While walking to a seminary class several years ago, I stopped by the café to purchase some coffee. After filling my cup, I observed a married couple holding hands and praying at a nearby bench. I thought, “That is really neat!” Then, I thought, in a moment of my flesh, “Aren’t they showing off their spirituality!” And then another thought came to my mind: “I wish I could be like them!”
I was idolizing this couple’s spiritual posture before God. I desired something that they had cultivated for days, months—maybe even years. But I was only seeing a small detail of their spiritual life together.
What Are Spiritual Disciplines?
Spiritual disciplines are habits of holiness, or a way of life in which I practice piety. What is piety? John Calvin defined piety as “reverence joined with love of God which knowledge of his benefits induces” (Institutes of the Christian Religion). Spiritual disciplines are often defined as a personal reverence that one has for the Lord, spurred on by his gospel of grace. This reverence is expressed in particular habits of holiness, such as prayer, meditation, and Bible study, which are developed over time.
We should be encouraged by other believers’ spiritual disciplines, rather than idolizing them or giving way to guilt. But you may be asking, How do I go about pursuing spiritual disciplines?
Four Keys to Practice Spiritual Disciplines
Let me offer you several guidelines for pursuing these habits.
1. Keep grace in mind.
Prayer, meditation, fasting, journaling, and memorization are tools for spiritual growth. Some disciplines are expected of the believer, while other disciplines seem to be suggested. The spiritual disciplines are tools of the Lord, as a wheel is to a potter, a paint brush to a painter. The work of grace is ultimately God living in me (Romans 12:1-2), and a tool is an instrument that God uses to draw me nearer to his grace.
Grace upon grace is also God’s tool applied in my life when I fail to consistently practice a spiritual discipline. I must remember that I need grace when I fail to apply these tools of grace.
Grace can provide three practical teachings for spiritual disciplines:
- I am a sinner, who was once dead in my sin and a slave to it (Romans 5:12; Titus 3:3; Ephesians 2:1; 1 Corinthians 2:14).
- I must be born again to be truly alive to Christ and to practice a spiritual discipline (John 3:5-7).
- I was made alive by the Spirit, and he cultivates personal holiness and reverence for the Lord in me (John 1:12-13; Titus 3:5).
2. Remember your union with Christ.
I am joined to Christ. I am in Christ because of my salvation (Galatians 3:28). He is with me. He will never leave me or forsake me. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), and I no longer live for myself, but for Christ (Galatians 2:20).
Theologians call this doctrine union with Christ. When you fail (which you will), remember that your position in Christ is secure, and you will persevere with the Spirit’s help. Throw off sin and aim toward Christ, the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrew 12:1-2).
3. Use effective tools.
There are a variety of tools to be used for spiritual disciplines. Discover effective tools by trial and error, or by asking others what they do and use.
Some people enjoy listening to their electronic devices while they exercise; this could be effective tool for listening to Scripture or memorizing a passage. I have the Logos Bible app on my phone that daily guides me through the one-year Bible reading plan. Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s Bible Reading Calendar is also excellent.
Some people pray while enjoying a brisk walk in the morning. Others prefer the surroundings of a nature preserve, to a country setting, or even a noisy, busy street!
Others enjoy the older tools, like a journaling book and pen, while opening their Bibles. Some reflect in their journal by writing down prayer requests, reflective thoughts, and still others enjoy reading a good book on theology to aid personal Bible study.
Some people practice spiritual disciplines in community, within a small group or accountability system. Charles Wesley encouraged his followers to practice disciplines within a fellowship group called Bands. Calvin once stated, “The glory of God so shines in his word, that we ought to be so affected by it, whenever he speaks by his servants, as though he were near to us, face to face” (Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets).
Tools are effective as long as they are used properly and not are legalistic binds on people. Some tools may not work for me, while they may work for you. So find what works for you!
4. Resolve to form a consistent habit.
Spiritual disciplines can sound overly spiritual, and for some the sound of the term can be a turn-off. However, a discipline is the way in which I develop maturity through soaking in grace. I practice and engage in prayer. I meditate on a biblical passage, or I fast. The point is to engage with God’s grace, and to practice holy habits consistently, perhaps through a daily routine or an every-other-day practice. One way to learn a practice is to watch others who consistently model it.
So why devote my energy to a spiritual discipline? When we commit wholeheartedly to a spiritual discipline, we are laying aside selfishness, realizing personal time with the Lord is vital to our Christian life (Galatians 6:3; James 1:22-25). We must remember that God owns our spirituality. Remember that salvation belongs to the Lord, from beginning to end (Psalm 3:8; Revelation 7:10).
By engaging in spiritual disciplines, we allow grace to reign so that “all parts of our life accordingly strive toward [God] as our only lawful goal” (Calvin).