Christianity 201

December 9, 2011

Devotion or Discipline?

I’ve often said to acquaintances that I appreciate this particular opportunity because it forces me to spend a fixed amount of time either in God’s word, or in areas where others have been contemplating aspects of Christian doctrine or Christian living in the light of scripture.   But I no sooner use the word forces and I realize that word is laden with baggage.  It implies something that I must do, but will only do if forced because it is contrary to my will.

I also know that some people have issues with the approach of author Richard Foster in the book Celebration of Discipline.  They find the term discipline too formal, almost constricting.  These things  — prayer, Bible study, etc. — should be the product of delight not duty.  I love my wife, but I don’t have to set aside times to show this, I try to do this in many ways throughout the day.  (Emphasis on try if you happen to be reading this honey.) For many, an emphasis on the word discipline comes with a belief in performance based religion; we achieve standing before God on the basis of the things we do. They don’t want to embrace a faith that scores points on the basis of hours spent in Bible study or on one’s knees in prayer. They don’t want to feel compelled to do these things, but rather, to do them naturally, organically.

But didn’t Paul tell us that he knows what he wants to do is not always the same as what he does? While we want to spend more time with God, we often need structure to bring that desire into actual activity. While we may not be double minded in the sense that James defines it, we do live in two worlds.  We need to discipline ourselves so that our intentions are actually carried out.

If you’re new to this journey of Christ-following, you may wish a refresher on what the particular disciplines are that we’re referring to.   Donald Whitney reiterates these in his book Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life.  The blog Protheist lists them using the word priorities, which is softer than disciplines, as long as we understand we still need to make priorities.  Here’s the summary:

Spiritual Disciplines

1. Bible Intake

We should strive to read and study the Bible on a daily basis. This helps us to aim our thoughts, desires and lives toward God, thereby drawing closer to him (James 4:8) so that we can walk more fully in his will. During our times of Bible intake, we should seek to memorize, meditate on and apply God’s word. Perhaps this means we only get through one or two verses as a result; but in the end, it is not about the quantity, but rather the quality of your time in the word.

2. Prayer

As Christians, all prayer is heard and all prayer is answered, even though God may not always answer the way we want him to. While sometimes prayer helps us to align our will to God’s, it is also an event where we can thank (Col 4:2), confess (1 Jn 1:9), worship (Heb 12:28-29) and invite (Or beg) God to intervene in a crisis in our lives (Phi 4:6). Though the Bible teaches that God is sovereign, it also teaches that our prayers greatly affect the outcome of events (Luk 11:9-10; Jam 4:2). To get a response from God, we do not have to speak award winning prayers, but he does want us to come in reverence (Heb 5:7) and humility (2 Chr 7:14); expressing our needs, fears, desires and concerns with him.

3. Worship

The act of responding to and focusing on God is to be done by the power of the Spirit by the word of truth (Jhn 4:24). We are encouraged to do this in both private (Rom 12:1) and public (Col 3:16) settings, and is not limited to singing. But rather our lives are to be an act of worship to God as we seek to glorify him and his name in all we say and in all we do (1 Cor 10:31); whether that is through work, play, art, study or speech.

4. Evangelism

Even though we may not all have the spiritual gift of evangelism, we are all called to evangelize in both word and deed (Matt 28:18-20). While we may be afraid of the hearer’s rejection of the Gospel, we must be sure that we measure our success by the careful accurate delivery of the message (1 Cor 3:10), not the recipient’s response (1 Cor 3:6-7). For we are but a postal service that delivers important information, and must not see failure in their rejection of the message but in our refusal to deliver. If you know enough about the gospel to be a Christian, then you know enough to share it with others.

