Good question. What spiritual disciples do is intentionally create a space in your life where you allow God to form your inward life into the nature of Christ. The spiritual discipline does not form you. The spiritual discipline only provides a structure or place to invest time and energy into your deepening relationship with Christ. Spiritual disciplines provide a place for spiritual formation to take place.
There has been a lot that has been written in the Evangelical world in the last thirty years about spiritual disciplines. Richard Foster’s classic book, Celebration of Discipline was a groundbreaking book for many into the whole concept of how spiritual disciplines can help shape us into the image of Christ.
There are a number of ways to categorize spiritual disciplines. Richard Foster speaks of the inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting and study; the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission and service; and the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration.
Dallas Willard, in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, speaks of the disciplines of abstinence and the disciplines of engagement. Disciplines of abstinence are those spiritual disciplines that we choose to embrace in order to deny ourselves of something good for something greater. They also tend to counteract sins of commission, which are those sins we tend to fall into such as gossip, pride, greed, lust, gluttony and laziness. The disciplines of abstinence include things such as solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy and sacrifice. Disciplines of engagement help counterbalance the disciplines of abstinence. The disciplines of engagement help us overcome the sins of omission. The sins of omission generally speaking are the omission of the good activities we are called to do that may get crowded out of our lives because of our business or neglect. The disciplines of engagement include study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession and submission. Dallas Willard speaks of abstinence and engagement as the out-breathing and in-breathing of our spiritual lives.
Spiritual disciplines are a place to encounter God. They are less of an activity and more of a place where we consciously allow ourselves to be in the presence of God. For there to be genuine transformation, you must also connect with yourself. Many of us live lives marked by denial and superficiality. Spiritual disciplines create a space where we can hear God speak to us at a deep level.
When writing about spiritual disciplines, Willard says,
“In disciplines we need to be informed and experimental. They are not righteousness, but wisdom. We must be practical with them, and not picky. We must not be ‘heroic’ or think we are earning anything from God. Disciplines for the spiritual life are places in which we meet Jesus to be taught by him, and he is our guide into how they are best practiced. We should not be overly concerned about how others do them. In a very short time, Jesus will lead us into the practice that is best for us.”
The key statement is that spiritual disciplines “are places in which we meet with Jesus to be taught by him.” Spiritual disciplines are less of an activity and more of a place to meet with Jesus. If you just approach them as God’s to do list for you, you will either become proud or discouraged. If you approach them as proof of your commitment and you simply, like a good soldier press on, you will burn out. Disciplines for the spiritual life not only change the world, they are intended to change you as well. Spiritual disciplines are a place to encounter Jesus. In her book, When the Soul Listens, Jan Johnson writes,
“The effort put forth in a spiritual discipline is not to change behavior, but to connect our inner motives and needs with God. The effect of that connection is a change of heart.”
Developing a contemplative prayer life is at the heart of the spiritual disciplines discussed in this book. Contemplative prayer is about simply being with God. It is resting in God as he rests in you. It is consciously being with the one who loves you perfectly. Contemplative prayer is learning to enjoy God as he enjoys you. It involves living in the present moment with God. It is being with God as an end in itself.
The goal is spiritual formation
The purpose of the spiritual disciplines is to help the believer be formed from the inside out into the image of Christ. The goal is not that we are completely healed physically, mentally, emotionally, sexually or even socially. Healing is wonderful when and if it happens. The goal is that we become Christ-like, even in our brokenness. You may not have an ideal “Christian marriage,” but you can learn to be Christ-like in the midst of your marriage.
In the Bible, Jesus promises an easy yoke and a changed life. Dr. M. Robert Mullholland Jr., of Asbury Seminary defines spiritual formation as a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. In his book, Invitation to a Journey, he unpacks this definition. I want you to take a few moments to reflect on his definition because it is within the context of spiritual formation that spiritual discipline finds its place in the life of a Christian.
Spiritual formation is a process
Spiritual formation is the process by which people are changed from the inside out. We are all the result of being formed from the inside out. Much of our forming has come from our family of origin and culture. Experiences along the way also help shape us. Some of our formation has been intentional, much of it happened in our response to life.
Spiritual formation is always a process. We find ourselves looking for the next big thing, whether it’s the next book, next conference, the new thing that God is going to do, or the next revival to change us. All these things may be helpful, but it does not discount the fact that true spiritual formation is always a process and processes always take time. Experiences with God are beneficial with moving us toward maturity, but they do not negate the fact that spiritual formation is a process.
Even experiences with God need to be processed and reflected on for them to have a meaningful and long term benefit. In our consumer Christian society, we can collect spiritual experiences the same way that compulsive shoppers collect material possessions. One encounter with God that is understood, processed, and integrated into one’s life is much more helpful than hundreds of spiritual experiences with little thought given to understand what God might be saying or doing.
…of being conformed
Christian spirituality teaches us that we cannot form ourselves into the people God has called us to be. Only God can do the forming. Spiritual formation is a work of grace. Information, experiences, good intentions, and even spiritual disciplines don’t transform us. Spiritual disciplines create a space in our lives where we can partner with God as he changes us from the inside out. Spiritual disciplines do not change us, God changes us.
You can do some things to aid the transformation process, but you do not control it. As Mulholland notes, we live in a do-it-yourself culture and this aspect of spiritual formation runs against our grain. Being conformed rather than doing the conforming ourselves deals with our hesitancy to fully yield control to God and trust him. Being conformed involves losing one’s life and letting God be in the driver’s seat. The good news is that God is a great driver.
…into the image of Christ
Rather than simply doing Christian activity, we become Christ-like. We become kinder, more patient, more truthful, not because we try harder, but because this is who we are. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is to form our character and inner life into the likeness of Christ. In the process of becoming more Christ-like, our “false- personas” get exposed and dismantled so we can become more authentic and true.
Mulhalland points out that “If indeed, the work of God’s formation in us is the process of conforming us to the image of Christ, obviously it’s going to take place at the points where we are not yet conformed to that image. This means that one of the first dynamics of holistic spiritual formation will be confrontation… the Spirit of God may probe some area in which we are not conformed to the image of Christ, that probing will probably always be confrontational, and will always be a challenge and a call to us in our brokenness to come out of the brokenness into wholeness in Christ.”
…for the sake of others.
God takes us inward for the purpose of changing us and pointing us outward again. Christ-centered contemplative prayer will always take you inward and back outward. Concerning this part of the definition, Mulhalland writes, “If we forget this, if we short-circuit our definition… we don’t have Christian spiritual formation, we don’t have holistic spiritual formation. What we have is some kind of pathological formation that is very privatized and individualized, a spiritual form of self-actualization.”
God’s greatest gift to us is the gift of salvation. To live eternally with an all powerful God who loves us unconditionally is beyond what any of us deserve. To have our inner lives, our interior motives and attitudes changed to that of Christ’s is to live the abundant life he promised us. Spiritual formation is a work of grace. Spiritual disciplines provide a place for us to meet with Jesus and be formed into his image.