Cultivating Sacred Character: The Role of Spiritual Disciplines (Part Two)

Mick Turner

In Part One of this essay, we discussed the importance of engaging in the classical Christian spiritual disciplines if we are to work with the Holy Spirit in cultivating Sacred Character in our lives. Certainly scripture is not silent on this issue of discipline and discipleship. Scripture, especially the New Testament, repeatedly stresses the importance of discipline, prayer, meditation, and spiritual endeavors.

It is apparent, however, that the church lost its focus on the practice of spiritual disciplines over the years. As mentioned in Part One, I think this is one of the unfortunate side effects of the historical “faith/works” controversy. The result has been a general sense of confusion on the part of the Christian community in terms of the spiritual technology available to those who desire a deeper walk of faith.

One of the primary reason today’s church is becoming less of a force in society and even in the lives of those professing to be Christian is the fact that for many years the Body of Christ as a whole had lost the real meaning of the word “disciple.” Dallas Willard speaks directly to this tragedy:

For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in his example, spirit, and teachings as a condition of membership – either of entering into or continuing in fellowship of a denomination or local church. I would be glad to learn of any exception to this claim, but it would only serve to highlight its general validity and make the general rule more glaring. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship is clearly optional.

This lack of emphasis on discipleship in the contemporary church has led to many unfortunate circumstances, not the least of which is that so many Christians are walking around feeling as wounded, depressed, and hopeless as those outside the faith. That this is so, however, should not be surprising. Christ did not call us to a “country club” religion. In fact, he didn’t call us to religion at all. He called us to relationship and mission. To participate in this life-giving relationship and to fulfill our mission as Christ-followers, we must indeed become just that – Christ-followers. Tragically, few realize that this involves far more than belief in a few arcane doctrines, tossing off an occasional prayer, and being a tithing member of a local congregation. And perhaps nothing is more essential in this challenging age than having an army of true Christ-followers. Willard understands this necessity:

Nothing less than life in the steps of Christ is adequate to the human soul or the needs of our world. Any other offer fails to do justice to the drama of human redemption, deprives the hearer of life’s greatest opportunity, and abandons this present life to the evil powers of this age. The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfillment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane.

The notion that deep discipleship was optional was not a part of the early church. Willard continues:

…there is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggest that you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with him.

In Paul’s remarkable prayer to the Ephesians (3:19) he petitions the Lord that “you may be filled with the fullness of God.” Have you ever really reflected on the magnitude of what the Apostle is saying in these few words? Basically, what Paul is asking God is that the believers in Ephesus become like Jesus. Any close examination of scripture reveals that the goal of our development as disciples of Christ is to become Christ-like; in essence, we are to cultivate Sacred Character.

Later on in Ephesians (4:15) Paul goes on to say, “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” This statement by Paul should not surprise us. Two verses earlier he flatly that in achieving maturity, we are to attain “the measure of the full stature of Christ.” I don’t know about you, but when I read this statement two things immediately occur within me. First, I am strongly convicted about how far I am from manifesting this kind of maturity in my daily life but, secondly, I am filled with hope that it is at least remotely possible. Paul would have never put it this way, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, unless it was indeed true.

In addition to the church’s general lack of focus on the spiritual disciplines and their strategic necessity in the life of the believer, two other problems seem to complicate the issue and result in either lackluster commitment to practicing the disciplines or, even worse, a general paralysis on the part of Christians when they attempt to make the disciplines a vital part of their walk of faith.

First, even though many churches are now speaking directly to the importance of the spiritual disciplines, it seems that this renewed focus spawns a loud and most often irrational outcry from fundamentalist believers who feel practicing the classical spiritual disciplines is somehow either a “New Age infiltration of the church,” or worse still, “the work of Satan.” This resistance is usually based on the general lack of understanding of what advocates of the spiritual disciplines are trying to accomplish. Writers such as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Brian McLaren, and countless others are branded “arch-heretics,” “apostates,” and even “dupes of the enemy.” This is highly unfortunate because nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of leading people away from the truth of the gospel, these authors are, instead, making a compassionate attempt to direct people toward experiencing the very heart of the gospel.

The blather and fear-based banter of these self-appointed doctrinal “watchmen” only serves to confuse sincere Christians even more and many times prevents them from finding the true heart of the gospel message. Even worse, keeps them bound in the chains of a narrow, rigid world view which is devoid of spirituality and arid when it comes to Christian love.

A second problem stems from the fact that the classic spiritual traditions were formulated centuries ago and are often wrapped in language and tone that is quite alien from our 21st Century world. I know from personal experience that studying the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages is a very fruitful endeavor, but can be quite a challenge due to the archaic language used in the texts. What is needed is a reformulation of the disciplines that is both understandable and engaging to the modern reader.

With this thought in mind, here at LifeBrook we have developed a method of exploring the principles that are contained in the classical spiritual traditions that is hopefully more pertinent and practical when it comes to life in the 21st Century. In brief, we teach workshops, seminars, training programs, and e-courses based on the following breakout of the disciplines:

Discipline of Consecration

Discipline of Connection

Discipline of Cognition

Discipline of Contribution

Discipline of Community

Discipline of Comprehension

Discipline of Calling

Discipline of Cultural Engagement

Discipline of Cultivation

Consecration includes: decision, determination, diligence, commitment, perseverance, patience, etc. Consecration occurs when we have decided in the depth of our hearts that we want to experience and possess all that God has for us. Scripture alludes to the fact that God has graciously provided us with all that we need to live a life of holiness, fulfillment, and usefulness. These free gifts of grace now exist on the spiritual realm and it is part of our spiritual unfolding to bring God’s blessings for us down out of the spiritual world and into manifestation in our daily lives.

Connection includes: prayer, meditation, contemplation, solitude, nature

Cognition includes: taking thoughts captive; tearing down strongholds; mindfulness; positive thinking; sacred imagination. Paul tells us that we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds and it is in the Discipline of Conscious Cognition that we work with the Holy Spirit to bring about this transformation of our thought life. The Discipline of Conscious Cognition is based on the reality that everything begins with our thoughts. This principle cannot be stated too often. “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.”

Contribution includes: sacred service; spiritual gifts; mission; sacrifice, and most importantly, continuing incarnation.

Community includes: our family and friends; our church; our community; our nature; our world.

Comprehension includes: sacred study of Scripture and other inspirational writings; understanding of God’s Great Story; realization of where we fit into the “Big Picture,” including the role of the church in the coming years.

Calling includes: discovery of where we, as individuals, fit into God’s unfolding story in terms of our calling, our mission, and our vision of how to live out our God-ordained destiny.

Cultural Engagement includes: making ourselves ready to incarnate God’s plan within the context of post-modern, post-Christian culture in general and our own unique cultural setting in particular.

Cultivation includes: ongoing growth in Christ-character by internalizing a Christian value system and acting in accordance with it; and the development of a Christian worldview, along with the capacity to have our actions consistently flow from said worldview.

We fully recognize that this methodology does not represent the final word as far as contemporary expression of the spiritual disciplines is concerned. We have found, however, that looking at the spiritual technology of the Christian tradition in this way helps students and seekers understand the disciplines more clearly.

It is my profound hope that an increasing number of churches will come to understand the importance of equipping congregants with practical, time-tested methods for deepening the Christian walk of faith.

(c) L.D. Turner 2009/2014/All Rights Reserved

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