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Taking the "Ugh" Out of Spiritual Disciplines

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An invitation to freedom, joy, and intimacy

Many years ago, when I first read the title of Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline, I wondered how in the world one could place celebration and discipline in the same title. What is there to celebrate about discipline?

My response to Foster’s title reflected my experience up to that time with spiritual disciplines. I used to attempt a rather long list of spiritual practices each morning, including a prayer list for family, friends, local church, nation, world, persecuted church, and so on. I began to notice that rather than experiencing peace after my time with God, I felt increasingly burdened. I hadn't prayed for as many people as I'd committed to, read as much Scripture as I'd set out to, or taken time in silence as I'd planned.

Disciplines that were intended to draw me closer to God instead created blocks of guilt that obstructed me from freely entering God’s presence. Satan, the accuser, seized every opportunity to point out the shortcomings of my spiritual life.

Does this sound familiar? Has the idea of spiritual disciplines lacked—or lost—appeal to you? Perhaps fear of failure has kept you from even trying spiritual disciplines. Maybe you’ve assumed disciplines are for those on a different spiritual plane from you or with a different temperament—you know, the type that sticks to a diet and exercise regime (with a smile, no less). Or perhaps you're not convinced the disciplines are necessary.

In spite of my shaky start, I’ve been learning over the last several years that disciplines are indeed something to celebrate. Here are some discoveries that changed my perspective.

The disciplines help us pay attention.

There are a number of traditional spiritual disciplines. However, I believe any intentional practice that turns your heart toward God, deepens your relationship with Him, and transforms you to be more Christlike—however slightly or slowly—is worth incorporating in your life as a spiritual exercise.

That might include meditating on God’s Word, taking a walk in nature and praising the Creator, praying for the persecuted church, thanking the bus driver on your daily commute, or holding your tongue from a harsh word. Spiritual disciplines help us love God and others not "with words or tongue but with actions and in truth" (1 Jn. 3:18).

Here is a simple question to help you identify which spiritual disciplines you might want to practice: What exercises help me personally and practically live out the greatest commandments—to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself (Mt. 12:30-31)? I know of a pastor who began making the bed each morning as a spiritual discipline. By faithfully doing so, he engaged in an intentional act of loving and serving his wife.

Disciplines also help us pay attention to the Holy Spirit. God spoke through Isaiah, "Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live" (Isa. 55:3). When I apply myself to meet with my Maker each morning—even when my desire dwindles and my to-do list shouts—my heart turns toward Him. As I read His Word, pray, and listen, I become more attentive to His voice during the day and more apt to respond in obedience. The disciplines help me "walk by the Spirit, and...not carry out the desire of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16, NASB).

After delivering the Israelites from slavery, God told them,

Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart.... Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds.

Dt. 4:9, 11:18

Spiritual habits help us "watch [ourselves] closely." They impress God’s Word on our souls and help us keep God in the forefront of our thoughts.

The disciplines help us respond to the Spirit.

Hiking around a lake last summer, I watched a two-person sailboat floating in the water. Because the wind had not yet picked up, the sails hung limp. As a gentle breeze began blowing, a slight turn of the sails permitted them to catch the wind and move the boat. We are like those sails. We can't force our boat on the course of growth by sheer muscle or willpower; rather we open ourselves to the wind and allow God’s Spirit to propel us.

The spiritual disciplines help us position ourselves to best receive the wind of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that might mean waiting, still in the water, even when nothing seems to be happening. But as we faithfully show up each day or hour or afternoon, hoisting our sails and readying ourselves to receive the wind, we may be surprised at where it takes us.

During a day of fasting and prayer with my husband over a job decision, neither of us received clarity. We were a bit disappointed by the end of the day. However, over the next two weeks, I marveled at how God revealed things to us—and sensitized our spirits—regarding other areas of our lives about which I'd often prayed. At other times, I’ve seen how a passage I meditated on in the morning has been just the word of encouragement a friend (or I) needed later that day. When I write a note to uplift someone as an act of discipline during a busy day, I'm often amazed to hear that my letter arrived on the exact day the person needed it. Such are the results of setting our sails, through spiritual disciplines, to receive the Spirit’s guiding wind.

As you contemplate spiritual exercises to implement, ask yourself: What practices help me position the sail of my spirit to receive the wind of the Holy Spirit? When do I find myself most sensitive and responsive to God’s Spirit?

