I was once asked in a youth-ministry job interview about the current state of my devotional life. I admitted sheepishly that I was “taking a break” from spiritual disciplines because my “personal time with God” had slipped across that fuzzy line between loving devotion and legalistic duty. Not my best foot forward, but at least I was being honest. The truth is, after more than 30 years of walking with Jesus, my pattern has been a predictable one:
1) Pursue prayer and Bible study with Spirit-driven, get-to-meet-with-God energy.
2) Watch that energy slowly dissolve into self-dependent, ought-to-have-my-quiet-time effort.
3) Eventually give in to what’s-the-use apathy.
4) Repent, regroup, and pick it up again at step one.
Spiritual Formation Happens
I’ve considered giving up spiritual disciplines for Lent — or forever. But the fact is that even if I stop reading my Bible, praying or going to worship, my spiritual shape will still be formed by some set of practices by which I live. You see, we are not only capable of being molded, we are given to being molded. For better or worse, we’re all being shaped by something into the shape of something all the time.
C. S. Lewis said it best in Mere Christianity:
And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central [part of you] either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself…. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
“Discipline,” according to Jerry Bridges, “refers to certain activities designed to train a person in a particular skill.” Everything we do, or don’t do, is a kind of training. Everything that you and I desire, think, say, listen to, watch, read, or choose comes together to form a pattern of activities training us to live either a hellish me-first life or a heavenly you-first life. This pattern is largely made up of a set of “disciplines” that you and I practice over and over again, consciously or not. They may not feel like spiritual disciplines, but they are forming our souls. The decision is not whether you will or won’t practice spiritual disciplines, but rather what sort of disciplines you will prefer to practice. As the late John Stott once said, “Holiness is not a condition into which we drift.” So we have to choose the pattern of disciplines that will train us in the skill of holy living and wholly loving.
The Purpose of Cross-Shaped Disciplines
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. Our church’s youth ministry staff was taking a weekend away to learn more about the validity and variety of spiritual disciplines practiced throughout the history of the church. Anxiety welled up in me as 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.” “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.
I realized I had been practicing “cross-less devotions.” I was working hard at spending time with God while forgetting the very Gospel that permits and prompts me to do so. We are not to practice Bible reading, fasting, solitude, prayer, and other disciplines to make God happy with us but to make space to hear how happy God is with us because of Jesus. When I have a quiet time in order to get God to love me, I am a legalist who “slaves away” to earn the favor of God, not a loved son who enjoys fellowship with his Father.
The purpose of spiritual disciplines is to make room in my life to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), to forsake my broken cisterns and drink again from “the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13). Cross-shaped spiritual disciplines enable me to hear God the Father say that I already have His acceptance and approval through God the Son so that I can now work with Him in the resurrection power that God the Spirit supplies. I cannot earn the presence and power of God in my life by saying and doing the right things. Practicing the spiritual disciplines enables me to enter God’s presence and engage His power by embracing the good news that Jesus has already said and done the right things for me. When my spiritual disciplines are shaped by the cross, then whatever spiritual discipline I practice, my aim is the same: to feed by faith on Jesus Christ as He is offered in the Gospel.
Now, take some time to evaluate your own practice of spiritual disciplines by pondering a few questions:
- What pattern of practices is shaping your soul for better or worse?
- What part do the disciplines of Bible reading, prayer and public worship play in the shaping of your soul and the way you live your life?
- Do you struggle to understand the point of spiritual disciplines? Try rephrasing my retreat leader to evaluate your own spiritual practices: “I don’t _________________ (pray, read my Bible, fast, etc.) to get the Father to love me. I ________________ to hear Him say He loves me in the Gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ.”
In part two, we get even more practical as we think about the power and practice of cross-shaped spiritual disciplines.