Christianne and Kirk Squires, in their weekly “Still Forming” spiritual directing online letter write this:
“Science is affirming the reality that incorporating consistent sacred rhythms and spiritual practices into our lives literally creates new neural networks in the brain and regulates our disordered energies. Ironically, many elders of our wisdom traditions — including the Desert Fathers, but most importantly Jesus himself — have known this for ages, and without science….
Consistent spiritual practice makes a great difference in our health and quality of life.
This brings to mind the Message version’s paraphrase of Jesus’s words in Matthew 11:29–30, which says:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Christian spiritual disciplines bring order, peace, and renewal.
A Summary of Spiritual Disciplines for Titus 2 Discipleship Students – complied and resourced in part from “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster and several web resources
The very idea of engaging in spiritual disciplines has something of a ring of weirdness to many modern Americans because we often think of the word discipline itself in such a negative context. At the same time, many of these same people may feel that their spiritual lives are lacking and their lives as Christians leaves something to be desired. The purpose of this review of spiritual disciplines is to help you understand how spiritual discipline is a good thing and how practicing it can enliven and refresh your life as a Christian. We will see how practicing the spiritual disciplines is necessary to both a vibrant spiritual life and a meaningful transformation of our daily living.
“Discipline” and “discipleship” share the same root word that means to learn. Discipline is the necessary precondition to discipleship, and discipleship is the necessary precondition to salvation. Both point us to Christ.
Christians over the years have learned that certain disciplines and practices help them keep the spiritual channels open and help keep their hearts turned toward God. These disciplines can’t save you; they can’t even make you a holy person. But they can heighten your desire, awareness, and love of God by stripping down the barriers that you put up within yourself and some that others put up for you. What makes something a ‘spiritual discipline’ is that it takes a specific part of your way of life and turns it toward God. A spiritual discipline is, when practiced faithfully and regularly, a habit or regular pattern in your life that repeatedly brings you back to God and opens you up to what God is saying to you. Christian devotional practice is squarely centered on Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament. When Christ is not at the heart of it, it may still be beneficial in some way, but it is not being practiced in a Christian way. In the end, if it does not help you follow Christ, it is of no real worth.
Spiritual disciplines help to keep our relationship with God in good working order, and even help develop intimacy with Him and with others. But no discipline is able to create or start one’s relationship with God. Nothing we do can do that; Christ did it already. No discipline can earn us heavenly brownie points, because there are no such brownie points to earn. No discipline gives us even the briefest moment of escape from our broken nature. No discipline can make us more valuable as persons, or make us inherently more of a leader. Your life may go smoother because of it, but it may get much rougher, and neither is really the point of it.
Disciplines and practices are tools that are a part of cooperating with the Spirit on the task of remaking us into what God wants us to be. Tools, not magic, not willpower. Tools of surrender and remanufacture. Tools that are used with Scripture, not in its stead. Powerful tools, but only because of the powerful One we’re working with. And you are not the foreman on this job.
Many people look to accountability partners, spiritual advisors, or Christian mentors to help them uncover the way forward. Sometimes it’s someone to guide them through certain practices or to help them notice the world around them in a truer manner. Sometimes it’s helpful to just have another set of eyes look at how you live. But having someone(s) else to guide you can be a big blessing in many ways, ways that are a bit different with each person.
Spirituality and Simplifying your Life
Some people turn to God in order to simplify their lives. That may happen — it depends on how complex your life is now and on what God has in store for you. But God often makes your life more complicated. You are called to love God first. But then, loving God, you start to love what God loves. Other people. Nature. Truth. Commitment. Solidarity. Sober and abundant living. And you start to be disturbed by what disturbs God. War. Pollution. Greed. Powerlust. Disrespect for life. Divorce. Racism. And God’s love calls you to action. Part of what makes a Christian spirituality ‘simple’ is that is has a single focus: loving as Jesus Christ loves. All else radiates from there or is to be set aside.
Moods swing, life has rhythms, ups, downs. What at one time seems so totally, deeply true, or is even known to be true, can at other times seem so false and shallow. Disciplines train you to stay on course when the moods swing. If you don’t, you drift away. (Indeed, that is what most former believers have done: no momentous rift, just a slow drifting out and fading away, until it doesn’t matter anymore to them.)
Faithfulness to the disciplines of Christian spirituality helps make life simpler in another way. The chase after a wealthy life style is a rather complicated affair: the standards keep shifting, and the worries are many. That’s why Christian contemplatives and mystics speak so often of ‘detachment’. By taking our focus off of getting stuff, we have more of ourselves available to focus on learning to love rightly, or taking time to be face-to-face with those in need, or learning Scripture, or learning how to depend on the Spirit. You can’t follow Christ and chase wealth; most of the time, the paths go in opposite directions.
