A Review of the Nature of Spiritual Disciplines
In previous articles here on the Scriptorium I have clarified the nature of a spiritual discipline and explained how spiritual disciplines, construed as training exercises analogous to those employed in getting good at golf, help to facilitate growth in the good life. I defined a Christian spiritual discipline in this way: A Christian spiritual discipline is a repeated bodily practice, done over and over again, in dependence on the Holy Spirit and under the direction of Jesus and other wise teachers in His Way, to enable one to get good at certain things in life that one cannot learn to do by direct effort.
The sad thing is that we know what to do to learn golf or some other specific activity, but we don’t know the relevance of repeated bodily practice and discipline for learning to be good at life taken as a whole. Long ago, Plato (428-348 BC) wisely noted: “There is no question which a man of any sense could take more seriously than…what kind of life one should live.” (Gorgias 500 c) Elsewhere Plato observed that it would be a tragedy if a person could be content with life by having good health, wealth, great looks, and a lot of ease and pleasure while, at the same time, not giving a moment’s thought to the cultivation of skill at living life as a whole with virtue and character. Along similar lines and with characteristic insight, Jesus of Nazareth asked “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world [including getting good at golf, accounting, or anything else] and forfeits his soul (fails to become the flourishing person he was made to be both now and forever] (Matthew 16:26).
A Menu of Spiritual Disciplines
But the renewed interest in spiritual disciplines are changing all this. People are coming to see that repeated bodily practice in the form of spiritual exercises/disciplines is at the heart of spiritual transformation. Just as “golf flesh” resides in specific body parts, for example, the wrists, so sinful habits often reside in specific body parts, for example, anger in the stomach area, anxiety in the chest or shoulders, gossip in the tongue and mouth region, and lust in the eyes and other areas. A spiritual discipline is a repetitive practice that targets one of these areas in order to replace bad habits with good ones in dependence on the Spirit of the living God.
Some spiritual disciplines, for example, the practice of journaling (the habit of writing down one’s prayers to God, one’s daily experiences of answered prayer, good and bad events, and so forth), are mere means to an end (learning to remember answers to prayer, learning to concentrate on incidental daily events as occasions that have spiritual significance, learning to talk deliberately and with emotion to God). Other disciplines are both a means to an end when done as a discipline and intrinsically valuable in their own right when done during the actual “game” of life. The habit of expressing kindness is an example. By practicing the expression of kindness to others, one can learn to be less self-centered. In this way, repeated expressions of kindness are a means to the end of spiritual growth. But, of course, expressing kindness to others is not just a form of practice to get good at life. It is part of living life itself and it has intrinsic, not just instrumental value.
Dallas Willard points out that there are two categories of spiritual disciplines: those of abstinence/detachment and those of engagement. This list is not exhaustive, but it does contain most of the classical disciplines:
Disciplines of Abstinence: solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity secrecy, sacrifice
Disciplines of Engagement: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission
In disciplines of abstinence, we unhook, detach, abstain for a period of time and to varying degrees from the satisfaction of normal, appropriate desires—food, sleep, companionship, sex, music, comfort, financial security, recognition, and so forth. These disciplines help us address sins of commission. In general, it is not a good idea to detach from something without filling the resulting void with attachment to something positive. Thus, disciplines of engagement go hand in hand with those of detachment, and the former help us address sins of omission.
It is crucial to understand that on the biblical and, more generally, the classical understanding of becoming a virtuous person , the formation of a good character essentially requires repeated employment of bodily practices relevant to the development of character.
The Practice of Witnessing
In addition to classic examples of disciplines such as those listed above, any repeated practice that is fruitful for growth in Christlikeness is legitimately called a spiritual discipline and, thus, the list of such disciplines is endless. The repeated practice of evangelistic witnessing is a good example of a “non-classic” discipline.
I have trained thousands of people to share their faith. Several years ago I debated one of the world’s leading intellectual atheists in front of a packed auditorium at a university campus. The courage to do this came not only from depending on Christ in that moment, but also from the spiritual discipline of witnessing. Years earlier I was scared to death to share my faith with anyone. What was I to do to become a calm, courageous witness for Christ? Of course, I read books on evangelism and tried to stay motivated through good music, worship and fellowship with other nurturing Christians. But if the thesis of this chapter is correct, then that would never have been enough. Transformation as a confident, skillful evangelist could come only if I practiced the discipline of witnessing over and over again.
I began with learning the contents of an evangelistic booklet. I also memorized a brief personal testimony, as well as a way to introduce myself to others and a way to excuse myself from conversation if so needed. I practiced using the booklet and giving my testimony in front of the mirror repeatedly. Then I practiced my delivery over and over again with a Christian friend. Subsequently, I went witnessing about fifty times with someone more experienced and, gradually, I did more of the talking, until I was the one taking the experienced brother with me. Finally, I started taking novices myself and, eventually, repeated a similar process for giving an evangelistic talk to crowds. By the time I debated the atheist in that auditorium, I had shared my faith hundreds of times. In all, I have done around twenty debates on different subjects, and while my ministry is now taking a different direction, I learned to evangelize by the spiritual discipline of repeated witnessing and testifying to my experience with Christ.
If you want to make it your aim to grow in the courage to stand up for your faith in threatening situations, including sharing the gospel with unbelievers, you need to learn why you believe what you believe (see I Peter 3:15). That’s why most of my previous articles have focused on apologetical topics. But this is not enough. You need to practice taking a stand and sharing your faith in increasingly more threatening situations. Just as one who is learning to play golf starts with simple swings and as he/she gets better, moves on to more difficult strokes (for example, getting out of a sand trap), so one should approach the development of the virtue of courage. Start with situations that are just a little threatening, for example, by identifying yourself as a Christian with someone who is not. And once you learn to be comfortable with that, move on to practicing slightly more difficult behaviors. Be kind to yourself—don’t force yourself to do something that is so far outside your safetly zone that you will get discouraged and stop making progress. On the other hand, continue to stretch yourself. As you do, remember that you are approaching this area of life as a spiritual discipline. Practice over and over again the level of courageousness you are at until it becomes a habit. Then move on to the next level and repeat. And remember, Jesus is our coach and he said that he would never leave us or forsake us (Matthew 28: 18-20).