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Spiritual Disciplines: Duty or Delight?

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The secret to finding joy in spiritual disciplines in focusing not on what we do, but on the one for whom we do it.

One Lent many years ago, I vowed to fast once a week. I had read a little about fasting, and it sounded like a pretty neat idea, the kind of thing a really dedicated Christian ought to do. Although two fasts a week was the routine of some early Christians and monastic types, I thought I had better ease into it. Still, I looked forward to the day I could work up to a forty-eight-hour fasting marathon. Boy, would I be holy.

I wasn't long into my spiritual experiment before I discovered something that saints of ages past must have learned: This venerable spiritual discipline drew me into nothing less than a profound state of abject misery. Holy Thursdays, my fasting days, were days of fatigue punctuated by periods of exhaustion. As hunger gnawed at me, quarter hour by quarter hour, prayer was my only comfort: "Lord, I hate this."

As a person who was into the cost of discipleship, this came as quite a shock to me. My bewilderment forced me to evaluate my attitude toward all the spiritual disciplines: Bible study, prayer, giving, and the like. I recognized that I often practiced them because they seemed like good ideas, or because I thought they guaranteed holiness. More sadly still, I had to admit there were lots of times I simply hated doing them. I had some rethinking to do.

Grace, Grace, Grace

Jesus is the master of the one-liner and an expert with the anecdote. Then He leaves you hanging, groping for more. He rarely dallies on any one subject.

One exception occurs in Matthew 6, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. There He talks at length about what we now call the spiritual disciplines.

In the first eighteen verses, Jesus spotlights three disciplines—giving, prayer, and fasting—and essentially says the same thing three times. Apparently He’s trying to drive home a point, as He did in Luke 15. There, in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, His message is grace, grace, grace.

In reading Matthew 6 over the years, I had taken Jesus' message to be discipline, discipline, discipline! That became a problem when I found out I hated discipline.

Some time later, though, I discovered that Jesus' message here is no different than in Luke 15: the disciplines are opportunities to know grace.

Pins and Pizzas

When my daughter, Katie, was in second grade, she was given pins and pizzas as a reward for reading books. Consequently, she read a lot of books. The more the merrier—the shorter the merrier.

My wife and I tried to steer her to some children’s classics, like Black Beauty.

"No thanks, Dad."

"Why not? It’s about horses. You'll love it."

"Too thick."

"Too thick?"

"Yeah. I can read two or three books in the time it takes me to finish that one. And I only need to read four more to get another pizza certificate and another star on my pin."

"But Katie, this is a wonderful story. You'll really enjoy it. You should read books you like."

"I like thin books. I can read more of them."

For the longest time, the spiritual disciplines were to me—and my circle of friends—a way to get pins and pizzas. The disciplines were unmistakable evidence of a dedicated Christian life. The more I loved Jesus, the more consistent and lengthy would be my prayer and fasting, etc. They will know we are Christians by our disciplines.

So, it was critical that my left hand knew what my right hand was doing (see Mt. 6:3). It was even more critical that others knew what both my hands were doing. When I did have a good, solid hour of quiet time, I became desperate—subtly desperate, but desperate nonetheless—to make sure somebody out there knew, and I would concoct all sorts of ways to slip it into conversations.

When I could have simply said I had prayed for someone, I said, "I want you to know you're on my daily, extended prayer list." The word list communicated a lot.

When I could have said I noticed something in the Gospel of John, I said, "I’ve been picking my way through the Gospel of John for my daily quiet times for a number of weeks now, and I’ve noticed how Jesus..."

When I could have said my spiritual life has been vibrant, I said, "It’s such a blessing when I can spend hours alone with God."

Yes, I'm exaggerating, but not by much. Such spiritual bragging would be trivial if it didn't signal something serious: a desperate yearning to be accepted—by others, certainly, but especially by God. I would quote verses about God’s love. I would thank Him regularly for His forgiveness. But I still didn't completely get it. No wonder I hated the disciplines.

Awards and Rewards

I believe going for the "pins and pizzas" is the root problem Jesus is addressing in Matthew 6. There Jesus teaches that the disciplines are ultimately about joy, though He never mentions the word. Instead He talks about rewards, of which He says there are two types.

"Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them," He says. "If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven" (Matthew 6:1).

For instance: "When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full" (Matthew 6:2). Then He says the same thing about those who pray or fast to impress others: "I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full" (Matthew 6:5).

To be seen and approved by others, to be seen and approved by oneself—this is the first type of reward. It’s pins and pizzas. And the problem with pins and pizzas is this: What you get is what you get, namely, others' approval. Which is never enough, because it’s not the acceptance we're ultimately looking for. Thus we're compelled to add more and more disciplines and laws into our lives, until we become completely self-righteous or are thrown into utter despair and hate the thing that is supposed to give us joy.

Jesus says there is a more excellent way.

Basketball Its Own Reward

I love to play basketball, and I’ve played ever since high school. That means play or practice. It doesn't matter. Just being on a court, dribbling, shooting, making moves, rebounding—to me it’s a type of dance, an art, as "Michelangelo" Jordan of the Chicago Bulls shows in every game. When I play, the high artistry isn't there, but the love is.

