A hard reality that is becoming increasingly prevalent is that the church has largely been preoccupied with religious ideas, doctrines, and dogma, what is wrong and what is right. And evidence points to the fact that religion centered on nothing more than biblical belief has not worked when it comes to living the teachings of Jesus.
That is because when faith is just about ideas, we never have to really live it, we just have to be able to talk about it. We never get around to asking the question, “Does one’s life give any evidence of an encounter with God?”
I’ve found in myself and others that faith moves from just talking about it, from just ideas and knowledge, to really living it when we learn from a variety of spiritual disciplines and practices that nurture our spiritual lives, touches our hearts and helps us know God and His son Jesus. Yet most Christians are unaware of the vast trove of disciplines that have been practiced by Christ followers since early Christianity.
Spiritual Disciplines and Practices Defined
Henri Nouwen says of spiritual disciplines: “In the spiritual life, the word discipline means the effort to create space in which God can act, space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.”
Dallas Willard refers to spiritual disciplines and habits as “training for Christlikeness.” Donald Whitney calls them “training for Godliness.” I prefer to think of them as a means for greater connection and closer intimacy with God. More simply said, they promote relationship.
In addition, I like to refer to them as practices rather than disciplines because of the athletic imagery practice evokes and that is used by the Apostle Paul. I also like to think of them as “Soul Care Exercises.” This language promotes the idea that you get in better spiritual shape the more you exercise through spiritual practices.
Another way to view spiritual practices is that they provide a structure to our spirituality. The organizational leadership and management maxim “knowledge changes the way you think, structure changes the way you act” also applies to our spiritual growth and health. Spiritual practices provide the structure to change not only the way we think, but to also change the way we act.
You Can’t Go To The World Series On One Pitch
Baseball pitchers know that they must throw a variety of pitches to be successful. They may have what is seen as an “out pitch” but they know they can’t throw that one pitch all the time and consistently get batters out. The principle applies to spiritual practices as well. A variety of practices increases the likelihood of success.
For most, spiritual practices are limited to no more than a few foundational practices that all too frequently become rote. The spiritual growth prescription that my generation grew up with seemingly hasn’t changed over the last 60 years. That is, have a daily quiet time consisting of a 15-30 minutes of bible study and prayer 7 days a week, and then attend church every Sunday and Wednesday. Measures of spirituality are how many days you have a quiet time and how many times you attend church each week.
Growing up and through seminary I was taught that this one size fits all approach to spiritual growth was the universal Christian prescription for a personal relationship with Jesus that promised to transform my life. In retrospect, this served to provide a solid spiritual foundation, but eventually became more of an obligation than a joy and proved inadequate to build a growing and transforming relationship with God. I realize now that I was on a starvation diet and thus found myself always “hungry.”
Further, when the approach to our relationship with God becomes singular or mechanized by routinely following the same rote patterns, we risk spiritual emptiness, losing our delight in the Lord, and illicit behavior that brings scandal on the church and the gospel.
In our next post we will share how a rich and varied set of spiritual practices can be customized to provide an individualized approach to spiritual formation and growth.
Posted on March 28, 2023