A Discussion on the Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life
Written by Dr. Frank Nuckolls
Associational Mission Strategist, Flint River Baptist Association, Griffin, Georgia USA
Adjunct Professor, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
The disciplines of a spiritual life call believers in Jesus Christ to move beyond the worldly, mundane, surface living to the explorations of the depths of a person’s spiritual realm. These spiritual disciplines are not only for the aged saints of God but for every ordinary believer. An ordinary believer includes people who have secular jobs, families, or even Pastors and leaders in the local church. Relationships are at the very vital center of these spiritual disciplines.
What do these spiritual disciplines require? Is there a primary requirement? The primary requirement of spiritual disciplines is simply a longing, a yearning, a hunger, or a thirst for God. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 42:1-2: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for You, my God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God.”
From these verses, there is the determination that the Psalmist was going through a spiritual drought. He was spiritually thirsty and had a strong desire for the water of God to nourish and restore his spiritual life. The Psalmist knew that only the water from God would quench his spiritual thirst.
This requirement, a longing or a thirst after God, results in a life that is pleasing to God. A life that is pleasing to God is not a life filled with religious duties and obligations. Rather, a life that is pleasing to God is one that experiences relationship and intimacy with God. (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 4)
Spiritual disciplines cannot earn anyone salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 remind us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Spiritual disciplines cannot earn righteousness with God. What does righteousness mean? Righteousness means to be morally right. Being morally right does not being about spiritual righteousness. Righteousness, from a spiritual viewpoint, means that a person is in right standing with God through the redeeming work of Christ. There is not a single person that can earn this righteousness. This righteousness is a gift of grace. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 5:17: “. . .those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness shall reign in life through the one-man Jesus Christ.” The reason that God has given us these spiritual disciplines is to provide a means of receiving His grace.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes it abundantly clear that grace is free, but it is not cheap. The grace of God is unearned and unearnable. If a person ever expects to grow in grace, he must pay the price of a consciously chosen course of action that involves both individual and group life. What, then, is the purpose of the spiritual disciplines? The purpose of the spiritual disciplines is spiritual growth. 2 Peter 3:17-18 reminds us: “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” The goal of the Christian life is to begin and remain in a spiritual process of growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ until the day we are called home to be with Him. The purpose of spiritual disciplines is to guide the Christian believer in the process of growing more like Jesus.
The words of the Christian hymn, “More About Jesus Would I Know” connect with this purpose of the spiritual disciplines. This hymn was written by E. E. Hewitt in 1887. The lyrics include:
“More about Jesus would I know,
More of His grace to other show;
More of His saving fulness see,
More of His love who died for me.
More about Jesus let me learn,
More of His holy will discern,
Spirit of God, my teacher be,
Showing the things of Christ to me,
More about Jesus in His Word,
Holding communion with my Lord;
Hearing His voice in every line,
Making each faithful saying mine.
More about Jesus on His throne,
Riches in glory all His own;
More of His Kingdom’s sure increase;
More of His coming, Prince of Peace.”
The Spiritual Discipline of Meditation
Our adversary, the devil—Satan, would like nothing more than to distract Christian believers and keep them from spending time meditating on God’s Word. Often, Satan will us the “busyness” of our schedules to keep us away from time with the Father. For believers to spend time with the Father in meditation and prayer, they must become priorities. Richard Foster writes in his book, Celebration of Discipline: “Christian meditation is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey His Word.”
The discipline of meditation is certainly not foreign to Scripture. In the Bible, a person can find several references to meditation. Meditation can have two specific meanings based on Scripture: listening to God’s Word and reflecting on the work of God.
God gives Joshua the charge to meditate on His Word in Joshua 1:8: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.” This verse reminds a believer on the importance of not just reading the Scripture but taking time to linger over what God is saying. In other words, there should be a desire to take time to reflect on the Scripture and allow the Holy Spirit to illumine our hearts and minds.
The psalmist writes in Psalm 1:2 a characteristic of the blessed man: “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night.” The psalmist is reminding believers that there should be time set aside for the study of Scripture daily and then time spent daily for consistent contemplation and obedience to the Scripture. This process is the result of meditation.
At the very center of meditation are the essential elements of repentance and obedience. Repentance means to take an about face. It means to take a 360-degree turn. Repentance means to turn from sin and self and to trust Christ only. The meditation of listening to the Scripture and reflecting on God’s work brings about conviction of flaws and sins in our lives. Therefore, in order to effectively meditate on God’s Word, the Bible, individuals must confess and repent of these sins. 1 John 1:9 reminds us: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The psalmist proclaims in Psalm 119:97, 101, 102 the following: “Oh how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. . . I hold my feet from every evil way, in order to keep Thy word. I do not turn aside from Thy ordinances, for Thou has taught me.” These verses remind us of the continual focus of obedience as a part of spiritual meditation.
