Cultivating Sacred Character: The Role of Spiritual Disciplines

Mick Turner

As Christians, scripture tells us that we are to increasingly grow into the character of Christ – in other words – become more Christ-like. Left to our own devices, this would be an impossible demand. Tainted by sin and mostly dominated by our lower nature, who among us could generate even a sliver of hope of emulating Jesus in thought, word, and deed?

 

Fortunately, scripture tells us that we have an omnipotent ally in this process of spiritual formation. The Holy Spirit walks along side of us, giving us strength to offset our weakness, wisdom to overcome our ignorance, and divine love to gradually eradicate our extreme self-centeredness. It is this promise of the Holy Spirit that gives us a reason to proceed down the road of spiritual formation and further, provides us with a legitimate assurance of success.

 

Still, we cannot fold our arms, lean back, and wait for the Holy Spirit to magically turn us into exact replicas of Christ. Over the centuries countless numbers of Christians have tried this approach with predictable results. Scripture is clear in stating that we have a part to play in the attainment of what we here at LifeBrook call “Sacred Character.” Sacred Character is based on the character and integrity exhibited by Christ during his mission here on earth. By studying the character of Christ, we can gain valuable insight into what it means to live our own lives from the sure foundation of Sacred Character.

 

As Jesus walked this earth, he revealed the character of God. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” said Christ and in this statement he revealed a profound truth. Christ was so intimate with the Father that his character and his behavior were perfect reflections of his heavenly parent. Our goal, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is to live in the same intimacy with Christ as he lived with the Father. If you want to gain a deep and abiding perspective on this kind of intimate relationship, I suggest that you prayerfully read through the 17th Chapter of the Gospel of John.

 

In order to grow into this type of intimacy with Christ and increasingly manifest Sacred Character in our daily lives, we must engage in certain activities that foster spiritual development in a positive and proven direction. These activities have a long and valuable history in the Christian tradition. Here I am speaking of the classic Christian spiritual disciplines.

 

In some quarters, sincere believers become edgy just at the mention of spiritual disciplines. Steeped in the theology of God’s unmerited and unlimited grace, these well-meaning Christians believe that pursuing the practice of the classical spiritual disciplines is somehow “salvation through works.” This kind of thinking is both incorrect and unfortunate. It is incorrect in the sense that the spiritual disciplines are not related to salvation or the final destination of one’s soul. Pursuing spiritual disciplines is more concerned with placing ourselves in a position of receptivity to the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is about allowing the Holy Spirit to form us into the image of Christ. Although this spiritual formation is ultimately a work of the Spirit, we are told to do all that we can to assist in the process. As the great Quaker writer Rufus Jones once said,

 

“The grace of God is like the wind blowing across the Sea of Galilee; if you want to get to the other side, you have to raise your sail.”

 

The notion that practicing the disciplines is “works” is also highly unfortunate in that this misguided belief has prevented countless Christians from availing themselves of the very thing they need in order to foster the deeper, more effective walk of faith. I am of the belief that the great “faith/works” controversy of the 16th Century, although beneficial in many ways, gave birth to a trend in Protestant Christianity that resulted in pews filled with believers that were both powerless and confused. This tragic trend continues even today.

 

As the Body of Christ moves forward in this challenging age, establishing ministries focusing on vibrant, dynamic discipleship is of paramount importance. Unless the church develops consistent ways to grow its members deeper in the faith, it runs the danger of becoming, at best, irrelevant to the contemporary culture, or at worst, dead.

 

To begin, I think it is critical that we come to understand just what a disciple is. From all evidence, it would seem the church at large has lost touch with a crucial element of its mission – disciple-making. Just prior to his ascension, Christ did not tell his inner circle to “go and make converts.” No, he told them to go and make disciples. It is obvious that constructing a workable definition of a disciple is a high priority. Margaret Campbell gives us a great jump-start:

 

A disciple of Jesus is a person who has decided to live in attentiveness to Jesus. We live in attentiveness in order to become like Jesus on the inside and, thereby, able to do what Jesus would do on the outside. As maturing disciples we progressively learn to live in attentiveness, adoration, surrender, obedience, and thankfulness to God, and all of this, without ceasing. Through the hidden work of transformation, God writes his good way on our minds and hearts and this is very good. By his grace, our hearts are divinely changed. We are progressively conformed to be like Jesus in mind and will and soul and word and deed. What we say and what we do more consistently reflect the glory and goodness of God.

 

If that isn’t clear enough, let’s listen to George Barna:

 

True discipleship is about a lifestyle, not simply about stored up Bible knowledge. Often, churches assume that if people are reading the Bible and attending a small group, then real discipleship is happening. Unfortunately, we found that’s often not the case. Discipleship is about being and reproducing zealots for Christ. Discipleship, in other words, is about passionately pursuing the lifestyle and mission of Jesus Christ.

 

From these two definitions it should be clear that real discipleship, the kind of Jesus-following that makes a difference in a person’s life and the life of others, involves more than wearing a “What would Jesus Do?” bracelet.

 

(To be continued)

 

© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved

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