The Disciplines of Spiritual Formation
This post is by Philip Nation (D.Min., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). Philip serves as the Director of Content Development at LifeWay and as a Teaching Pastor at The Fellowship in Nashville, TN.
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The Joyful Disciplines
Spiritual disciplines can be used by God to draw us closer to Him. Sadly, they are also abused as a legalistic manner of showing off one’s religiosity. I’ve found that if you read three books on the subject, you’ll likely find six opinions about what they are and how they function. For our purposes, let’s use a simple definition: Spiritual disciplines are relationship practices that express our love for and faith in God. I always begin with the practices of worship, Bible study, and prayer; then, I move on to others like service, fasting, rest, and simplicity. By humbling ourselves before God in these practices, we can see three facets to the spiritual disciplines.
Discovering a grace-filled path in the disciplines can be tough. Not because the practices deceive us but because we often deceive ourselves. We can take the simplest practice such as prayer or Bible study and turn it into some disastrous. Rather than studying the Word to better know God, it becomes an item on our checklist to make sure God knows we are trying really hard to earn His favor.
Spiritual disciplines should guide us not govern us. They are the relational activities where we can express our love and gratitude toward God for who He is and what He has done in the gospel. Then, as we keep our attention on the Word, He guides us through the revelation of Himself. In the spiritual disciplines, we focus not our efforts but on God’s character.
Disciplining our lives
The disciplines also have a positive effect on our lives. Through biblical practices such as service and rest, we allow the Holy Spirit to govern our lives. Many of us have bought the January gym membership only to stop going in mid-February. We know that mere willpower will not change our lives. Spiritual disciplines are tools in the hands of God to show us how the gospel transforms so we can will as God wills.
Focusing our attention
Distraction is commonplace. During the course of reading this post, you’ve probably looked at a social media feed and/or your mind wandered to think about the next meal. The disciplines give us practices to focus our attention on what matters most.
In practices like silence or solitude/retreats, they reveal how much we rely on physical stimuli to gain happiness. It reminds us to live a life focused on the God of the gospel rather than the gods of this world. The spiritual disciplines, like anything else, can be applied legalistically or with arrogance. But, by practicing them as an act of love toward God, we can grow in our affection for who He is, attention to His truth, and faith in how He works.