I grew up in a Christian home, went to Christian schools, and now I’m a pastor. In spite of all of that, I have struggled for a long time with what the spiritual disciplines do, or maybe I should say I have struggled to understand why we practice the spiritual disciplines.
Growing up I had it in my mind that practicing a spiritual discipline, like reading the Bible, simply made me a better person because I did it. It was like a mathematical equation of adding a practice (like Bible reading or prayer) + obedience + a certain amount of learning = better person.
Let me explain.
Start by picking practice that we are instructed to carry out. Like meditating on Scripture, confessing our sins, or even prayer. Maybe you even add something to it like journaling while you pray or reading a devotional book that helps you understand scripture. From there you move on to step 2 which is obedience.
Like Nike says, just do it. Do what you are supposed to do. This is the obedience portion of the equation. The key here isn’t so much which practice you pick, it’s that you are doing one of those things that God asked you to do. God wants us to read the Bible, pray, and fast. Not only that, you can even journal while you do it. All of this adds to you being a better person because you are doing what you should be doing.
Finally, somewhere in the process, you learn something. When you read your Bible, hopefully you remember it. When you pray, maybe you will gain some sort of insight from God. Hopefully, fasting might help you think more Godly for a little bit so that you can recognize things in your life that distract you from God. Whatever the practice is, you should learn something while you do it. And this too, makes you a better person, because knowledge is power. If you can get enough of God’s word in your mind, you’ll know those things you should and shouldn’t do.
Put those together, and you should be a better person. You’ve prayed and learned from God’s word. Now go and do good things so you can be a better person.
Unfortunately, I could never get this equation to work out the way that I wanted it. I read my Bible, prayed, and went to church. I still felt like the same old person I was before.
Now, before I get any further, I should say that my upbringing wasn’t legalistic or fundamentalist. I didn’t grow up in a super strict household or denomination. I think most of this thought came from growing up in with a logical, modern, mathematical way of viewing the world. It was simple cause and effect. If I do this, then this will happen. That’s how I understood the world. God is good. We are bad. Jesus died so that we could be good again. Now that Jesus freed us from sin, we should do good things now.
Somewhere along the line I missed it. I missed where the real change and the real power of spiritual practices are found. It wasn’t until recently that I put the pieces together and began to see what practices like prayer, scripture reading, worship, fasting, sabbath, silence and solitude, and confession do.
Richard Foster describes the work of our spiritual habits or disciplines this way, “The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.”
That sentence was revolutionary for me.
Practicing the disciplines is not my work. It’s God’s work in me. Maybe you’re reading this and saying, “Well of course, Peter, it’s God who does the work.” But there’s was some sort of block in my brain that prevented me from making that connection. I always saw practices as something I did to be good. Instead of showing up for God to transform me.
Maybe you’re like me. If you are, I hope that this will free you from the burden of having to do the work. In practicing the disciplines, the part that we play is being open to God while we interact with him through reading, journaling, praying, fasting, worshiping, confessing, resting, or simply being quiet and alone with God for a period of time. Stop struggling to make yourself better. Let scripture, prayer, fasting, sabbath, and other disciplines usher you into the presence of God where he can be with you and transform you into his likeness through the power of the Spirit.
Let all that I am wait quietly before God,
for my hope is in him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress where I will not be shaken.
My victory and honor come from God alone.
He is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me.
O my people, trust in him at all times.
Pour out your heart to him,for God is our refuge.
Psalm 62:5-8 (NLT)