If we ever hope to grow into the fullness of Christ as Paul promised we could, we not only have to imitate Christ. Although the “What Would Jesus Do?” teaching was both admirable and beneficial, it did not go to the core of the issue. If we want to manifest the character, the mind, and the heart of Jesus, we have to live as he lived. This means, among other things, that we have to practice the spiritual disciplines of our faith.
I am always fascinated by those folks who are threatened by the spiritual disciplines and especially those writers and teachers who warn us against practicing the disciplines. These folks go so far as to infer that the practice of spiritual disciplines is at best unscriptural and at worst, from the bowels of hell.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I don’t know what scriptures these teachers are reading from, but it surely isn’t the Bible and certainly not the four Gospels. Time after time we read accounts of Jesus going off in solitude to pray and engage in fasting. His consistent use of scriptural references tells us clearly that he engaged in the practice of sacred study. And in one of the most telling passages, Jesus went off alone and prayed all night long. The most telling aspect of this passage is the fact that Jesus did this before choosing the twelve apostles.
I can think of no other way to put it: to state that Jesus did not practice spiritual disciplines is sheer lunacy.
The classical spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith have been practiced for centuries, starting with Christ himself and carrying forward throughout the Church’s history. These disciplines do not “save us” in the sense of justifying us before a Holy God or granting us brownie points for spiritual behavior. As Paul clearly tells us, it is God’s grace that saves us and, logically extended, it is God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit that ultimately sanctifies us and helps us lead more holy lives. Does that mean there is nothing left for us to do? Hardly! Paul tells us to “work out our salvation with trembling” and James states in a most straightforward manner that “faith without works is dead.” There is plenty left for us to do and that is where the spiritual disciplines come in.
My experience has been that practicing the spiritual disciplines has helped me to accomplish several important milestones in my walk of faith. First, as their name implies, the spiritual disciplines have helped me to become a more disciplined person. By practicing the spiritual disciplines, especially prayer, contemplation, meditation, solitude, and Bible study, I have become a more steadfast follower of Christ. Second, practicing the disciplines have helped me reduce and even eliminate some of the major strongholds of resistance I have to leading a spiritual life. Let’s face facts: following the teachings of Christ is not something you or I come to naturally. Due to our inherent nature of “flesh,” we are not so inclined to set aside times for communion with God through studying scripture or engaging in practices like prayer, meditation, and solitude. To the contrary, for many of us it seems almost second nature to avoid getting to close to God. Instead, we tend to either ignore him or do whatever we can to minimize our moments of divine contact.
Thirdly, and I find this to be the most beneficial aspect of the practice of the disciplines, by engaging in these sacred practices I am brought to a place of receptivity to God’s presence and action in my life. Yes, it is God’s grace toward me and the work of the Holy Spirit that brings about desired change in my life. However, if my hands are not empty, I cannot receive this gift of grace and Spirit. By this I mean that I must be in a space of receptivity in order to receive. It is precisely the practice of the spiritual disciplines that brings this about.
I am reminded of the biblical characters Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus, two individuals who seemed to understand that Jesus was no ordinary person and went to great lengths to place themselves in a position to receive whatever it was that he might have to offer. Scripture tells us that Zacchaeus would never have been drafted by an NBA team as a potential center. A very short man, Zacchaeus had to shimmy up a tree right in Jesus’ path in order to even get a glimpse of the great rabbi. The tax collector ended up getting more than he bargained for. Jesus saw Zacchaeus perched up on the limb of the tree and called him by name. Not only that, he summoned the short little man down from his perch and to Zacchaeus’ astonishment, said, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”
If Zacchaeus had not placed himself in a position of receptivity, chances are the story would have unfolded in a much different manner.
Bartimaeus also had a divine encounter with Jesus by making himself available. As Luke 18: 35-43 unfolds, we learn that Bartimaeus is a blind beggar sitting on a roadside near Jericho. While sitting there begging, he hears a distant commotion that steadily grows louder and louder. When he asked those standing around him, a sizable crowd by now, what was going on they informed his that Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples were approaching.