“[The church’s] holiness has very little to do with asceticism, otherworldliness, or superhuman perfection. Rather, holiness refers to the persistent discomfort of the church with the unchallenged existence of oppression and exploitation in the world. Holiness also points to the commitment of the church to resist the defilement that toleration and complicity in human oppression bring.” — James Evans, *We Have Been Believers*, p. 136
Doing and Resting
When people first encounter spiritual disciplines, they think it’s something important to do. As they go along, they come to understand that resting can be a discipline, too. But, they still have the frame of mind which makes ‘being at rest’ something to do. I’ll do x amount of rest, y amount of quiet, in z place at t time. Okay, so scheduling is important. But so is ignoring the schedule, because the schedule – even on spiritual stuff – is not God. The time can be spent just being, just letting God do something for/to you instead of you always straining to do something (even a devotional or meditational something) for God. There is a time for work, and a time for rest. A time to lead and take action; a time to let the Spirit lead, to sit there and watch the wheels go round.
The Power Is God’s
“To know the mechanics does not mean that we are practicing the Disciplines. The Spiritual Disciplines are an inward and spiritual reality, and the inner attitude of the heart is far more crucial than the mechanics for coming into the reality of the spiritual life.” ——- Richard Foster, *Celebration Of Discipline* 2nd ed. (Harper, 1988), p.3
Spiritual practices can be sound and helpful, but they can become the home of superstition and magic, too. Take, for example, prayer beads. This practice has traveled from India to the Sufi Muslims, through the Crusaders to the Roman Catholic Church, where it lives on in the form of the rosary. The idea is simple: a chain or bracelet of beads is used to remind you to pray and keep track of prayer wherever you go throughout the day. The beads can also be used to help you remember key parts of Jesus’ life and work. When used that way, the beads can be a devotional blessing. Especially in tough and pressing situations, what you recall and re-speak with the beads can help send your attention and trust back to God. However, for most people who use them, in whatever religion, the beads (or the prayers associated with them) start to take on a magical or superstitious aura. It is as if, when used correctly, the beads had miraculous powers that God or the saints had to answer to, or as if they gave some unique contact with God, or as if saying them backwards or in some wayward manner could act as a curse, or as if forgetting to use them would cause your life to crumble. To that, one thing must be made very clear: NO bead chain, cloth, jewelry, flag, statue, talisman, icon, symbol, medal, or other object and NO devotional practice or body position or sequence of words or numbers, makes God respond any better to any prayer, nor makes heaven or earth or hell or anything else supernaturally bend to anyone’s bidding. God does not work that way; the world God created does not work that way. Devotional aids are there to help you direct yourself toward God; they do not convince or coerce God to do anything. The moment you believe they have any powers or merit of their own, you believe in magic, you are being idolatrous, and you are breaking the first of the Commandments. If you find yourself having that attitude, stop doing the practice or using the devotional aid, right now. Become more aware of your superstitious dendency, and try something else that might cause less of a problem for you.
“Self-respect is the fruit of discipline : the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.” ——- Abraham J. Heschel
“Resolved : that all men should live for the glory of God. Resolved second : that whether others do or not, I will.” ——- Jonathan Edwards
“The detachment from the confusion all around us is in order to have a richer attachment to God. Christian meditation leads us to the inner wholeness necessary to give ourselves to God freely.” ——- Richard Foster, Celebration Of Discipline 2nd ed. (Harper, 1988), p.21
“Meditation has no point and no reality unless it is firmly rooted in life .” ——- Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (Doubleday, 1969), p.39
“By means of the imagination, we confine our mind within the mystery on which we meditate, that it may not ramble to and fro…” ——- Francis deSales, Introduction To the Devout Life
“If you get the idea to do something good, just do it. It might be the Holy Spirit.” ——- Mary Stearns Sgarioto, in Lutheran Woman Today, May 1995.
“First, let [fasting] be done unto the Lord with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.” ——- John Wesley, as found in the collection Sermons On Several Occasions (Epworth, 1971), p.301
There are a multitude of disciplines including Scripture reading, prayer, worship, Scripture meditation, evangelism, service, stewardship/giving, fasting, silence, solitude, worship, celebration, journaling, and learning through study.
Richard Foster in his book, Celebration of Discipline has identified and classified spiritual disciplines this way:
Personal Spiritual Disciplines These are the spiritual disciplines that are activities the individual Christian should embark upon in order to develop him/herself as a mature, Christ-like believer. These disciplines can be divided into two sub-categories: internal and external disciplines.
|Meditation Prayer Fasting Study
|Simplicity Stewardship Solitude
|Submission Service Evangelism
Corporate Spiritual Disciplines These are the spiritual disciplines that are activities for the body of believers. These disciplines are best practiced in the context of a local church body to which one is a member, but can also include gatherings of multiple congregations for special celebrations of God’s grace and glory.
