Monday, November 03, 2003
With all the discussion of New Year’s Resolutions and the response from last week’s column on separation, now is an opportune time to discuss the subject of spiritual discipline. I had some folks write and ask my opinion on the subject of New Year’s resolutions versus spiritual disciplines so I thought I would address their concerns.
There has been a resurgence of interest in the past few years relating to the subject of spiritual disciplines. Many people have shown a nominal interest in the subject without a genuine commitment to the practice of spiritual disciplines. They are like people who pause on January 1st to scribble some resolutions on a piece of paper and then promptly proceed to miss every one of them by the end of January. They are no more committed to their disciplines than well intentioned but weak-willed reprobates.
We can see this lack of true commitment to the spiritual disciplines in the casual, offhanded way some lightweight writers like Dallas Willard address the topic in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines. They claim that the spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves but a use of available means to allow us to deepen our commitment and relationship with Jesus Christ. I fear that they have totally missed the boat on this one.
Spiritual disciplines are an end in themselves. They are the definition of spirituality. The disciplined spiritual life is the mark of a true Christian. The disciplines are what distinguish us from the casual professing believer. One can no more be spiritual without a disciplined lifestyle than one can be human without arms and legs. One is spiritual precisely to the degree that he practices spiritual disciplines. If a Christian claimed to be a believer but did not live a holy and upright life of near perfection like I do, then we have no reason to believe that his profession of faith is genuine. True Christianity is all about appearances (“shun the very appearance of evil” the Bible says) instead of all the modern mumbo-jumbo about the “inner life” of the believer.
Not only that but we can think of our practice of the spiritual disciplines as the means for us to obtain God’s favor. We are saved by grace but we live by our outward practice of holiness. How could God possibly be pleased with someone who didn’t fast, pray, attend worship every time the doors were open, read the right version of the Bible and abstain from sins like dancing, movie-going and immodest apparel? No, our obedience to a disciplined lifestyle is our way to “score points” with God as we seek to live out Christ in us.
Another facet that needs to be considered is the depth of our spiritual commitment. We advertise to a watching world how deeply committed to God we are by our willingness to suffer on his behalf. By giving up drinking, smoking, swearing, pornography and worldly amusements of every kind, we demonstrate how truly devoted we are to God. We even give up things that my not be wrong in themselves but are distractions from the pursuit of a life that appears to be “sold out” to Christ. Examples include attending professional ball games, symphony concerts and plays at the civic auditorium. Anything that even hints of worldliness is avoided in a demonstration of our outward demonstration of commitment to God. Truly spiritual people are totally devoted to the study of God’s word, prayer and meditation on spiritual topics. If we talk about anything else, we might give others the false impression that we have an interest in what is going on in the world. Instead, we engage in discussion and debate about the essential truths of the word as proof of our spirituality and disengage from anything that hints at worldliness. This prevents us from being mistaken in participating in anything so crass as trying to change society for the good of the “kingdom” which smacks of social gospelism.
By giving up the amusements of the world, we affirm the value of spiritual things. This continues to earn God’s favor but in addition to that, we also gain the esteem of those Christians who lack our devotion to disciplined living. Those are some very clear benefits to spiritual disciplines, the appreciation of God and the admiration of others. Without these, the practice of spiritual disciplines would be pointless.
The Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.
Luke 11:39-41 (NIV)