On a ship, the navigator might not actually turn the wheel, but he has a big responsibility all the same – to confirm that the direction of travel is correct. Habitual reference is made to the true destination so adjustments can be made to the ship’s course whenever necessary. This habitual activity is the perspective we may take for what have been called the “Christian disciplines.” In the Bible, the term “discipline” is generally used to indicate the child-training exercised by natural parents as well as by God as our Father. The word can also be used, however, to refer to a subject or field of study, as university students might study the disciplines of mathematics or botany. This meaning is closer to what is usually intended when one refers to Christian disciplines – activities which believers should practice with devotion and regularity. Terminology along these lines was perhaps most popularized by Richard J. Foster, whose 1978 bookCelebration of Discipline was hugely successful in various Christian circles.* Rather than follow the descriptions by Foster or other writers, however, we will consider six key disciplines found in Scripture, although there are certainly others.
It would not be a stretch to say that praying is to the spiritual life what breathing is to the physical. Prayer is the most basic and essential act of a heart that depends on God. The seeking Cornelius “prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2 nkjv) even before hearing the gospel. The newly converted Saul was characterized by prayer (Acts 9:11); and it was during prayer that God sent him to the Gentiles (Acts 22:17-21). Peter and John regularly kept “the hour of prayer” in the early Church (Acts 3:1). And Paul emphasized its importance when he wrote, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Th. 5:17).
Yet after grasping the imperative of prayer, a hazard awaits, because human nature likes to schedule anything important. For example, those who value physical exercise often design a personal routine which rarely varies from week to week. In the same way, the habitual activity of praying can become more important than the actual content of our prayers, or than the God to whom we pray. Similar dangers lurk for all the disciplines.
Lessons of prayer are best learned from the Lord Himself (Lk. 11:1). See how often the perfect Man is found praying. Notice how His recorded prayers arise from each situation, whether blessing a meal, thanking God for truth revealed to others, or agonizing over the impending agony of the cross (Jn. 6:11; Mt. 11:25; Lk. 22:42). Scarcely a phrase of one prayer appears in another, proving that prayer flows not from repetition but from a heart that knows its need to rely on God. At the same time, a prayer life should not be haphazard; notice how the Lord preserved extended times for private prayer (Mk. 1:35; 6:46). Believers should know the importance of times and places “where prayer was customarily made” (Acts 16:13).
Though we believe that the Bible fully expresses God’s thoughts, we often have a peculiar way of showing it. It would be a poor traveler who carried the best maps, only to wander aimlessly because he never looked at them! Paul wrote, “Till I come, give attention to reading” (1 Tim. 4:13). Later, he asked Timothy to bring “the books” to him in prison (2 Tim. 4:13). The churches in Colosse and Laodicea were to share Paul’s writings (Col. 4:16); all the Thessalonians were expected to hear the epistle sent to them (1 Th. 5:27); and the last book of the Bible promises a blessing to those who read the Bible (Rev. 1:3). It’s difficult to obey God’s Word if we don’t read it.
Meditation is quiet reflection upon one’s reading. Paul wrote: “Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them” (1 Tim. 4:15). Writings which are true and pure deserve our deep thought, for they will affect our own ideas and behavior (Phil. 4:8-9). The Psalms mention meditating on God’s principles, works, word, and person (Ps. 1:2; 63:6; 119:15; 143:5). We read to know; we meditate to be changed.
“The Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it … In the same manner He also took the cup” (1 Cor. 11:23-25). There’s hardly a simpler request made by the Lord. Nothing is lofty about the bread and wine. Nothing about this remembrance is so complex that only the initiated can appreciate it. No aspect requires elaborate preparation. In the early Church, the disciples met together on the first day of the week specifically to break bread (Acts 20:7). Simply put, the Lord instructed them to remember Him, so they did. We are encouraged to do the same: “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
More than once the Bible uses the imagery of a body to describe the Church, confirming that Christians are meant to live in community. The early Christians embraced this aspect of Christian living. When Peter and John were released from prison, they assembled with “their own companions” to pray (Acts 4:23). Similarly, after Peter was brought out of prison by an angel, he went to the house where many were praying for him (Acts 12:12).
