to follow through on what it says to us. Scripture must be followed by action, as Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28).

Foundational to spiritual growth is solitude with the Lord. Personal relationship of any depth requires one-on-one communication where we are free to share from our hearts. Prayer is our personal time with God. Far from being an item to mark off on some checklist, it is intimate time with the One we love more than anyone else. It is something we look forward to—that “sweet hour of prayer” that draws us from a “world of care”! Uninterrupted solitude, then, gives us the space necessary to pray. As Henri Nouwen observes, “Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and place for God, and him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that he is actively present in our lives—healing, teaching, and guiding—we need to set aside a time and space to give him our undivided attention” (Making All Things New, p. 69).

While the exercise of spiritual disciplines is by no means the whole of the Christian life, it is a valuable dynamic of discipleship and lays a foundation for further growth in Christ. On page 158 of his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard groups spiritual exercises under two categories: disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. The former group includes what we refrain from doing; the latter refers to what we take initiative to do.

Disciplines of Abstinence
Solitude, Silence, Fasting, Frugality, Chastity, Secrecy, Sacrifice

Disciplines of Engagement

Study, Worship, Celebration, Service, Prayer, Fellowship, Confession, Submission

When these practices become the rhythm of our lives, we place ourselves in a position where we are open and receptive to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Spirit who changes us, put these practices help us to be attentive to all that he has for our lives.

© 2010 Glenn E. Myers

Selected Bibliography on Spiritual Disciplines
Barton, Ruth Haley. Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. ISBN: 0-8308-2386-7.
__________. Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-8308-3333-1.
Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3330-6.
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Rev. Ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. ISBN: 9780060628390.
Harris, Mark. Companions for your Spiritual Journey: Discovering the Disciplines of the Saints. Vancouver: Regent College Publications, 2005.
Jones, Tony. The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-310-25810-0
Ortberg, John. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People. Expanded Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. ISBN: 0-310-25074-9.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981. ISBN: 0-06-066326-X.
Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991. ISBN: 1-57683-027-6.
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post Glenn. Appreciated the differentiation between disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. I would venture to guess that most Americans would OD on the engagement side. I've found silence and stillness to be refreshing in this season of life. Peace to you, brother.