Confession Worship Guidance Celebration
There are other spiritual disciplines sometimes listed by other theologians, like Dallas Willard, including the following: voluntary exile, night vigil of rejecting sleep, and physical labor. Willard also lists “disciplines of abstinence” (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality/simplicity, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice) and “disciplines of engagement” (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission).
The Christian spiritual disciplines have ancient biblical roots. Jesus and the apostles practiced them. They passed them on, even to the new Gentile believers of the first century.
A Roadmap for Life
Perhaps you long for a deeper conversation with God. The spiritual disciplines are tools in the hands of Jesus, the Master Carpenter. He uses them to shape the contemporary believer and point the way back to Him.
Practicing the Christian spiritual disciplines can lead you into a deeper intimacy with Christ than you ever dreamed possible. These habits not only make you more sensitive to God’s leading but they increase your responsiveness to the people around you.
Through them, Christ will form your spiritual self and transform your life. You’ll find the wholeness, the rest and the joy that Jesus promised for your heart and soul.
Contemplating God is the one needful thing that Jesus commends. Few people take time to be still and enjoy God’s presence. But consider the Lord’s instruction, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) In the discipline of contemplation, we learn to be still and quiet the mind so that we can more fully comprehend the presence of the Lord.
The original and correct sense of the Greek verb “to contemplate” is “to behold.” We learn how to behold God through the practice of contemplation. In this spiritual discipline, we learn to be still in the body and quiet in the mind so that God can overwhelm us in the Spirit. Contemplation prepares the human person to encounter and experience the divine presence of God.
The practice of contemplation was common in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. We find Ezekiel in silent contemplation for seven days. Then Ezekiel writes, “At the end of seven days the word of the LORD came to me.” (Ezekiel 3:16) We read in the book of Acts that the apostles Peter and Paul were caught up in a state of ecstasy during times of prayer.
Christian tradition maintains that the apostle John was in a state of contemplation when he received the Revelation. He writes, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet.” John had entered into the Spirit in the same sense that Ezekiel did when he said, “The hand of the Lord was upon me.” (Ezekiel 3:22) The apostle John and the prophet Ezekiel are telling us they were caught up in contemplation on God.
In the early church, the desire to know God was the most important criteria for Christian service. In fact, fourth century author, Augustine, wrote, “The person who asks for and seeks this one thing from the Lord makes his petition confidently and serenely. This is the one, true and only life of happiness that … we should contemplate the Lord’s graciousness forever.” To him the one most needful thing is to be still and behold God. The prophets and the apostles, even Jesus himself, passed on this wisdom to the early Christians and to us.
The practice of contemplation as a spiritual discipline is very simple to do but very difficult to master. These days, it is a challenge to be physically quiet and still so it takes consistent discipline to silence even our thoughts. It’s hard to hear the voice of God over the noise of our busy lives. We need to stop and be silent in order to hear him. Why would you do all the talking during your prayer time when God longs to whisper in your ear? Contemplate, behold God, and you will receive the one needful gift of enjoying his divine presence.
Fasting expresses our hunger for God. “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2) Jesus, who is the bread of life, invites us to find all satisfaction in him alone. Fasting is giving up food in exchange for spiritual nourishment.
The Hebrew word for fasting literally means to keep the mouth shut. In ancient Israel , fasting was a deliberate abstinence from all food for a spiritual purpose. The Law of Moses required only one national fast – the Day of Atonement. By the time Jesus was born, a pious Jew would fast on Monday and Thursday. The Gospel of Luke introduces us to Anna the Prophetess who “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” (Luke 2:37)
Fasting for spiritual purposes continued in the New Testament period and well beyond into the Christian tradition. The apostles called for fasting among Jewish and Gentile Christians alike. An early document called the Didache instructs Christians to fast twice weekly – on Wednesday and Friday. Clement of Alexandria noted that weekly fasting continued in the church well into the second century.
Indeed, fasting has been a useful discipline down through the centuries. John Cassian (365-433) encourages us saying, “And so we ought therefore to bestow attention on bodily abstinence, that we may by fasting attain to purity of heart.” Fasting is a good discipline for developing self-control and moderation. Gaining control over the belly gives us discipline over the entire body. In fact, genuine fasting is known only to God and is hidden from others by a joyful appearance.
Traditional reasons for fasting include repentance for sin, mourning the death of a loved one, preparing for divine service, and anticipating a revelation from God. Jesus himself fasted as part of other activities such as spiritual struggle, prayer and evangelism. Fasting reminds us that we are utterly dependent on God. Hunger tells us that our bodies need food. Then we can truly give thanks to God the Father who gives the rain that yields a rich harvest.
