Most would agree that the spiritual disciplines offer a potential path to spiritual growth, maturity, and intimacy with God. Most would also agree, however, that engaging in the spiritual disciplines will not guarantee these things. Practicing the disciplines does not make one mature. In fact, if not approached with care, the disciplines can quickly lead the unsuspecting down a slippery slope toward legalistic thinking and behavior.
In the Bible, God’s people regularly carried out the activities and practices we now refer to as spiritual “disciplines”, such as fasting, prayer, meditation, solitude, study, service, and others, yet it gives only limited instruction concerning how exactly we are to carry them out and in many situations little or no explanation as to exactly why they are being done. It is clear that these practices are not intended for us to seek improved standing before God through our own efforts, for we know that righteousness is a free gift of grace not attained through human striving. But, it is also clear that we are not to simply do nothing and wait for God to transform us into spiritual maturity.
Some suggest that rather than being a means of achieving our own righteousness, the disciplines are instead a means of receiving God’s grace. In other words, the disciplines provide ways that we can humbly place ourselves before God so that he can transform us. We create an intentional time and space that is devoted to God and from within that time and space we hope that God’s grace might abound. This has been referred to as “disciplined grace”. It is grace because it is free, but it is disciplined because there is something for us to do.
So, do we lead ourselves into spiritual disciplines so that God might change us, or are we led into them because God has already changed us, and wants to change us more? It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. The Bible doesn’t so much tell us that all of the spiritual disciplines are things that we have to be doing, as much as it describes God’s people carrying out these practices in their lives. Is it possible that the more we accept who God says we are the more we desire to do the things that are called “disciplines”, simply because they are the natural overflow of God’s grace and goodness poured out into our lives? Is our engagement in these practices more a reminder and indicator of who we already are, allowing a time for God to penetrate the truth deeper in our hearts, than it is about us working to achieve things that God has already given to us? Have we made the spiritual disciplines harder than they need to be? Have we made all of this too human-centered?
For me, as I’m increasingly overwhelmed through the Spirit in knowledge of who God is and how in Christ he loves and forgives me, I sincerely desire to be in conversation with him (prayer), I want to think about him quietly and privately (meditation & solitude), I want to learn more about him and his truths (study), I see through the busyness of the world (simplicity), I know my place before God (submission), and I desire to share with others in word and deed the grace he has extended to me (service).
I acknowledge that God’s grace is involved and needed in every way, regardless of how the spiritual practices are approached. And, I also appreciate that some level of human diligence and effort are a necessary part of any approach. But, we should take care that in placing too much focus on ourselves and our own efforts in relation to the spiritual disciplines we may be taking our eyes off the prize. First and foremost, we need to fix our gaze on Jesus, celebrate what he has done for us, and focus on who he has made us. The spiritual “disciplines” will automatically and abundantly flow from there.