Then, go a step further and ask, What habits, practices, thought patterns, or attitudes shift my sails ever so slightly away from God and who He intends me to be? The answer to this question can identify what spiritual practices might help you resist those patterns and temptations. For instance, when I recently found myself succumbing to discontent, I realized it was time to practice the discipline of daily gratitude. As I awoke each morning, rather than focus on all I don't have, I thanked God for all I do have: a home, the strength to get out of bed, fresh water coming from my shower, the ability to see the sky, work to do, family who love me, a mind that can think clearly.

Before retiring for the night, I reviewed my day and searched my memory for instances when I sensed God’s presence and witnessed His faithfulness: the answer to prayer someone shared with me, the pink clouds at sunset, a warm hug from a friend, the kindness of a stranger, encouragement from a psalm, colorful flowers by my back door, the bright smile of my niece in a photograph. Soon, gratefulness began to crowd out discontent.

The right motive makes a world of difference.

Before we embark upon spiritual disciplines, or seek to revive our former attempts to practice disciplines, we must be clear about our purpose. The appropriate purpose for engaging in disciplines is to grow closer to our God and become the people He created us to be. Our purpose is not to curry favor with God or earn points.

For many years, this is where I got stuck. It’s not that I questioned my salvation when I failed to perform certain spiritual disciplines, but I did have a sense of dropping a few notches on God’s totem pole of approval.

This misunderstanding always laced my attempts at practicing spiritual disciplines with fretfulness: What if I failed? What if I didn't get it right? When I spoke with someone who prayed longer than I did or memorized more Scripture or read through the Bible every year, I worried that I wasn't doing enough. I eventually decided it was easier to avoid disciplines than to carry the weight of guilt for failing God and myself.

Without realizing it, I'd neglected to start from Christ’s finishing place. When Jesus exclaimed on the cross, "It is finished," He meant it. He accomplished the work of salvation once and for all, making us acceptable and worthy before God. No discipline we can engage in will place us in better standing before God; no practice we cultivate will make us more worthy. Spiritual disciplines do not add one iota to what Christ has done.

Until we are convinced that we don't have to perform to make ourselves right before God, we cannot joyfully enter into the spiritual disciplines. Until we grasp that Jesus already strove for us, we cannot embark on spiritual disciplines free from striving.

In short, disciplines are not about trying to get God’s attention but about training ourselves to pay attention to Him. We do not engage in disciplines to gain God’s favor or approval but because we have His favor and approval in Jesus Christ, and we want to enjoy the gift of sweet fellowship with Him.

I needed God’s help to understand this, so I prayed: "Lord, I so want to implement these disciplines. They excite my heart, and my spirit always feels nourished, more at peace, and more intimate with You when I practice them. But I need a right perspective on failure, a safeguard against discouragement. I need to know how to respond to the enemy when he accuses me of falling short."

As I prayed, an image came to mind. Rather than God looking down at me as a scowling professor waiting for me to turn in my assignment on time ("And when are you going to complete this discipline?"), I saw God as a gentle lover wooing me to come away with Him through these practices. I began to see disciplines I’ve chosen as invitations from God, not legislation. I always have the choice to say no. Though God’s heart longs for me to come, He does not force me or give me demerits when I don't. It is I who miss out, not He who condemns me.

An Invitation to Joy

Once we are utterly convinced that there is nothing we can do to increase God’s love for us, we are ready to embrace the spiritual disciplines with freedom and joy. Certain disciplines help us draw near to God; others build godly character; still others help us avoid that which pulls us away from God and numbs our sensitivity to Him and others. Whatever the practice, however, we engage in it not to perform for God but to place ourselves in His presence. Our role is to "hoist our sails" and position ourselves to be open to God’s Spirit. God’s role is to propel us on the path of transformation. Some days, we may feel no wind or movement and assume we're wasting our time, but we're not. No time we take to seek God is ever wasted! In due time, we will reap the fruit of deepened intimacy with Him and a spirit growing in life and peace (Ro. 8:6).

During those days, or seasons, when we falter, God—rather than lowering us on His totem pole of approval—covers us with His mercy, crowns us with His compassion, and calls us to draw near to Him again. For me, spiritual disciplines are no longer a burdensome and guilt-producing requirement but a loving invitation to fellowship with my Abba Father. Now that’s something to celebrate.

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