We gather with other Christians not only for prayer and the Lord’s supper, but also to hear messages from the Bible (1 Cor. 14:26-27). Assembling for these purposes will keep us motivated for service and faithful to the Lord in view of His return. Therefore, we are warned against “forsaking our own assembling together” (Heb. 10:25).
We are content to hear messages about biblical truths, but when the topic is money we might clutch our wallets and change the subject. Yet financially supporting the Lord’s work is a discipline the Bible encourages. This was evident at the Church’s beginning as well as among new Gentile converts in Antioch (Acts 2:45; 11:27-30). The Philippians, in their poverty, were among Paul’s most faithful supporters, even when he partially earned a living making tents (Phil. 4:15-16; 1 Th. 2:9; 2 Cor. 8:1-4).
We all know from experience how funds are suddenly no longer available if we haven’t previously set them aside. Infrequent collections limited to special occasions would not be an orderly practice. Instead, collections were made when believers gathered on the first day of the week, demonstrating that giving was a regular, planned aspect of Christian life (1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 9:5). We should be similarly disciplined.
When four lepers found food in an abandoned enemy camp, they knew they had to spread the news to their starving countrymen (2 Ki. 7:9). In the same spirit, Christians are expected to preach God’s Word to this world. Paul wrote: “Preach the word … in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). When leaders demanded an end to preaching in Jesus’ name, the overruling factor for the disciples was that God expected them to preach (Acts 4:19).
There are more than 35 references to preaching in Acts, with the disciples preaching to individuals, crowds, even whole cities. The Philippian church was exemplary for their desire to work together for the sake of the gospel. Evangelism begins where we are, and as we are faithful the Lord opens doors. We should be known for our stand for God, just as Jason was known for his stand with those who turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Christians have been saved by grace, not personal merit. This fact is necessary for daily Christian living. We have already been “accepted in the Beloved” and placed by God “into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Eph. 1:6; Col. 1:13). We will not earn additional favor by keeping more rules or being more consecrated, committed, or contemplative. “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).
Any discussion of Christian disciplines which suggests they’ll produce a mystical spirituality suggests that Christ’s work has been insufficient. We should guard against this perspective when we consider current world views that frequently highlight the spiritual component of life. Practices similar in form to these Christian disciplines are encouraged – with the goal of contacting the spiritual realm or releasing the power of one’s inner self, completely apart from acknowledging the problem of sin and the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus. We are in danger of adopting a similar viewpoint if we treat these practices as ways to reach an inner circle of God’s favored followers.
Yet Christians are exhorted to undertake these practices, so we should not be lazy about them. These cherished Christian disciplines are important, not because they tap our spiritual potential, but because they elevate Christ Himself in the sight of others and in our own hearts. We should walk in newness of life, enjoying the blessings of that life through prayer, reading, and meditation, while our practices imitate His grace and compassion through giving and preaching.
Viewing these activities as disciplines has value. It reminds us of the tension in which they are maintained, opposed by the natural tendency to arrange our lives around personal comforts. It calls us to carve out and hold fast the time and resources needed for contemplating and representing Christ. Notably, one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is “self-control” (Gal. 5:23). As a result, Christians are uniquely empowered by the Holy Spirit to do what our flesh would rather avoid and to continue practicing what adversity would otherwise break up.
Perhaps the greatest discouragement to Paul at the end of his life was his Christian brother Demas, who had labored with him at one time but was then seduced by other attractions (2 Tim. 4:10). Christians need persistence, the desire to be effective overcomers even when challenges are real. Practicing spiritual disciplines provides the rock-solid foundation (Mt. 7:24-25) promised by the Lord for those who hear His word and obey it.
By Stephen Campbell
* Foster’s book presents twelve disciplines which, he says, “invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm” (p. 1, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, New York: Harper Row, Inc., 1978). While his exhortations for spiritual living are commendable, his approach seems to emphasize inward reflection beyond what might be spiritually healthy. It is as we consider Christ that we are changed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18).
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org