Obedience is the result of listening to God’s Word. In 1 Samuel 3:1-18, we read the account of the old priest, Eli. Eli knew how to listen to God. Because of listening to God, he helped young Samuel know and recognize the word of the Lord.
I Kings 19:9-18 reminds us that the prophet Elijah spent many days and nights in the wilderness learning to discern the still, small voice of the God.
Isaiah saw the Lord “high and lifted up” and heard His voice distinctly say, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah then responded obediently by saying, “Here am I, Lord.” Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, discerned that God’s Word was a burning fire shut up in his bones. (Jeremiah 20:9)
Richard Foster states: “In the midst of an exceedingly busy ministry Jesus made a habit of withdrawing to a lonely place. (Matthew 14:13) He did this not just to be away from people, but so He could be with the Father. What did Jesus do time after time in these deserted hills? He sought out His Heavenly Father, He listened to Him, He communed with Him. And He beckons us to do the same.”
If Jesus withdrew to the hills to spend time with the Father, today’s ministers should also. Jesus is our model to follow. Perhaps you need to withdraw to a quiet place away from the “busyness” of life to get alone with the Father. We must set aside time to get alone with the Father. I am not talking about a twenty-minute devotional time. I am suggesting an extended time with the Father, perhaps a full day where you are not doing religious acts but simply praying, reading God’s Word, listening to His voice, and responding obediently. Your place for meditation may or may not be in the hills. Wherever your place is, it must be where nothing, no one, can distract you from hearing and responding obediently to God.
Ken Boa in his book, Conformed to His Image, provides the following suggestions to use in the practice of the discipline of meditation:
Choose one or two verses of Scripture that are meaningful to you. These verses become the theme for you daily meditation.
Set aside specific times each day for specific moments of meditation.
Visualize the concepts found in these verses. Consider the words and the historical context of these verses.
Ponder each word and phrase in these verses in order to gain as many insights as you can. Ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you through this process.
Personalize these verses and pray them back to God.
Offer praise and worship to God based on your meditation.
The world in which we live tends to cause people to live busy lives. No matter how busy a person is, he or she should still strive to spend time with the Father and meditate on His Word. Meditation should become a way of life for the Christian believer.
The Discipline of Study
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:1-2: “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.” (NASB)
The discipline of study is central to the process of renewing the mind so that an individual believer can respond in an appropriate manner to the truths of God’s Word, the Bible. Study involves not only the reading of God’s Word but active involvement in the application of its contents.
The discipline of study should center specifically on the reading and study of God’s Word, the Bible. This discipline should not be taken lightly. The reading of God’s Word should be a regular, consistent part of a believer’s life. As a believer reads and studies God’s Word, the Holy Spirit will illumine his heart and lead him to understand and apply the truths of Scripture to life.
What approach can a believer take to studying the Bible? There are many approaches for the study of God’s Word. First, I want to suggest that the believer find the right Bible translation for his personal study. This translation should not be a paraphrase but an actual translation of the Scriptures from the original languages (Hebrew and Greek). Second, a believer must identify a specific plan for his personal Bible study. Some believers identify key passages of Scripture for personal study or identify specific books in the Bible to study.
Third, some believers choose to read the Bible through from Genesis to Revelation. This reading plan can take one year or longer, depending on the amount of Scriptures read each day. I would suggest that this reading plan include every book in the Bible.
I want to suggest some guiding principles for studying the Bible. First, I believe that every believer must come to the time of study in prayer being open and honest before God. This openness will allow the believer to gain new insights from the Scriptures. Second, I believe a believer’s personal study should include the entire counsel of Scripture (the historical books, poetical books, prophetical books, as well as the Gospels and the Epistles).
Third, I want to suggest that the believer be consistent in his study of Scripture. The believer should make the study of God’s Word a regular, consistent, daily discipline. Fourth, I want to suggest that Bible commentaries and other Bible study resources be used by the believer to gain deeper insights from God’s Word.
What does a believer do when he studies the Bible? He should read specific passages of Scripture or read the Scripture based on a Bible reading or Bible study plan. As the Bible is read, the believer should write down specific Bible passages in a journal. This journal can become a key component of his personal Bible study. In addition to writing down key Scripture verses in his journal, the believer should write down the answers to two distinct questions: What is God saying to me from this Bible passage? And What did I say to God in response to what he said to me from my study of this passage?
