Monday, January 25, 2010

Excerpts from Current Draft of Chapter 10, on Spiritual Disciplines

From his home the man had an unobstructed view of the new construction site. The work had started out normally enough. A commercial building of some kind, it seemed. But after the workers had leveled the ground and poured the foundation, something odd took place. With the help of various machines, a rectangular silver box was maneuvered into the center of the slab. It was the size of a large living room, and taller than any of the men. In the days that followed, as the crew began to frame the building and add drywall, the huge, glistening box was gradually hidden from view. Still curious, the man decided to walk over and ask what it was.

The building, he learned, was to be a bank, and the great silver box was its vault. So important to the bank was this vault, so central to everything the bank did and stood for, that the building was being constructed around it. The vault lay at the heart of the bank, defining its purpose, giving it value, and making it distinct from every other building in the area.

Discipleship is meant to resemble the construction process this man was witnessing. For it is through the practice of the spiritual disciplines that we are enabled to build our lives around Jesus. He is the treasure and great reward hidden in our hearts. By him we possess, deep within us, the sure and certain hope of eternal, unfading riches.

Why is it, then, that so often we who claim to follow Jesus haven’t organized our lives around him? He is to be the center of gravity in our souls, that our thoughts, habits, schedules, and routines might orbit around him. The spiritual disciplines enable us to center our lives on Jesus, becoming like him in his self-giving love. The disciplines are not the end themselves. They are practices that help us remember the gospel and apply it to our lives as we develop our relationship with God. They are also our subject for this chapter.

A Rocky Wannabe

As a boy, I had a powerful attachment to the Rocky movies. Sylvester Stallone’s character may have been an unlikely role model for a scrawny twelve-year-old kid living on a dusty farm in West Texas, but that didn’t stop me from making him an idol. I owned a scratchy tape recording of the first Rocky soundtrack, and I listened to it for inspiration as I did push-ups, strained through sit-ups, jumped roped, and lifted about as much weight as Rocky could have pumped with his drooping eyelids.

Why in the world was I doing this? Being twelve, I never got far enough in my thinking to have a clearly defined goal. If you had asked, I probably would have said, “I want to look like Rocky,” or, “I want to be the heavyweight champion of the world.” Needless to say, I never achieved either. Why? Probably lots of good reasons. But for our immediate purposes, I want to focus on just one: Apparently, two weeks isn’t long enough to transform a skinny weakling into a stallion, and that’s about as long as I stuck to my vague plan. I never became Rocky because I didn’t keep up the exercise routine.

Too often the same could be said of our spiritual lives. You hear a sermon, attend a conference, are inspired by a missionary, or read a stirring book. An image forms in your mind of who you could become. You envision yourself as a genuinely Christ-like person, spiritually deep, mature, and unruffled by life. As the music rises in your soul, you resolve to get disciplined: read through the Bible in a year, memorize a verse of Scripture each day, pray thirty minutes every morning, fast every Thursday, increase your giving by 10 percent.

But before long, like a twelve-year-old briefly obsessed with body-building, you quickly lose steam and your new routines sputter to a halt. Consequently, you never become the spiritual giant you envisioned. Sound familiar?

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Training is Different From Trying

“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness,” wrote Paul to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:7, NASB). The Greek word for “discipline” is gumnazo (our words gymnastics and gymnasium derive from its root). Translated “train” (ESV, NIV), “exercise” (KJV), and “discipline” (NASB), gumnazo was used to describe the intense discipline of athletes in first century Greco-Roman culture. Competitors in the Olympic or Isthmian games were so relentless in pursuit of a champion’s wreath that they trained in the nude, part of a strict environment that eliminated all non-essentials.

The New Testament urges us to adopt a similarly radical regimen in the spiritual life. We are called to discipline our bodies, keeping them under control as we pursue an imperishable crown (1 Cor. 9:24-27). We must strip off “every weight” and the “sin which clings so closely” and run the race set before us (Heb. 12:1). We should forget what is behind and strain forward to what lies ahead as we “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philip. 3:13-14). As we have learned, God’s ultimate goal is to glorify himself through transformed human beings. We further that goal as we deliberately engage in practices that train us for godliness. If we’re serious about this pursuit we will train with intensity, like an Olympic athlete.

The key word is train. Suppose you were to ask me to run with you in a 20K marathon next week. I could say Yes, and have every intention of doing so. But I would never make the finish line. My good intentions couldn’t possibly compensate for the lack of training. Trying harder simply wouldn’t work because, as John Ortberg observes, “There is an immense difference between training to do something and trying to do something.” If you asked to me to run a marathon that is ten months away, I could do it – if I spent adequate time in training.