Blind but not deaf, Bartimaeus had no doubt heard of the miracle working itinerant rabbi and immediately wanted to make sure he could somehow get to the great teacher before he passed by.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy upon me,” came the cry from Bartimaeus’ heart.
Those gathered around as well as those leading the procession, most likely some of the big wigs from Jericho, told Bartimaeus to pipe down and keep quiet.
Undeterred, the blind beggar shouted even louder.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy upon me.”
Indignant, those around the social outcast told him even more strongly to shut up or else. Not wanting to offend the rabbi, chances are they might have even roughed the beggar up a little.
Jesus, however, stopped and to everyone’s astonishment I’m sure, asked Bartimaeus what he wanted. Bartimaeus by this time had removed his cloak and headed toward Jesus, who promptly healed him on the spot.
As far as I am concerned, the removal of the coat is a significant aspect of the encounter between the blind beggar and the Son of God. Bartimaeus, indeed, made himself available – receptive – in a position to receive the gift of healing from Christ. The removal of his coat implies a taking off of impediments that may block the flow of blessings from the Lord. It is the consistent practice of the classical spiritual traditions that assists in melting away those things that stand in the way of our more intimate contact with the Lord.
Countless numbers of sincere Christians desire just that: a more intimate contact with God. Recognizing that something deeper must be available in the Christian journey, these seekers are a bit different from those spiritual aspirants one might find in some of the more occult or New Age groups. Although those seeking the Light through these various paths are many times sincere enough, they are not sure exactly what it is they are trying to find. Conversely, many of the Christ-followers I encounter either at LifeBrook or at various churches are quite clear about their spiritual goal: they want to establish a deeper, abiding relationship with the Divine Source – God.
Granted, there are many other Christians who are not so much interested in discipleship in general and the deeper, more abiding realties that can only be found through practicing a disciplined life. These believers figure they have had their ticket to heaven punched and that is all that really matters to them. Quite satisfied to maintain the appearance of spirituality, these folks warm the pews with their backsides while their spiritual hearts grow increasingly cold. As the light placed in them by God at their conversion fades to a predictable dimness, they are unable to articulate even the most rudimentary knowledge of the contents of their faith. They can, however, bring one heck of a casserole to the Wednesday night potluck.
In addition to these two types of believers, those who want something deeper and more transformative and those who are content to maintain a cosmetic Christianity, there is a third type we need to briefly examine. In this case, these Christians perhaps want something of more genuine substance in their walk with Christ, but they have rarely expended much spiritual energy in pursuit of authentic spiritual formation. They may have had a number of surface experiences, but have never gone far beyond that. Content to splash about the wading pool of Christian discipleship, these folks usually won’t even put on a snorkel. Noted expert on the spiritual disciplines Donald S. Whitney paints a vivid portrait of the spiritual lives of these believers:
So many professing Christians are so spiritually undisciplined that they seem to have little fruit and power in their lives. I’ve seen men and women who discipline themselves for the purpose of excelling in their profession discipline themselves very little “for the purpose of godliness.” I’ve seen Christians who are faithful to the church of God, who frequently demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for the things of God, and who dearly love the Word of God, trivialize their effectiveness of the Kingdom of God through lack of discipline. Spiritually they are a mile wide and an inch deep. They are no deep, time-worn channels of communing discipline between them and God. They have dabbled in everything but disciplined themselves in nothing.
I hold the firm conviction that the Holy Spirit works through the spiritual disciplines in ways that are profound and transformative. The Spirit uses these classical spiritual exercises as a sort of matrix through which he can do his deeper and more intimate work. Therefore, it behooves us as true disciples to make it a point to not only become acquainted with these disciplines of grace, but to make them an integral part of our daily walk of faith.
© L.D. Turner 2009/All Rights Reserved