Eight paths toward spiritual fitness
They were called “the athletes of God.”
Ancient Christians from many cultures and walks of life, they gathered in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East beginning in the third century. There, they created communities where they could train themselves in godliness (1 Tim. 4:7) and run together “the race marked out for [them]” (Heb. 12:1). Anything that could not help them “gain Christ” they discarded as worthless (Phil. 3:8). In their everyday lives they kept in mind that an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules (2 Tim. 2:5).
What were those rules? These men and women learned over a lifetime of focusing on God that spiritual strength, growth, and stamina—like physical strength, growth, and stamina—follow certain rules or principles arising from the way God has made us. Spiritual muscles, like physical muscles, require proper nurture and exercise through disciplines that build up the soul.
Because of their emphasis on spiritual disciplines, “the athletes of God” are known as the pioneers of the Christian ascetic movement, from the Greek word for “discipline” (askesis). The wisdom these ascetics gained from Scripture and practical experience can teach us a great deal about the usefulness of spiritual disciplines, even in an age much different from theirs.
Perhaps all this talk about spiritual athleticism makes you tired. Isn’t contemporary life demanding enough as it is? Aren’t we already overextended, driven to distraction by overflowing schedules? Aren’t spiritual disciplines just one more thing to add to our impossibly long to-do lists?
On the contrary. The disciplines aren’t something we pile on top of everything else. They are a way of approaching everything else that keeps us from being overwhelmed or veering off course. They offer a way out of the weary, cluttered, scattered lives so many of us are living.
Let’s look closely at the athletic imagery used in Hebrews to talk about spiritual discipline:
Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.... Discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
—12:1-2, 11-13, NRSV
Notice, first, that discipline doesn’t add to our encumbrances; it extricates us from them. Through discipline, we “lay aside every weight,” which leads to freedom.
Second, discipline doesn’t wear us out. Instead, it strengthens the parts of us that are “drooping” and heals the parts that are “lame.” Discipline builds fortitude.
Third, discipline doesn’t dissipate or distract us. Instead, it directs and presses us toward “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Discipline gives us focus.
So though discipline may at first be “painful rather than pleasant,” ultimately it rewards us with these three qualities: freedom, fortitude, and focus.
What, then, are these disciplines that have enriched and strengthened God’s people for so many centuries?
The spiritual discipline profiles that follow do not represent a complete collection of the disciplines, but I believe they are some key practices for helping us grow in freedom, fortitude, and focus.
As you read, keep this in mind: If we think of the disciplines as spiritual food (another analogy popular with ancient Christians), then we should view them as a menu, not a recipe. We must choose from the menu according to our present spiritual hunger rather than stir them all together like ingredients into one big casserole. Or to use a medicine analogy: We can’t open the medicine cabinet and take every pill in sight! We start with the remedy that seems best suited to our particular illness.
That’s not to say that we need never practice other spiritual disciplines. They are all useful to develop a healthy spiritual life. But we should keep in mind, for example, how the elder Dioscorus trained the brothers of his desert community. He had them make a resolution each year to concentrate on one discipline. Then, if they had mastered that by the end of the year, they could go on to the next.
As you reflect on these featured disciplines, ask the Holy Spirit to show you where to begin. Then start there. Your life may never be the same.
Disciplines of abstinence involve forbearance from indulging the natural appetites. Often what we give up, whether for a season or for a lifetime, is in itself not evil, but is a natural human pleasure: food, drink, sleep, sex, leisure.
Why give up something good that God has given us? For the sake of a greater good. As St. Augustine often noted, our problem is not usually that we love too little; it’s that we love too much. We love certain things more than we love God, even though He is deserving of our greatest love.
We’re like runners who love pretty rocks too much. Every time we stuff another one into our pockets, we slow down a little more. A discipline of abstinence makes us relax our grip on the rocks, empties our pockets, and frees us from disordered loves so that we can run the race unencumbered.
Through the disciplines of abstinence, the soul can get down to “fighting weight.” While indulging ourselves puts us at the mercy of our desires, self-denial weakens the grip of those desires on us, strengthens our will instead, and feeds the virtue of self-control (Titus 2:6, 2 Pet. 1:6).
Various forms include
Jesus and the apostles teach us by word and example the importance of these disciplines in Mt. 4:2, 6:16-18, 26:40-41; Acts 13:2-3; and 1 Cor. 7:3-5.
Once you have identified your disordered love—the thing to which you’ve become too attached—begin to cut back on it or, if necessary, cut it out altogether.
The discipline of simplicity tames our desire for possessions. We simplify our lives by letting go of things that we don’t need or that someone else needs more than we do. It involves such attitudes as generosity, frugality, and modesty. The ancients spoke of it as voluntary poverty.