The ancient wisdom of fasting still applies in our too-busy contemporary lives. We can learn from the ancients who, instead of eating, spent their mealtimes in prayer and meditation. Fasting can create time in our overloaded schedules to satisfy the hunger for God. Discover the joy and freedom that is found in the discipline of fasting.
MEDITATION ON SCRIPTURE
We experience God when we meditate on scripture. Christian meditation on scripture, which is similar to the Jewish tradition, is an encounter with God through his written Word. This discipline in the Judeo-Christian tradition bears no resemblance to the practice of meditation in the eastern religions.
When we meditate on scripture our souls interact with the Bible. It’s done by reading or hearing a passage over and over as we listen to what God wants to tell us. Either a single verse or an entire section is appropriate. We simply sit in silence and allow God’s word to pour over us and wash through our hearts. In a sense, meditation on scripture is our dress rehearsal as we attempt to live out the word that God writes on our souls. He transforms and restores us to reflect his image.
Meditation on scripture cultivates our sensitivity to the still small voice of God. His Word comes alive through dialogue in this discipline. As we ponder the scripture, we may see a vision or receive interpretations and insights that are very personal. We intentionally set our personal thoughts and selves out of the way so that we can receive what God has for us from his written word.
The Gospel of John beautifully illustrates this God encounter in the story of Nathanael and Jesus. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (John 1:48) First century rabbis taught that a good place to meditate on the Word of God was under the shade of a fig tree. Devout Jews believed that when they meditated, they had a living encounter with God. So in that sense Jesus was there with Nathanael under the fig tree.
The early Christians continued the discipline of meditation on scripture. Isaac the Syrian was a spiritual writer and Church authority who lived around Nineveh in the 7th century. He wrote “Meditation on the scriptures teaches the soul the discourse with God.” This man studied the scriptures in the solitude of the wilderness for many years. We would do well to imitate his example in this discipline.
Meditation on scripture is a vital source of spiritual nourishment for all Christians. Reading and studying the Bible is important. But meditating on the Word of God transforms the information we store in our brain into God’s personal work in our heart. Whoever meditates on scripture gains more wisdom than all the others.
Prayer is the most basic human reply to our holy and loving Creator. It is nothing less than intimate communication with God. Jesus and the apostles devoted much time to prayer. Faithful people in the first century scheduled daily life around times of prayer rather than fitting in prayer around daily life.
We pray in order to hear from God. We draw near to the Father, praying in the name of the Son, and he responds. (John 16:23) The Apostle Paul tells us to “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of requests.” (Ephesians 6:18) There are many types and styles of prayer, but we suggest that a balanced prayer life consists of petition, intercession and contemplation.
Jesus learned to pray from people who really knew how. Every Jew, man, woman, child, slave or free, was expected to pray the Eighteen Benedictions daily at nine, noon and three. The apostles passed this tradition along, even to the Gentiles, also encouraging Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times daily.
According to John of the Ladder, writing in the 6th century, “Prayer is by nature a dialogue between man and God. It unites the soul with its Creator and reconciles the two. Its effect is to hold the world together.” He goes on to write, “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the tax collector and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.”
Prayer is very simple. We talk to the Father and wait for his response. Using the prayer forms of petition, intercession and contemplation maintains balance in our conversations with God.
In petition, we ask God to meet our own personal needs. We make direct requests to the Father on our own behalf. We pray, “Give us the bread we need day-by-day.” Also, “God have mercy on me, because I have sinned.” And don’t forget the simplest prayer, “Lord, help me because I am in need.”
During intercession we ask God to intervene on behalf of a person or situation. Perhaps we might pray for a friend or family member. The Apostle Paul instructs us to pray for nations and leaders. We pray, “Lord, heal my spouse.” And, “Lord, help my friend find a job.” Jesus gives a wonderful example of intercession when he said, “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith will not fail.”
Why not try the discipline of prayer? God is longing to talk with you. Don’t let him down.
When we enter the Sabbath day of rest, we imitate God. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” (Genesis 2:2) It’s more than a commandment. It actually is part of God’s created order. Plus, the Sabbath rest is for everyone, not just the people of Israel . As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
The spiritual discipline of Sabbath is about rest. It’s the weekly culmination of our evening practice of thinking over the events of the day just past and starting the new day with rest. This follows the pattern we read in Genesis 1:5, “There was evening, and there was morning – the first day.” Just as God rested on the seventh day, so we enter into his Sabbath rest by beginning our week with activities that allow us to reflect, refresh and rest in Christ.