So here’s the first thing you must understand in the matter of spiritual disciplines: Living the Christian life is about training, not trying. We don’t exert human effort trying harder to be a better person. We train to live in step with the Spirit. Spiritual disciplines, “those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth,” are the means God has given us for training to live as Jesus lived. These practices are called disciplines because they involve our deliberate participation in training for the purpose of godliness. They are called spiritual disciplines because their effectiveness depends on the gracious work of the Spirit of God.

No Shortcuts

There are no shortcuts to spiritual growth. Oak trees do not grow overnight, but over decades. The formation of the character of Christ within us is a lifelong process, and the spiritual disciplines are means for helping us in that process. They are of such central importance that even Jesus practiced them. The Gospels frequently record Jesus’ retreats for times of solitude and prayer. His teaching reveals how deeply he drank from the wells of Scripture. His entire life was one of love and service to others. If Jesus’ communion with God was maintained through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we shouldn’t assume there is a quicker route for us. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “Jesus did not possess any special means of spiritual growth which are not available to us. It is essential to realize this if we are to understand Jesus, if we are to become like him.”

Just what are these spiritual disciplines? Teachers and authors on spiritual formation have compiled numerous lists, showing significant variety and diversity. In this chapter, I want to highlight the two most foundational spiritual disciplines: meditation on Scripture and prayer. Then I will suggest several principles to guide our use of all the disciplines as we pursue spiritual growth.

Remember, the disciplines are about being with God, about cultivating a relationship with him. Like any other relationship, the only way to grow close to God is by spending time with him, listening to him and talking to him.

Listening to God: Meditation on Scripture

God speaks to us through his Word. Meditation on Scripture is therefore the only fully reliable means by which we can listen to God. Scriptural meditation is a foundational discipline in any healthy Christian spiritual life.

But this meditation may not be quite what you think. Christian meditation, unlike meditation as practiced in Eastern religions, is not an attempt to empty your mind. It is the practice of filling your mind with the truth of God’s Word. Don Whitney defines meditation as “deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer.” The objects of meditation include the Word of God, the character and worth of God, the works of God, and the wonder of the gospel. All genuine meditation is rooted in God’s revelation of himself, his character, his deeds, and his saving plan as seen in Scripture.

A mind filled with God’s word like this will result in a fruitful life. As the first psalm says,

 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
 nor stands in the way of sinners,
 nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
 and on his law he meditates day and night.
 He is like a tree
 planted by streams of water
 that yields its fruit in its season,
 and its leaf does not wither.
 In all that he does, he prospers. (Psa. 1:1-3)

Meditation is like a Bridge

One of the best ways to understand the value of meditation is to consider it as a bridge. Just as a bridge connects two masses of land, meditation bridges some of the gaps in our spiritual lives.

A Bridge Between Reading and Praying.

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A Bridge Between Mind and Heart.

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A Bridge Between Hearing and Doing.

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Talking to God: Prayer

The other foundational discipline is prayer (which, as we just read, is closely tied to meditation). God speaks to us in his Word, and we speak to him through prayer informed by his Word. In prayer we tell God about ourselves, our circumstances, and the circumstances of others. We express to him our affection, ask for his help and grace, and enjoy his transforming presence. By spending time with God, we become more like him. As Ben Patterson writes in his fine book on prayer,

To stand in the presence of God is, as it was with Moses’ shining face, to reflect his glory. Not only that, but it is to absorb his glory, to be transformed into his likeness. Like film in a camera, when the shutter opens to the light, we bear the likeness of the One who shines the light on us when we pray.

The goal of prayer, then – as it relates to spiritual formation – is the increasing transformation of the soul into the likeness, the image, the character of Christ. As the eighteenth century pioneer missionary William Carey, said, “Prayer – secret, fervent, believing prayer – lies at the root of all personal godliness.”

But let’s face it – when we thinking about the “discipline of prayer,” our initial emotional reaction is one of guilt, not delight. Like many other believers, I know that I should pray more than I do, and often feel guilty that I don’t. I hear (and sometimes even preach!) sermons, read books, and attend seminars on prayer. But when I try to cultivate a vibrant prayer life of my own, I find myself faced with numerous obstacles.

·    Legalism: Sometimes I’m more motivated by a sense of obligation than privilege and begin to think of prayer in terms of law rather than grace. After all, I’m a pastor. I’m supposed to be a mature Christian! Why, then is prayer so difficult? As Paul Miller rightly says, “Private, personal prayer is one of the last great bastions of legalism.”

·    Self-sufficiency: Often, I’m too self-sufficient to pray. I either let busyness crowd out time with God, or when I actually start praying I try to fix myself up and pray in a certain way. But what’s missing in both cases is a clear sense of my helplessness – my need for God.