We find acts and attitudes of simplicity in the Bible: the impoverished widow contributing her last two coins to the temple offering (Lk. 21:1-4), the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea giving up his expensive family sepulchre for Jesus’ burial (Mt. 27:57-60), the merchant Lydia inviting Paul to make her home his missionary headquarters in Philippi (Acts 16:15).
Perhaps the best known of the early ascetics, Anthony of the Desert, made his decision to start a new life in the wilderness when he heard Jesus’ words about renouncing attachments to possessions:
If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.
Simplicity helps us overcome such vices as avarice, envy, pride, vanity, and pretense. It teaches us to share rather than hoard, and to rejoice in what God has entrusted to others rather than to covet it. It strips away the material “props” we use for display of wealth, status, or beauty in the hope of convincing others that we are more important or more valuable than they are.
Simplicity takes various forms in various circumstances: Not all are called to give away everything. For many of us, practicing simplicity will mean resisting the impulse to acquire and to hoard, to be possessed by our possessions.
We might consider minimizing our spending, giving away what we don’t really need, and eliminating the clutter in our lives. We may choose generously to invest what we have according to God’s priorities rather than lavishing it all on ourselves.
The discipline of stillness is a faithful response to the Lord’s command: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). To be still is to withdraw for a season from our normal activities—work, play, conversation—so we can place ourselves, alone and silent, in God’s presence. As we wait there, gaining a “clinical distance” from the world, He begins to show us things from His perspective.
Even Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places” (Lk. 5:16). In these seasons of stillness, He prepared Himself for important events, such as the beginning of His public ministry (Lk. 4:14-15) and the appointing of His apostles (Lk. 6:12-16).
When we let go of work, busyness, and socializing for a time, we start to let go as well of ambitions, jealousy, unhealthy self-reliance, and a sense of self-importance. We learn patience. We discover tranquility. We become like the psalmist who “calmed and quieted” his soul before God, “like a weaned child with its mother” (Ps. 131:2, NRSV).
God’s command to lay aside work and general busyness one day a week (Ex. 20:8-11) reveals an important spiritual discipline: Just as we can be too attached to our pleasures and possessions, we can be too attached to our activities. Our career or livelihood can become a disordered love, because we often view it as an expression of our importance or as a path to comfortable autonomy.
Yet the discipline of stillness requires more than regular rest from manual labor. It calls as well for regular withdrawal from social contact and conversation. A perpetually busy, noisy life is often a shallow life.
The discipline of stillness requires that we regularly withdraw from all activity into God’s presence. Sit quietly alone in your room, said one desert elder, “and your room will teach you everything.” In silence and solitude—in our room, in a church, on the beach, wherever it is available—we can encounter God and ourselves in powerful ways.
Modern technology—phones, TVs, radios, CDs, computers—has made this discipline more difficult to cultivate than ever. Nearly anywhere we go, we are assaulted by the distractions of sounds and images. All the more reason, then, that we learn to be still and silent.
In the discipline of meditation, we seek a deeper, clearer, fuller understanding of God, ourselves, and our world. In short, we seek wisdom. With that purpose in mind, we set aside time to think carefully about what the Lord may be saying to us through Scripture, spiritual reading, or the thoughts He brings to our minds as we reflect.
The psalmist spoke of this discipline:
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
—Ps. 77:11-12, NRSV
The world has taught us to think its way—with God in the background or out of the picture altogether. But this way of thinking fogs our reasoning, weakens our will, and numbs our conscience. It fills our heads with disturbing, confusing sounds and images to distract us from our true calling.
To run the race, we need to heal our minds by soaking them in the truth God reveals to us. As the Apostle Paul put it,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
—Ro. 12:2, NRSV
Ancient Christians knew that meditation not only heals the soul; it feeds it by giving it truths to chew on, digest, and assimilate for spiritual energy and fitness. We are “nourished on the words of the faith” (1 Tim. 4:6, NRSV) because “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).
What does it look like in practice?
The discipline of meditation requires that we set aside regular time (daily, if possible)
Prayer is simply conversation with God. We may pray spontaneously; we may pray in words that others have composed and that express our thoughts well. We may pray silently or aloud or even in song. We may also pray wordlessly, lifting up to God a naked sense of awe or gratitude, fear or grief, doubt or confusion, joy or exultation.
For Christians, prayer is like breathing. We can’t live without it, and if we are to run the race, we must do it deeply. If God is the source of all life, then we must remain in fellowship with Him to draw our life from Him. That means spending time with Him, talking to Him, listening to Him.
One desert elder observed, “Constant prayer cures the mind.” To converse with the Almighty Lord is to receive an infusion of power that heals and strengthens.