The discipline of Sabbath teaches us the rhythm of life that God established in creation. We intentionally choose to honor our creator, not only by worshipping in a community of faith, but by following his example. Our non-stop busyness robs us of communion with Jesus. The writer of Hebrews said, “There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:9-11)
The early Christians originally observed the Sabbath on Saturday, as was the custom of the Jews. After a time, Sunday became the favored day. That was because Christ was resurrected on Sunday so it was called the Lord’s Day. We don’t know exactly when this happened. But we do have a commentary on the Sabbath written by Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373). “The Sabbath was the end of the first creation, the Lord’s day was the beginning of the second, in which he renewed and restored the old in the same way as he prescribed that they should formerly observe the Sabbath as a memorial of the end of the first things, so we honor the Lord’s day as being the memorial for the new creation.”
Some of us are old enough to remember when all the stores closed on Sunday. Today, the ring tones of cell phones disturb the Sunday sermon, text messages flow around the sanctuary and the World Wide Web provides 24/7 marketplace activity.
How can we find time to honor our Creator? Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.
Want the key to encountering God? Try encountering yourself. The door that opens both of these is unlocked by silence. This discipline brings us face to face with God and he brings us face to face with the realities of life that we most want to avoid. We know that even King David struggled with silence because he wrote, “But when I was silent and still, not even saying anything good, my anguish increased.” (Psalm 39:2) We too must face into the silence if we want to become more like Jesus.
Silence means silence. This practice teaches us to be quiet in body, mind, and spirit. In these days of cell phones, iPods, and other media noise, the human soul cries out. It inaudibly screams for the peace that only silence can give. So we must leave behind all the sound we use to fill the void. Only silence can strip us of the noise that mutes the interior voice of the soul. Only silence restores to us the still small voice of God. Many of us will experience the unpleasantness of withdrawal from our addiction to noise. Even so, we’re called to press on and meet Jesus on his terms.
The discipline of silence also teaches us when to speak and when to say nothing. A quiet mind is quick to listen and slow to reply. The deliberate pace of silence allows us to be present in the here and now with people and situations around us. A quiet mind focuses on Christ in the circumstances of everyday life.
God himself calls for times of silence so he can be attentive to the prayers of his faithful ones on earth. An angel pours coals onto the earth from a heavenly altar to stir up the prayers of the saints. And God hears the response like peals of thunder because the silence in heaven is so great and the prayers of his holy ones rumble through the cosmos.
Early Christians understood the value of silence as a discipline. Palladius (368-431) was a monk living at the Mount of Olives . He wrote, “If a person lives in the peace and quietness of the desert, they are able to see God clearly.” There are few places more silent than the desert. The kind of silence that Palladius understood gives us the voice of God in high definition reception.
Even in our modern age, we still need silence to be attentive to God’s movement in our lives. Thankfully, we don’t have to live in the desert. All we really need is a quiet place, quiet lips, and a quiet mind to practice this discipline. As we come to terms with silence and our struggles cease, we enter into the peace that only Jesus can give. So take time to experience the discipline of silence.
Come away by yourself to a solitary place and get some rest. Jesus himself summons us into solitude. So what’s stopping you?
Solitude offers quality time alone with God. We meet him on his terms in a quiet place alone. Take little or nothing with you so there are no distractions from everyday life. It is an intimate time alone with the lover of your soul.
This is a time for quiet rest. But when you enter into a deeper solitude, you may find yourself wrestling with your Creator. When Jacob was alone, (Genesis 32:24) God came and wrestled with him until dawn. Jacob received a blessing in that solitude experience where the Lord said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel , because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” In solitude, we wrestle with deep things of the soul. There we can receive God’s blessing.
The Holy Spirit led Jesus into forty days of solitude to prepare him for public ministry. The Apostle Paul went into the desert of Arabia to receive the fullness of the Gospel in the solitary presence of Christ. Then he began to preach the words he had received from the Lord.
In the Jewish tradition, shared by Jesus and Paul, going to a solitary place holds the expectation of meeting with God and receiving Divine intervention. The wilderness experience is a place where the Lord meets his people in their struggle toward wholeness.
Anthony of Egypt was born about the middle of the third century. His parents died when he was twenty and he inherited their great wealth. One Sunday in church, Anthony heard these words from the Gospel, “Go sell everything you have and follow me.” He heard this believing that the Lord had spoken to him directly. So he sold all that he had and left his village to live a solitary life in the desert.
This is what Anthony said about solitude, “Whoever sits in solitude and is quiet has escaped from three wars; hearing, speaking and seeing. Yet against one thing he must constantly battle – his own heart.” Anthony died at the age of 105 leaving behind little more than the clothes on his back and a multitude of disciples who loved and followed him.
You don’t need to find a desert if you want to practice solitude. A quiet room where you can be alone will do just fine. If you are the outdoors type, then a walk in the woods or a secluded place in the park may be just the thing. The objective is to be alone with no distractions like cell phones and iPods.