·    Unbelief: And sometimes the obstacle is a simple lack of faith. It’s not that I stop believing in God altogether, but that I forget his character. When I imagine him looking at me, I see an angry judge or a disappointed authority figure, rather than the kindness and love of a father.

These attitudes cling to me like barnacles to a ship and poison my relationship with God, rendering prayer almost impossible. When faced with these obstacles, I don’t need new strategies or methods for prayer, as helpful as these can be in other situations. The only thing that will counteract these toxic thought patterns is the antidote of the gospel applied to prayer.

Praying in Jesus’ Name: The Antidote to Legalism

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Praying Like a Little Child: The Antidote to Self-Sufficiency

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Praying to the Father: The Antidote to Unbelief

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A Palette of Practices

There are, of course, many other important and helpful spiritual disciplines. But all of them really just serve to cultivate and enhance our relationship with God which is centered in meditation and prayer. Rather than viewing the disciplines as an ever-lengthening list of religious things to do, think of them as a palette of practices from which you can develop your own particular plan for spiritual growth. An artist does not color by number, but skillfully combines the varied colors of the palette in her unique painting. Believers enjoy a similar flexibility in their use of the disciplines.

For a thorough, but by no means exhaustive, list of disciplines see the table below, where the disciplines are categorized as inward disciplines (to cultivate the heart and mind), outward disciplines (to embody the virtues of Christ in personal practice), and corporate disciplines (to practice with other believers).

[click on the image to see all of it]

But don’t feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of disciplines! Rather, be encouraged, for as my friend Del Fehsenfeld writes, “The spiritual disciples are varied and practical enough that all of daily life can be lived within their basic structure.”

The wide variety of these practices reminds us that God not only uses prayer and the reading of Scripture to help us grow, but also serving in our church or community, celebrating life with family and friends, and so much more. The disciplines help us pay attention to God’s presence in daily life. Through these practices we remind ourselves of God’s saving grace given to us in Christ and revealed to us by the Spirit through God’s word. And we also cherish God’s common grace in the blessings of friendship, rest, and community.

We should remember that no two people’s practice of the disciplines will be identical. Your disciplines should not and will not look precisely like mine, or mine like yours. The disciplines of a plumber will be different, though no less important, than those of a pastor. A mother of preschoolers will not have the same rhythms and routines as a single woman. Resist comparing your practices with others or trying to measure up to what someone else is doing. Instead, recognize both your needs and your limitations and prayerfully develop a plan suited to your circumstances and season of life.

We will be most effective when we are intentional in the practice of daily disciplines and recognize the need for occasionally devoting more prolonged periods of time to nurturing our spiritual lives. A helpful adage says, “Divert daily, withdraw weekly, abandon annually.” This advice reflects both realism and wisdom. Most people will find it difficult to sustain a commitment to pray or meditate for several hours each day. But committing a few minutes a day, a few hours a week, and a few days a year is doable for most people. We must recognize and live within the limitations of our unique circumstances and individual responsibilities. But we must also be intentional in doing what we can.

Different individuals will choose their own unique mix from this palette of disciplines, but meditation and prayer, like primary colors, will be present in any healthy plan for spiritual growth.

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The Engine of Our Transformation

In all our consideration and all our practice of the spiritual disciplines, we must remember that only the gospel can change us. Religious practices alone will not. Never be content with the mere forms of piety. Always be feeding your soul at the banqueting table of God’s love in Christ! John Owen wrote,

Let us live in the constant contemplation of the glory of Christ, and virtue will proceed from him to repair all our decays, to renew a right spirit within us, and to cause us to abound in all duties of obedience . . . The most of our spiritual decays and barrenness arise from an inordinate admission of other things into our minds; for these are they that weaken grace in all its operations. But when the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and his glory, when the soul thereon cleaves unto him with intense affections, they will cast out, or not give admittance unto, those causes of spiritual weakness and indisposition.

The spiritual disciplines are really all about keeping your heart in the constant contemplation of Christ. Fill your mind with the gospel and cleave to Christ all your heart. Think of Christ often! Marvel at his incarnation – the Word was made flesh! Meditate on the achievements of the cross and the dying love of Jesus. Celebrate in your soul the resurrection of Christ. Death is defeated once and for all! Stand in awe at the ascension and enthronement of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. God’s plan for his image-bearing human beings is restored in Christ. The second Adam reigns! As you soak your mind with the gospel and deeply absorb its truths in your soul, you will be changed.

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John January 27, 2010 at 7:15 AM  

Brian and Kevin,

This sounds great. The two of you make a great team.

Kevin Meath February 11, 2010 at 2:40 PM  

Thanks, John -- Appreciate the encouragement!

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