All Christians have at least some experience in prayer. Sometimes prayer comes to us as naturally as breathing, but often it requires considerable effort to maintain. That’s what makes it a cultivated discipline. Our goal is a habit of conversing with God in ways that stretch and strengthen our spiritual muscles, building fortitude in our souls.
For some of us, a serious discipline of prayer will involve establishing a regular daily time to pray so that we don’t neglect it. For others, it will mean learning how to tune out distractions as we pray.
For still others, the discipline will involve balancing more carefully the various aspects of conversation with God. We learn to offer not just petition, but praise; not just lament, but thanksgiving; not just requests for ourselves, but intercession for others. And perhaps most important, we learn to listen to God as well as to speak to Him.
Some of us find that we need to stretch our spiritual muscles by reaching out in forms of prayer we have never experienced. The discipline for someone who always prays conversationally, for example, may be learning the benefits of praying with traditional forms, such as the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6:9-13). Someone who usually resorts to traditional prayers, on the other hand, may need to learn how to pray conversationally.
Finally, disciplined prayer is persevering prayer. Like the widow in need who appears in Jesus’ parable, we learn “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Lk. 18:1-8, NRSV).
The spiritual discipline of reticence is, quite simply, the control of the tongue. It’s the “guard over [our] mouth” (Ps. 141:3), the firewall to contain the flame that can set ablaze “a great forest” (Jas. 3:5-6). It’s the habit of thinking before we speak, listening more than we talk, restraining ourselves from speaking our minds whenever silence would better serve the occasion.
The desert Christians understood that “when words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech” (Prov. 10:19, NRSV). As the elder Arsenius once put it, “I have often regretted saying something, but never that I kept my mouth closed.”
Many thoughts are better left unspoken. If the words escape us, we may find ourselves exposed. The elder Sosius wisely asked, “How can we guard our heart if our tongue leaves the door of the fortress open?”
Worse yet, careless words may injure others; and if they do, we can never take them back.
We should also keep in mind that words are like dollar bills: The more we put in circulation, the more the currency is devalued. The words of those who practice reticence are more valuable, and more valued by others, because they are rare; they are more likely to be “a word aptly spoken—like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov. 25:11).
Exercising a godly reticence teaches us patience and humility and strengthens our self-control for the race.
The discipline of reticence doesn’t require that we give up talking altogether. Just as we may fast totally for a day or for a single meal, we may remain totally silent for a day or for an hour. And just as we may fast by gradually cutting back on food at every meal, we may practice reticence by saying less and listening more each time we’re in conversation.
We might call stability the discipline of staying put when we ought to stay put. It’s a willingness to work with the situation God has given us rather than always coveting another situation we think would be better. It’s also a refusal to run from our problems.
Stability is a discipline of focus because it compels us to come face-to-face with our weaknesses and limitations. It allows us to recognize them in humility and then to grow through God’s grace despite them.
The typical American family relocates every few years. We seem to be caught in a mad rush to move around, running after a better job or a better house and neighborhood. Always we’re hoping to find something better over the hill.
Sometimes, rather than running toward some illusive happiness, we are running away from problems, past relationships, or the uncomfortable consequences of our choices. The current high divorce rate, for example, could be interpreted as a symptom that our society lacks the discipline of stability as it should be displayed in marriage.
Yet this incessant quest for more, or better, never ends. More is never enough; better is never best; we are never satisfied with what we have. Peace eludes us because we take our problems with us. If we can’t find contentment where we are, we won’t find it anywhere else.
The discipline of stability can teach us the truth about ourselves and purify our intentions and focus so that we can stay on track in the race.
Stability comes into play as a discipline any time we are tempted to change jobs, locations, churches, or relationships in search of the perfect situation we can never seem to find or as an escape from a situation we have created. This is not to say that we should never make such changes. But if we find ourselves perpetually in chase or flight, we may need to recognize our behavior as a sign of misguided ambition or irresponsibility. If it is such a sign, we must ask God for the grace to stay put—in a particular job, home, city, marriage, friendship, church—so we can learn contentment and accountability.
As with prayer, all Christians have at least some experience in worship. Most of them find that thanking, praising, adoring, and glorifying God is a joy—most of the time. But in difficult times, or even tedious times, when the possibility of joy seems far away, worship becomes a discipline, a choice of the will in spite of feelings. That’s why the desert Christians sometimes spoke of praise as a “labor.”
We worship, above all, because God is “worthy—to receive glory and honor and power” (Rev. 4:11). Moreover, we worship Him in the difficult and tedious times because—as one traditional prayer of worship puts it—“it is right and just” to praise Him, no matter how we feel or what may be happening around us.
Worship helps us take our eyes off ourselves and our problems so that we focus instead on who God is and what He has done for us. When we do, our perspective changes. We find new faith in the Lord and new hope in His future for us.