5. Serving

When God calls us, he does not call us to park our cars in idle, but to drive forward with a mission and purpose (Matt 28:18-20)! We are slaves to Christ, who has set us free from our slavery to sin (Rom 6:17-18, 22); and as servants of Jesus, we are workers, not sleepers (1 Cor 4:1). We do not work in an effort to earn our salvation, but we work because it has already been given to us. God has rescued us from the grip of Satan which we so grossly loved, and the depths of Hell which we so badly deserve. How do we repay him? We can’t (Rom 3:19; Gal 2:16). How do we respond? With our lives (Rom 12:1; Eph 4:1).

6. Stewardship

Your time cannot be regained. Each moment that passes is lost forever. While we may not care much now, every moment on earth will be far more valuable at the moment of our death. So as Christians, who have been rescued from our lives of sin, how are we to use our time, our money, our gifts, our talents, our possessions and our knowledge? By understanding that they all ultimately belong to God (Ps 24:1-2; 1 Cor 6:19-20), we give them back to God, the church, our family and our community (Col 3:23-24; Jas 1:27) out of the joy (Rom 14:17; 15:13; Gal 5:22) that God has granted us for the purpose of worshiping the Lord and raising up a generation of Christ followers.

7. Fasting

This is an expected (Matt 16:16) voluntary abstinence from food for private spiritual purposes and not for public declaration (Matt 6:18). We do it to strengthen our prayer lives (Ps 35:13), seek guidance (Acts 13:2), express mourning (Joel 2:12), request deliverance, express repentance, show humility, minister to others, display concern for the work of God, overcome temptation and most importantly, love and worship God. We do not do this as a form of self-inflicted punishment but as a method of communicating sincerity and hope that God will answer our request as we desire.

8. Silence and Solitude

There are many great purposes to getting away by ourselves on a regular basis. Some of these include, following Jesus’ example (Luk 16:12), hearing God’s voice better, worship God, seek restoration, get clear spiritual perspective, pursue God’s will and to help us control our tongue. We are far too addicted to the noise and the sound of our voice. Miniature getaways force us to temporarily mute both to connect with God on a deeper level.

9. Journaling

Do not do this if you are not concerned with spiritual growth; as it is a powerful tool that does just that. It helps us record progress in our Christian life, evaluate ourselves, meditate on matters, express thoughts, clarify insight and track the amazing things that God is always doing in our lives. As Francis Bacon once said, “If a man writes little, he must have a great memory.”

10. Learning

Just as Jesus grew in wisdom (Luk 2:52), so should we seek to do the same. We should be humble and teachable (Col 3:12-13), as we attempt to love God with our mind (Matt 22:37); while seeing our learning as a discipline to live out and not a hobby to play with. For if we are seeking to become more like Christ, we must know what Christ is like, which is why we should seek knowledge as we pursue Christ.

Closing

Of all the disciplines we hold ourselves to, the spiritual disciplines are priceless tools that we can use to greatly enhance our relationship with God. While some are expectations of us, others are simply time tested recommendations.

If you feel stuck in the moment, are not sure how to grow in your walk with Christ, of if you want to read a more thorough explanation of each topic, pick up Whitney’s book on Spiritual Disciplines…

We’ll give the last word on this to Bonhoeffer, via the blog Euangelion:

In his exposition of Jesus’ words in  Matthew 6:16-18 in Nachfolge (“Discipleship”), Bonhoeffer has this to say about the importance of practicing spiritual disciplines such as fasting:

Jesus takes for granted that disciples will keep the pious practice or exercise of fasting. The life of a disciple requires the strict practice of austerity. The only purpose of such practices is to make disciples more willing and more joyous in following the designated path and doing the works required of them. The selfish and lethargic will, which resists being of service, is disciplined; the flesh is chastened and punished. The practice of austerity makes me fell the estrangement of my Christian life from the world. A life which remains without any ascetic discipline, which indulges in all the desires of the flesh as long as they are “permitted” by the justitia civilis [civil order], will find it difficult to enter the service of Christ. Satiated flesh is unwilling to pray and is unfit for self-sacrificing service (158)

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