What Are Spiritual Disciplines?

What Are Spiritual Disciplines?

What Are Spiritual Disciplines?


Cody John Simpson
Pastor at Voyage Church

When I have brought up the topic of spiritual disciplines with fellow Evangelicals, I’ve received one of two responses. The first is apprehension, and the second (and more common) is confusion. Maybe that’s one of your responses reading this introduction. Its not a mystery why this is so, and I’ll be sure to venture there in a bit, rather it’s concerning that this is so. A couple of years ago the launch team of Voyage Church got together one weekend for a retreat to really lock down where we felt the Holy Spirit was leading us as a church plant: What kind of church were we to be? What was our ministry focus supposed to be? Etc. One of the big things that came out of that retreat was a concern for discipleship, and it has become a crucial emphasis for our church.

In short, as Christians we are called to follow Jesus which really means be His disciples. We are supposed to pattern our lives after Jesus’ example, in everything. Aided by the Holy Spirit the process of discipleship is a transformative one that brings our character (attitudes, values, thoughts, desires) more in line with Jesus’. In following Christ, we become more Christ-like.

This is where the spiritual disciplines come in. I think most churched people don’t know what it really means to follow Jesus. A lot of people say that they do but then pattern their lives after cultural and social norms that often times clash with what we find in the Gospel. These folks aren’t hypocritical just unaware, and they are unaware because the Evangelical church has often stumbled with what comes after salvation… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Spiritual disciplines are practices or exercises that can help us to mature in our faith and draw closer to God, and they are patterned off of Jesus’ way of life. That sounds pretty uncontroversial, but as I said earlier some Evangelicals get pretty wound up over the idea of spiritual disciplines. There is a historical reason for this apprehension. Spiritual disciplines are deeply associated with monasticism and medieval Christianity, from which the first Protestants protested against and then left. Denominations that maintain their historical links with this age such as Roman Catholic, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox have strong practices in the disciplines, and this also adds to Evangelicals’ suspicion. This isn’t unwarranted, as these denominations view doing spiritual disciplines as ways of receiving grace from God, something completely contrary to grace through faith. There are also dangers of self-righteousness, and vain worship if these exercises are done without humility and sincerity. All of this considered though, it is time for the Evangelical church to rediscover the great benefit of spiritual disciplines as part of the way of Christ’s disciples.

Actually, it isn’t even as radical as I have made it seem. Two spiritual disciplines are embraced in Evangelicalism; study and prayer. Can you think of your spiritual growth without either of these practices? Didn’t think so. Not only are there other regular practices we can adopt to grow in Christlikeness, but even with study and prayer there are great depths that are not often discussed in Evangelical circles (hint: there is more than just one way to pray).

As we begin to navigate together the spiritual disciplines, and as I wrap up this post, I want to begin to explore why we should engage with and adopt these practices in our lives. We won’t ever become as perfect as Jesus in this life, so why not settle for what we get from church now? To this we first need to look into our own inner selves and ask whether our faith truly satisfies and fulfils us. Be honest, God already knows, and you don’t have to share the answer with anyone. I think for a lot of Christians it doesn’t. They’re empty, and thus the allure of our materialistic, pleasure-fulfilling culture is too sweet to withstand. Spiritual disciplines are the training that helps our discipleship flourish, and discipleship is the substance of Christian life. Essentially, we can experience our God-given purpose through spiritual discipline. The second place we need to look at is our world. Do you think all is well with it? Highly unlikely, and I would agree. It seems odd to me that our society would be in such a state of disrepair with such a significant number of professing Christians. For instance, there are around 50 million professing Evangelicals in the US! Where is that influence? In reality I believe that most Christians haven’t experienced enough personal triumph in their own following of Jesus to be His ambassadors to the world. Imagine how our world would be different if we all wrestled in our discipleship with deep vigour leading to profound spiritual transformation. We have to start at the beginning – How did Jesus live, and how can we walk in His footsteps in everyday moments of our lives?

Now,  I’m going to give away the goose in case you want to go the extra mile, or just simply read the experts that I did instead (of course you would miss out on my sense of humour and occasional historical tidbits). I am greatly indebted to the late Dallas Willard. His book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is a must read for every Christian and I shamelessly admit serves as the backbone of my perspective on spiritual disciplines. Additionally, as we explore the journey and fruit of sanctification as a whole I will lean on the work of other spiritual leaders and thinkers. Rather than spoil the surprise I will wait to reveal them to you.

Finally I want to remind you of Paul’s command to the Philippians: “Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12). As Evangelicals we’re great at talking about salvation, but don’t forget there is a whole life to live after we’re saved. Be shaken by what Paul says here. Be alarmed by the intensity of his language. Whatever you do, don’t coast in your faith, but make every effort to use this time God has given you to reflect His love in the world and bring Him the glory He deserves.