One afternoon during my college years, I was at my girlfriend’s house, shooting hoops by the family garage. I was working on my Earl-the-Pearl (Monroe) move—dribble to the top of the key, fake right, spin left, accelerate to the basket for a lay-up. I practiced it about fifteen or twenty times. Then I'd work on another move.

A few weeks later, I overheard my girlfriend’s father talking to a friend: "Mark sure is a disciplined young man. You should see him practice basketball. He just never lets up."

I was disappointed. Finally someone thought well of me, but it was for the wrong reason. Basketball workouts weren't discipline for me. I loved playing. I enjoyed perfecting those moves. Although I panted and sweated and wore myself out, I never had to "discipline" myself to practice. My left dribble didn't know what my right dribble was doing. I didn't play to be seen by others. I didn't do it for pins or pizzas. I just loved playing basketball. Basketball was its own reward.

This, I discovered, was the secret of the spiritual disciplines.


Jesus tells us that the key to a rewarding life of disciplines is doing them in secret: "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matthew 6:6).

When Jesus says secret, He means secret: "When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matthew 6:3-4). Disciplines done in secret—without concern for what others think—gain a reward altogether different from pins and pizzas. C. S. Lewis put it this way:

There are different kinds of rewards. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover.

The pins and pizzas of spiritual life—the applause of others, or some immature idea of holiness—have no natural connection with the spiritual life. In the end, it’s mercenary to strive for them.

Lewis continues: "Proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation."

In one sense, doing things in secret is a kind of euphemism, a roundabout way of saying that we should practice the spiritual disciplines for the intrinsic satisfaction they can give us. Take for example the discipline of giving. John Stott says, "When through [a person’s] gifts the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick healed, and the oppressed freed and the lost saved, the love which prompted the gift is satisfied. Such love... brings with it its own secret joys, and desires no other reward."

Jesus is teaching something that should be obvious but often is not: God is His own reward. The disciplines are merely the moves, the dribbling, the jump shots of the spiritual life. You can no more enjoy God without the spiritual disciplines than you can enjoy basketball without dribbling or shooting. The disciplines are not the duties of the good Christian, nor are they laws or demands or requirements. They are merely the conditions in which the joy of God is experienced.

In writing about acts central to worship, Pulitzer essayist Annie Dillard says, "You do not have to do these things—unless you want to know God. They work on you, not on Him. You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require or demand it."

Beholding Wonder

In the end, the spiritual disciplines are hardly disciplines but gifts, opportunities to know grace, to experience joy, to brush the hem of Christ’s robe. At the very best of moments, when we enter into the disciplines, our heads crane upwards, our mouths fall agape, our hearts pound beholding wonder and mystery—stars, stars, stars!

Prayer is transformed from a routine to get through (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) to an encounter with the living God. My own prayer is now begun in silence, to remove distractions that drown out the voice of God. My prayers are punctuated with meditation, especially on thoughts that startle me. They conclude with careful listening to the still, small voice.

In giving "alms," I focus not on the fact that I am giving, but on the One to whom I'm giving: Christ, as He is present in the Body. This is more than a biblical analogy to me. In some sense, Christ really is present in the Church, wherever two or three are gathered in His name. It is the Lord who marches forward in the service to have the offering blessed. It is Jesus who passes the plate from aisle to aisle.

Fasting, finally, is a means to clear up our spiritual eyesight. Sometimes, even God-given desires—for food, sex, comfort—so preoccupy us that we have a hard time seeing God through them. Fasting is abstaining for a time from the habit clouds our vision. W.R. Inge, a spiritual director from the early part of this century, put it this way: "If we feel that any habit or pursuit, harmless in itself, is keeping us from God and sinking us deeper in the things of earth; if we find that things which others can do with impunity are for us the occasion of falling, then abstinence is our only course."

Fasting as a way to be holy, as a way to show others I was a good Christian, was miserable because the focus was on me. But when fasting became a means to see God more clearly, it was like pulling off the Earl-the-Pearl move at the end of a fast break.

Sure, fasting feels severe at times, but it’s a merciful severity. It doesn't happen often, but there have been moments during fasting when God has seemed more real and tasty to me than the food I'd been abstaining from. "Taste and see that the LORD is good" (Ps. 34:8) is less metaphor and more reality these days.

Addicted to the Disciplines

Recently, my daughter Katie, nose glued in a book, walked across the living room and sat down to dinner.

"Katie, please put down the book," I said. "We're going to say grace now."

Her eyes remained riveted to the page.

"Katie, it’s time to eat. Put down your book," I repeated.

She turned a page.

"Katie!" The book popped out of her hands. "If you can't get your reading under control, I'm going to have to take away some privileges!"

It was an odd speech for a parent to be giving an eight-year-old. But that’s what happens when a child grasps the reward of reading.

I haven't become addicted to the disciplines. Nor can I say that I'm a model of regularity and intensity of practice. And certainly, I still have my dry spells, when God seems to be in a galaxy far, far away.

But altogether, I find myself much more intrigued with the spiritual disciplines. I certainly no longer hate them. In fact, more than ever, I identify with the psalmist who said, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God" (Ps. 42:1). Even if it means I have to fast once in a while.

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