Jesus, the lover of your soul, wants some intimate time alone with you. Go away to a solitary place to meet with him. You may receive the greatest blessing of your life.
Simplicity in any form is not in fashion today. Today most of the popular Christian books deal with how God wants us to have more here on Earth. So, that is the dominant view we must cut through to return to responsibility in Christ. That is what one may use as a working definition of simplicity: responsibility in Christ. When we serve God we should be responsible with our time, our money and our lives.
Choosing to live a life simply and frugally is not stinginess. It is not penny-pinching. It is not buying only sale-items. It is not wearing suits or dresses until they disintegrate. The practice of simplicity is about removing our desire for status, glamour, and luxury. It is primarily concerned with our attitudes toward money or goods or food.
Living in such a way goes completely against the grain of our culture that is so obsessed with “the pursuit of happiness”-which today means comfort and indulgence, pampering and pleasure, luxury, and leisure. Practicing frugality means that we reject the notion that we need such things to make our lives fulfilled. We practice frugality so that our resources (time, energy, thoughts) may be devoted to seeking and serving God, instead of impressing others and gratifying ourselves.
Why do we need to practice simple, frugal living? Consider how much of our time is spent on doing things to impress others or to serve our own desires. We spend so much time on indifferent things-things that really do not matter. As for other people, they do not think about us as much as we worry about what they think of us. As for our desires, often when we obtain them, we are too busy considering the next thing we want to enjoy the things we already have.
We need to practice frugality because we live in a culture that tells us that we need the bigger, the better, and the faster-and not only do we need them, we deserve them! We need to un-learn the patterns of self-indulgence that we have practiced for so many years. Frugality is the painful path that reminds us of how selfish and materialistic we have become.
We live in a culture of waste. Incalculable tons of garbage are ‘produced’ each day. About 70 percent of all the metal we use is used only once. Most of what we use is thrown away. Most people have enough food rotting in their refrigerators and cupboards to feed many third world families for several weeks.
We need to practice a simple way of life because we live in a world where a billion people survive on less than a dollar a day. How much do you ‘survive’ on each day? By our wasteful and self-indulgent lifestyles we are contributing to the poverty and starvation around the world. Don’t feel guilty, feel responsible, and do something about it.
If you were to inventory your life, how much of your time, thoughts, and energies are spent on insignificant things? How much of your life do you spend trying to find the perfect color of paint for a bathroom? The perfect tie for a new suit? The perfect dessert to go with a particular entrée? The perfect gift for a friend (one that will result in showers of gratitude and admiration)? How much of your life do you spend following the lives of celebrities or the storylines of television programs?
Simplicity is about investment of time, of money, of thought, and of energy. We refrain from spending them on insignificant things so that we may be free to spend them on things that are eternal. Meditate on Matthew 6:19-34, 1 Timothy 6:17-19.
How do we practice frugality?
As with every spiritual practice, there are no rules to follow. However, the following suggestions may be helpful as you find appropriate ways to apply them where necessary.
1.) Inventory. Go through your belongings and take a note of what is necessary and what is luxury. For each luxury: -Ask yourself, Would I be willing to give this up if God asked me to? -Ask yourself, Could the time, energy, thought, and money I spent acquiring this have been invested in better ways? -Ask God how He would have you use these luxuries. -Ask God if He would have you give any or all of them up. If you are convinced that He is asking you to rid yourself of them (after listening in prayer, study, and consultation with a trusted mature Christian friend), then get rid of them in the most appropriate manner.
2.) Re-Consider. If you have been considering a major purchase, submit it (again?) to God in prayer. Search out your motives for buying it (Is it to have the latest and greatest? To keep up with the Jones’s? To cater to your spoiled appetite? Or is it to serve others in some way?).
3) Re-Schedule. Go through your daily schedule and make a note of what percentage of your thoughts are spent dwelling on insignificant or indifferent things. -Commit yourself to refrain from spending inappropriate amounts of time thinking about things that really do not matter. -Ask God to help you bring your thoughts under His guidance and conform your desires to His. -Ask God to help you “take every thought captive for Christ.”
4) Consider your diet and note how much you concern yourself with food. Are you spending inappropriate amounts of time or money here?
Perhaps one of the most difficult spiritual practices is the discipline of submission. It is completely counter-cultural. We want things to “have it our way.” We do not want to answer to anyone. We do not particularly care to have someone tell us how to live our lives. However, we need the freedom that comes in living life in complete honesty, transparency, and openness to correction and discipline.
How do you respond when someone points out sin in your life? Do you get defensive? Do you get angry? Do you begin listing all their faults? Or do you examine the truth of what they are saying? Do you consider that this person might not be acting “holier-than-thou” but rather in your best interests?