Worship can also rob temptation of its power. When we concentrate on how good God is, how worthy of our highest love, we’re less likely to love other things more than we love Him. Focused on God in praise, thanksgiving, and adoration, we keep on track to win the race.
The most familiar forms of worship are those that take place in the context of the Christian assembly. We learn the discipline of worship there by attending faithfully (Heb. 10:25), by setting aside mental distractions while there, and by focusing on God throughout the service.
We also learn the discipline of worship in private throughout the other days of the week. When we are physically exhausted, or when we are loaded down with discouragement, fear, confusion, or doubt, we take a few moments to lift our minds to God in words, in song, in the silence of our hearts. In those moments, we offer what is truly a costly “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15, emphasis added).
Now that you’ve had a chance to get better acquainted with some of the disciplines, ask God to show you which discipline you need most just now. Be willing to start wherever He directs.
Meanwhile, take a cue from the desert Christians, who were eminently practical, realistic people. Though their standards of holiness were high, they recognized that the spiritual race requires distance runners, not sprinters. The difference, they insisted, between sprinters who wear out and give up, and long-distance runners who persevere to victory, is discretion: the habit of being judicious in conduct and speech.
To cultivate discretion, we do well to keep in mind a few final words of advice from the ancients.
All is by divine grace. Repeatedly the elders emphasized that disciplines could not be undertaken in our strength alone. The elder Apollos observed:
Not a single person could endure the enemy’s clever attack unless God’s grace preserved us in our weakness. In all our prayers we should ask for His grace to save us.
Sarah, one of the women elders, told how the devil fiercely attacked her in one particular area as she tried to practice a discipline for 13 years. What was her prayer each day? “Lord, give me strength.”
Observe moderation. Excessive discipline, the elders insisted, only leads to discouragement and giving up. “How do we discern the fasting of our God and King from the fasting of that tyrant the Devil?” asked Syncletice. “Clearly by its moderation.... Everything extreme is destructive.”
So take it a little at a time, they advised. They told the story of the brother who wanted to fast all day but woke up so hungry that he didn’t think he could make it till evening. So he said to himself, “I’ll just fast till nine in the morning.” When that hour came, he said, “Well, I think I could make it till noon.”
At noon, he prepared his food but then said to himself, “Maybe I can wait till three.” At three o’clock, “he saw the devil’s work leaving him like smoke,” and he knew that he had conquered his craving and could make it all day.
For those who would find it difficult to fast even one day, the elder Poemen said, “I would have everyone eat a little less than he wants, every day.”
One rule doesn’t fit all. One elder used to say, “Everyone is required to do according to his own capacity.” For the one who craves attention, learning to be silent and alone may be most important just now. For the one who struggles with depression and wants to withdraw, joining others to praise God may be what is needed most.
Even those practicing the same discipline have to tailor it to their situations. One elder taught with regard to fasting:
One person eats a lot and is still hungry. Another eats only a little, yet has had enough. The one who eats a lot, but stops before his hunger is satisfied, has accomplished more in his fast than the one who eats only a little but has eaten all he wanted.
Don’t judge others in their practice of the disciplines. The desert Christians told the story of a young brother who was scandalized to find that one elder slept on a padded pallet. The brother slept on a humble pile of straw; shouldn’t the elder be doing the same? he asked.
A neighboring elder asked the younger man what kind of life he had lived before he came out to the desert. “I was a shepherd,” said the youth.
“And where did you usually sleep?” asked the neighbor.
“On the ground in the fields,” the young man answered.
“So you are actually better off than you were before you began this life of discipline,” said the neighbor. “But this elder whose bed upsets you—before he came to the desert, he used to sleep on a fine bed in a king’s palace. He gave up all those comforts to sleep in this little hut on this humble pallet. You have misjudged him.”
“To disparage your brother or sister,” insisted one elder, “is worse than breaking a fast.” When they saw someone failing in his discipline, the desert Christians made it a habit to tell themselves, “He today; I tomorrow” and pray for God’s mercy.
Don’t give up. Take it one day at a time. You’re building habits, and that takes time. After all, the root of the biblical word for discipline (askesis) means practice—something done again and again.
One brother in the desert was severely tempted to give up his attempts at a disciplined life and return to his old ways in the world. Every day he took up his cloak to leave, but he would stop and say to himself: “I won’t give up today. I’ll stay just one more day.” Then the next day he would take up his cloak again but say once more, “I’ll give up tomorrow—but not today.” He did this every day for nine years, and at last the temptation to despair left him.
Another young man who had decided to give up on living a holy life was counseled by the elder Apollos, who was often tempted the same way. His advice is for us all:
Don’t be cast down, nor despair of yourself. Even at my age and with my long experience of the spiritual life, I still have struggles as you do. But don’t give up: This trouble can’t be cured by our own efforts. Trust in God’s mercy.