Does practicing spiritual disciplines really matter?
PART 1: Spiritual Formation Happens »
One simple statement made by a retreat leader several years ago gave me hope that I could pursue Christian spiritual disciplines from a heart of desire, not duty. When the retreat leader told us we would spend two days practicing journaling, solitude and silence, and all sorts of prayer and Bible reading, fear of falling back into legalism gripped me, until he explained, "I don't practice these disciplines to get God to love me, but to hear Him say it." That one little side comment completely changed my understanding of the purpose of the spiritual disciplines: to make space to hear the Gospel of God's transforming grace.
The Power of Cross-Shaped Disciplines
The power to live like Christ comes from believing the promise that we are loved by Christ. That's why Paul said, "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20, emphasis mine). Cross-shaped spiritual disciplines enable us to draw upon the love of Christ in order to live like Christ.
The Practice of Cross-Shaped Disciplines
The Gospel has begun to transform the way I practice the spiritual disciplines.
Bible. Now I read, study, memorize and meditate on the Bible because I want to love, learn and live in the story of Jesus.
- I use Bible-reading plans to get a continual overview of the drama unfolded in the Old and New Testaments so that I will love the story of Jesus.
- I study doctrine (or theology) because it helps answer big questions about God, people, and the world that enable me to better learn the story of Jesus.
- I look for all the ways I'm commanded to repent of sin, believe the Gospel, and love God and people because these directions tell me how to live in the story of Jesus as part of His community on His mission.
Prayer. I once heard Larry Crabb say, "If I'm going to live like a man, I'm going to have to pray like a little boy." When I pray, I join my Father at the family table. Like a little boy, I get to talk to my Father about the highs and lows of my day, my heart's joys and sorrows. I can ask Him for what I think I need while recognizing that as a wise Father He will "only give me what I would have asked for if I knew all that He knows." This kind of "relational prayer," as Crabb calls it, is cross-shaped because it "provides the Spirit with a wide open opportunity to do what He loves most to do, to draw me into the heart and life of the Father and to make me more like the Son." If I'm going to live like a servant, I'm going to have to pray like a son. Perhaps that's why the original Son-Servant taught us to pray as He prays, "Our Father ... " (Matthew 6:9-13).
Fasting, Solitude, Silence. Sometimes I need to practice disciplines that will expose the broken cisterns I tend to drink from, when I ought to be drinking from the fountain of my Father's love (Jeremiah 2:13).
- Fasting from food or caffeine, from books or music, from talk radio, from social media, or from any number of other comforts, helps me see whether I've been depending on the stuff God has given me more than I have been depending on His Spirit.
- Solitude is a temporary fast from people I may depend on more than Jesus.
- Silence is a fast from my own words and the messages of the world in order to retrain my heart to hear by faith the message of the cross.
Most of these things are good gifts from my Father, but these forms of fasting help me discern whether I trust the gifts more than the Giver. When I practice these disciplines, both the pervasive nature of my sin and my profound need for my Savior are more clearly revealed, affording me the opportunity to feed more fully on Jesus as He offers himself in the Gospel.
Public Worship. We don't often think of public worship as a spiritual discipline, but it too makes space for us to practice the disciplines of grace in a cross-shaped community for the sake of cross-shaped mission. In public worship we hear the Gospel together through the preaching of God's Word; we depend on God's grace together by praying corporately; and we let go of our time, treasure and talents together by sacrificially sharing our gifts.
In corporate worship we can partake of two of God's most powerful means of grace: baptism and the Lord's Supper. Puritan pastor Walter Marshall helps us use baptism to grow in grace: "Stir yourself up and strengthen yourself by your baptism [and that of others]. Lay hold of the grace that it seals to you, and fulfill what it calls you to be and do before God — to live as one who has died and risen with Christ.... Baptism points you to the central truths of the Gospel." Marshall also helps us understand the purpose of communion: "The sacrament of the Lord's Supper is a spiritual feast to nourish your faith ... a wonderful, symbolic picture of the fact that you must constantly live upon a crucified Savior."
We Never Outgrow the Gospel
I'm beginning to learn to use the Bible, prayer, fasting, and public worship to repent of my self-righteousness and to believe ever more deeply the good news that Jesus is righteous for me and that He will express His righteousness through me by the power of His Spirit. I trust that as you begin to practice cross-shaped spiritual disciplines you will find these words from John Piper to be true: "Hearing the word of the cross, and preaching it to ourselves, is the central strategy for sinners in the fight for joy. Nothing works without this. Here is where we start. And here is where we stay. We never outgrow the Gospel."