We must be open and accountable to each other-especially those who are entrusted with our spiritual care (i.e., elders, deacons, teachers, mentors). The author of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They care for you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden” (Hebrews 13:17).
A piano student submits herself to the direction of her instructor. She does not say, “I think I will begin with this piece of music because it is my favorite song.” She follows her teacher’s direction and learns her scales and chord progressions.
A basketball player submits himself to the direction of his coach. He does not say, “I can’t make free throws, so I will just practice my around-the-back-reverse-lay-up.” He asks the coach how to improve his form and rhythm in shooting his free throws.
So it is in the spiritual life. In practicing submission, you will not be offended when people point out sin. In fact, you will invite God and other Christians to point out your sin. We invite others to hold us accountable, and get our attention if we are going into dangerous places.
Proverbs 28:13-14 says, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy. Blessed is the man who always fears the LORD, but he who hardens his heart falls into trouble.”
We submit ourselves to each other in confession, in openness to correction, in service, and in obedience “out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). In submission, we reject the idea that we are above anyone. We acknowledge that we are all under the authority of the King of kings.
What are the benefits of practicing submission? We receive helpful guidance to grow in faith and love. We receive much needed correction when we wander from safety. We receive the freedom from living in duplicity-from having a secret identity- from being hypocrits. We receive freedom from the bondage of always having to have things our way.
Can you think of any other benefits?
What are some practical ways you can practice the discipline of submission?
“Jesus took a towel and a basin and redefined greatness.” -Richard Foster, “Celebration of Discipline”
Jesus taught that the way up is to go down. He taught his first disciples that the secret to becoming great is to become the servant of all. He illustrated his teaching by putting on the dress of a lowly house servant, and washed the grimy feet of his students.
Service is not merely a spiritual discipline-it is a way of orienting one’s entire life. However, practicing service as a discipline will help in directing that orientation.
The discipline of service frees us from resentment. Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). In service we learn the secret that our significance is found in God.
There is no hierarchy of values in service. Read 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Whose service is more valuable: a preacher or the woman changing diapers in the nursery? When the woman changing diapers discovers her service is equally pleasing to God, her resentment vanishes.
The discipline of service frees us from the need to be in control. Richard Foster wrote, “When we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge.” How foreign this idea is to us! We live in a culture that celebrates self-determination.
I remember hearing a little girl tell her babysitter, “You’re not the boss of me.” That’s a motto of our world. But in service, I allow others to become “the boss of me.” We choose to make ourselves available, and in doing that we make ourselves vulnerable. We may be taken advantage of, but we do so willingly. It is the heart of what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:38-42. Can you think of some practical ways this can be applied?
The discipline of service frees us from arrogance. If the practice of service can free those in “low” positions from resentment, it can also free those in “high” positions of arrogance. It is easy for people in positions of influence to believe they are more important than others.
Someone tells the story of a time Mohammed Ali was traveling on an airplane. He refused to put on his seatbelt saying, “Superman doesn’t need no seatbelt.” To which the stewardess responded, “Superman doesn’t need no airplane.” Whether you are a successful business person or a leader in the church, humble service, especially that done in secret, can free you from thinking yourself “more highly than you ought” (Romans 12:3).
Here are some guidelines for the practice of service as a discipline.
1) Begin with a right orientation before God. Examine your heart and ask yourself if you are doing it to please God or to please people? Whatever you do, do it in the name of Jesus.
2) Whenever possible do your service in relative secrecy. Do not use deception to conceal your service, and don’t be bothered if someone finds out.
3) Pay attention to your desires for recognition, appreciation, and admiration. Humility is about taking your mind off yourself and focusing on God. Meditate on Jesus words in Matthew 6:1-4.
4) Keep yourself open to serve anyone who you meet. Don’t force yourself on someone, but don’t refuse anyone any good deed.
5) Identify with people of low position. Look at people through God’s eyes as someone who is in need just like you. Dallas Willard encourages us to see ourselves as “a particularly lively piece of clay who, as (a) servant of God, happens to be here and now with the ability to do this good and needful thing for that other bit of clay there.”
“A Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot.” -St. Augustine
In American churches, worship has unfortunately been mistaken for what happens for one hour on Sunday morning or Wednesday night. Worship is a natural consequence of living with openness to God’s active presence in our daily lives. We can develop practices that will make worship a way of life, as normal as inhaling and exhaling.
In the context of our culture, it seems more fitting to describe what worship is not. We have found ourselves very unsure about what worship really is. Worship is not contemporary or traditional musical style-it is not a matter of personal preference. Worship is not liturgical or spontaneous activity in the service-it is not a matter of order. Worship is not for Sunday morning or Saturday evening-it is not a matter of schedule.
