I imagine most church members would find it hard to believe their pastors struggle with practicing spiritual disciplines. If any group of people should excel at personal Bible reading and memorization, prayer, worship, evangelism, fasting, and a number of other important Christian exercises, it should be the shepherds. And yet, surprisingly, many pastors do in fact struggle to consistently practice them. In certain seasons of life, good and important ministry needs tend to crowd out the everyday disciplines of Bible study and prayer. The struggle is real.
This may alarm some of us. The operative term, though, is “struggle.” Certainly it is alarming to learn that pastors, to whom we all look up, routinely fall short of the ideal habits of healthy Christian living. Thankfully, for many pastors practicing spiritual disciplines is a struggle. It’s not that they’re failing altogether, though some probably are. Rather most pastors find the disciplines a struggle. And I hope this reality will not only result in some healthy alarm, but also a kind of comfort to the rest of us.
And while we should all find comfort in the common struggle to practice the spiritual disciplines, may we never use this as an excuse to validate our own struggle. Let us, instead, take heart together and move forward toward a greater commitment to the essential disciplines of the Christian life. Whether you are a fellow pastor or fellow church member, I hope the following three, simple encouragements will motivate us to practice spiritual disciplines with gusto.
We Practice Spiritual Discipline
This is an obvious, and yet often overlooked reality of the Christian life: it is heavily practice-oriented. We have little trouble seeing the connection between practice and our favorite sports. To win, we are willing to commit more than enough time on the practice field. Before the big presentation at work, we rehearse and rehearse. When our new recipe doesn’t turn out, we try-try-again. Even as I type this sentence, my ten-year-old daughter snuck up the stairs hoping to scare me. After failing she said, “Was that quieter? I am practicing to get better.”
It’s part of God’s design. Practice is an important part of our creaturely lives. However, for some reason, when it comes to the Christian life, we tend to believe it should just happen spontaneously. We think only weak Christians need to practice such ordinary things such as prayer and repentance. This is not true, and this fact we must embrace: spiritual disciplines require practice. The more that we understand such practice to be a normal part of life, the more quickly we will give ourselves to them.
But how can we give ourselves to the practice of these disciplines? There are many ways to answer this question. For our brief purposes here, let’s consider just one of these answers: you need a plan. We are made in the image of God, and as such, we find commonalities between the way we function. In this case, we see the place of planning within our design. Everything we know about God comes to us in the context of a plan, and we are planning creatures. So, what’s your plan to move forward with spiritual disciplines? If you need help developing a plan, here are three basic components to an effective plan:
What? – An effective plan needs to include a clear description of what you plan to accomplish. Would you like to read the Bible through in a year or six months? Would you like to grow in prayer? Do you see the benefit of fasting? Then, develop a plan for reading the Bible. You can find many good Bible reading plans online. Develop a plan for what you will pray. From what do you believe fasting is beneficial?
When? – Not only does an effective plan need to include the ‘what’ of the plan, but also the ‘when’. You may be struggling to practice spiritual disciplines simply because you have not established a regular time, or because you have not established the discipline as a personal priority of time. It’s easy to put off what we have not bothered to schedule it. Those who excel in spiritual disciplines do so, in part, by making a clear commitment of time, by scheduling times for spiritual discipline. To some this may seem ingenuous, but quite the opposite is true. If we are willing to schedule the DVR and our regular dental appointments, why would we not schedule our faithful practice of the disciplines? Do it now: take out your calendar and schedule regular time into your plan.
Why? – Finally, an effective plan needs a motive. Why do you want to practice Christian disciplines? There are many reasons. Doing so will multiply maturity, equip us for ministry and increase our joy. However, in order to enjoy the richest benefits of Christian discipline, we must maintain a uniquely Christian motive. While many motives are good and appropriate, there is one that shines beyond the rest: the pleasure of God. This is the crowning jewel of the Christian life. Why read your Bible? Why pray? Why fast? Why worship? Why steward your resources? There is no better reason to hold in our hearts than the reason of God’s pleasure. Therefore, to make progress in practicing spiritual disciplines, there is nothing better than to aim purely to please God.
Do you need to establish a better plan for Bible reading, prayer, or another discipline? Do it now.
We Practice Spiritual Disciplines
Here is a helpful truth to remember that is often lost in the quest for disciplined living: the disciplines we practice are spiritual. They are not merely practical or behavioral. The Christian life is not made of brute dos and don’ts. As we’ve seen, it is good to establish a plan for Christian discipline, but this doesn’t mean we can approach Christian discipline like a DIY project.
Those of us who have tried to grunt out our commitment to Christ have quickly found it doesn’t work. Our relationship to God and the world around us does involve a certain kind of external effort, but at its heart the Christian life is a spiritual one. Therefore, if we are to renew our commitment to biblical disciplines, we must do so as spiritual people.
You may remember Paul’s instructions to the Christians in Rome:
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).
Paul exhorts his readers to give their bodies (their lives) as a sacrifice. And then he says this sacrifice is a spiritual service of worship. In the Bible, we are consistently taught that our external lives are spiritual at heart. There is no mere behavior, no neutral behavior.
Whatever we do, our actions are in one way or another a reflection of the spiritual heart and foundation beneath them. This applies to our practice of spiritual disciplines as well. If we see our Christian efforts as mainly external sacrifices, divorced from a consistent reflection on our spiritual beliefs and commitments to Christ, we will waver tragically. Therefore, we must learn to practice spiritual disciplines from the heart; practicing them as clear and intentional expressions of our worship.
We Practice Spiritual DiscipLines
Finally, we do well to consider the intentional language of discipline. There are two ways in which the term discipline applies to the practice of Spiritual disciplines. First, they are disciplines in the sense that they stand alone. For instance, while our Bible reading is connected with prayer, fasting, stewardship, and evangelism, at the same time Bible reading is its own practice. Bible reading is a distinct piece of the Christian life, and therefore, it needs purposeful attention. It is a discipline of Christian life and growth.
Another way we can understand the language of discipline is by noting the quality of effort this term brings to mind. Practicing spiritual disciplines requires discipline itself. Christian growth does not come easily; it comes through intentional and sometimes grueling effort. Memorizing Scripture is hard work. Prayer is hard work. Even worship, when done rightly, is hard work. Without such diligent effort, we should not expect much progress. On the other hand, when we are willing to use the energy and faculties God has gracious given us, and to do so with discipline, we can expect many joyous benefits. This is simply to echo the fundamental and biblical truth, you reap what you sow.
To quote again the Apostle Paul, this time writing to the Church in Galatia:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary (Galatians 6:7-9).
When applied to the spiritual disciplines, we should know our reaping will result from our sowing. Do you want to grow? It will take discipline and discipline often hurts. But in the midst of the struggle, we have a promise: in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.
It is my sincere prayer that all of us, pastors and members, will grow in grace through our diligent practice of spiritual disciplines. The struggle is real.
Let’s not lose heart; we’re in this together.