Worship is the engagement of one’s entire being with the greatness of the God Who Is. Worship is a life of conversation with God. God speaks, we respond, God responds, we respond again. Worship involves listening, looking, tasting, feeling, and smelling. We breathe in the presence of God wherever we are. We inhale the memories of His faithful acts in the past. Just as we suffocate for lack of air, worship suffocates for lack of attentiveness to God’s presence and faithfulness.
Worship is our response to who God is. As we meditate on God’s nature and character through prayer and study, the Holy Spirit reveals who God is more and more fully. As we experience who God is and what He is like, we give him more worth in our lives. This is what the worshippers in Revelation 4-5 are doing.
The more we come to understand who God is, the more we desire to open our lives up to the change that He desires in us. Paul wrote, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It is in this way that true worship is transformational. Perhaps the clearest image of such conversion in worship is found in Isaiah 6:1-8.
What elements of conversion can you identify in that passage?
How has such an awareness of who God is transformed your life?
Worship is our response to what God has done. Richard Foster wrote, “Worship is our response to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father.” That is what Paul communicated when he wrote, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your act of spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1).
Throughout the Scriptures, God’s people are constantly recalling God’s acts of salvation. In fact, all of Scripture may be seen as a retelling of how God has reached out to save his lost children, and how He desires them to live in Him and with Him.
Can you think of some ways God has proved faithful in your life? How does corporate worship reflect such remembering? How might your personal worship throughout the week reflect this?
Worship is the experience of the greatness of God. It is an encounter with the God who is with us. Such encounters are not limited to clocks and calendars, pianos and guitars, or dramas and dancing. We worship wherever and whenever we experience the living Christ.
When we see the beauty of God in a perfectly still pool of water, when we hear the innocent laughter of children, when we feel the warmth of morning sun, when we taste the sweetness of new wine, when we smell the fields ripe for harvest, worship happens.
When our conscience is brought to life by thoughts of God’s holiness, when we grasp a deeper understanding of God, when we grow in compassion for others from knowing God’s love for us, when we surrender our desires to the will of God, worship happens.
It would be a sad spiritual life if worship were only in our life as a spiritual discipline. However, if we take up this practice with the intention to experience God in every area of life, worship will no longer be a practice, but a way of life.
“I like the suggestion that dourness is not a sacred attribute.” -Phyllis McGinley
The life of the Christian is a life of joy. Too many Christians, however, believe that smiling, laughing, and celebrating are improper for the pious. Consider the image that comes to mind when you hear the word “pious.” You tend to think of tight-collared, somber-faced pilgrims, right?
The life of Jesus’ disciples is one of celebration. Even though we live in a world full of darkness-suffering in which we often participate-we live with the confidence that God has overcome the darkness. Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you will have troubles, but rejoice, I have overcome the world.”
Even when dealing with death, we can celebrate. How is it possible to celebrate in such a sad time of loss? We can celebrate because we know the mystery of the cross. In his dying, Jesus swallowed up death’s power over us. It is no longer a scary unknown, but a conquered enemy.
We celebrate, even in our suffering, because we know the God who is with us. Henri Nouwen writes, “Joy and laughter are the gifts of living in the presence of God and trusting that tomorrow is not worth worrying about.” Nouwen also writes that we celebrate because “we see that God, not the Evil One, has the last word.”
Beyond suffering, there is much to celebrate in life. God has given us things to enjoy. Pleasure is good, not in the hedonistic sense of a life’s pursuit, but as a gift to be received with gratitude (1 Timothy 4:4). In the history of God’s people, there have been those who deprived themselves of all pleasure, thinking it evil. Certainly we all face the danger of making pleasure a god, however it may be received as a gift and “consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”
In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the demon-uncle Screwtape comments, “All the same, (pleasure) is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.”
God is good and the life He gives us is good. There is beauty to celebrate. There is love to celebrate. There is answer to prayer to celebrate. There are victories to celebrate. There are changed lives to celebrate. There is a wonderful future to celebrate.
Read Deuteronomy 14:23-27. How might such Biblical celebration challenge your attitude toward having a good time? Understanding that our culture has made “having a good time” into a god, how can you redeem celebration as a spiritual discipline?
Does Philippians 4:4-7 have anything to say to you about celebration?
God’s people are those, as Eugene Peterson states, “whose lives are bordered on one side by a memory of God’s acts and the other by hope in God’s promises, and who along with whatever else is happening are able to say, at the center, ‘We are one happy people.'” Of all the people on earth, God’s people have the most reason to party.
Can you think of some ways you might practice the discipline of celebration? How might we as a group practice this discipline?
ASSIGNMENT: In addition to answering the questions in each section above, on a separate piece of paper, write a brief definition of each spiritual discipline and how you are learning to practice each one in your life:
Meditation on Scripture Prayer
Sabbath Rest Silence