The Discipline of Worship and Celebration
One of the great spiritual disciplines is that of worship or celebration. As a believer spends time in the study of God’s Word, a proper response is that or worship. What does it mean to worship? Worship is when a believer is fully and completely occupied with the attributes of God. These attributes include the majesty, beauty, and goodness of God and His person, power, and perfection. Often, worship involves devotional reflection on the person and work of Jesus as our mediator to the Father. Worship can also be seen corporately when believers come together in unity to honor God.
Celebration is closely connected to worship. Celebration leads a person to focus on everything that God has done on his behalf. This discipline focuses on gratitude to God instead of grumbling and indifference. Celebration, whether individual or corporate, is simply taking pleasure in amazement and joy in how good God has been to us.
Perhaps one of the most profound passages of Scripture on worship is found in John 4:23-24. In this passage, John records the words of Jesus: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and His worshippers must worship Him in spirit and truth.”
A person cannot worship God in spirit and truth unless he or she has placed faith in Jesus as the Son of God, Savior, Redeemer. Jesus reminded His disciples in John 8:32: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
When a believer worships God, he worships the attributes of God. This includes the majesty, beauty, and goodness of God along with His perfections and power. The discipline of worship defines a believer’s concept of who God is and what He has done for them.
Celebration is a vital part of the worship experience of a disciple. This celebration should focus on the believer’s gratitude to God for what He has provided for him through the gift of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, went to the Cross to shed His blood for the payment of our sins. He redeemed us. Therefore, the believer, in the discipline of worship, should celebrate and give thanks to God for His “indescribable gift.” (2 Corinthians 9:15)
The Spiritual Discipline of Solitude and Silence
The New Testament contains numerous passages that remind us of Jesus’ need for solitude. As a matter of fact, solitude was an important practice in the life of Jesus. In Mark 1:35 we read: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He got up, went out, and made His way to a deserted place. And He was praying there.” Jesus got away from the crowds to a place of solitude and silence. In this place, He spent time in prayer and listening to the Father. When a believer spends time in quiet place of solitude, God, through the Holy Spirit, will often speak to him. In order to practice the discipline of solitude, the disciple must seek to totally focus on God through prayer, Bible study, meditation, and worship. There is a need to tune out the distractions of the outside world and pray that Satan would be dismissed from the place and presence in the disciple’s life in the name of Jesus.
What are the examples of solitude in the life of Jesus? In Matthew 4:1-11, a person reads where Jesus found solitude in the wilderness as He prepared to begin His public ministry. In Luke 6:12-13, there is the account of Jesus finding solitude in the mountain as He prepared to call His twelve disciples. In the solitude of the Garden, Jesus prepared to sacrifice His life for the sins of the entire world. (Matthew 26:36-46)
Finding time for solitude requires planning. Whether various times of the day are set aside for solitude of whether it is extended times of solitude, a disciple must seek to plan. It is good to set aside a place and a time for meeting alone with God each day. In addition, planning for an extended time to get alone with God in solitude can be good for a person in order to get away and have solitude, silence, prayer, and reflection.
I have been in ministry now for forty-three years. As a young minister (many years ago), I set aside a time for a silent retreat. This retreat was a time of solitude, silence, prayer, and reflection. The only thing I took to this retreat was my Bible and a journal. I traveled about thirty miles to a monastery, The Monastery of the Holy Spirit. There I spent time walking the grounds of the monastery, praying, reading the Bible, and just sitting in solitude to spend time to the Father. I ate lunch with the monks that day. Even at lunch there was silence and solitude. The only words spoken at the meal were the blessing for the food. That retreat was a turning point in my spiritual life. God spoke to me in the silence of that day. As a young minister, I was debating my call from God to ministry. I was facing a challenging ministry in the local church and did not know what to do. During this silent, spiritual retreat, God spoke to me, re-affirmed His call on my life to ministry, and I found a new power and energy to face the challenges before. This power that I found was a refilling of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, this silent retreat was a turning point in my life and ministry.
Silence provides depth to those times of solitude. The discipline of silence encourages a believer, a disciple of the Lord Jesus, to grow through being quiet and trusting God. The psalmist reminds us in Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
Our silence before God can provide the opportunity before God for the believer, the disciple, to listen with our spirit for Him and enjoy His divine presence. The purpose of solitude and silence is to not just to get away from the hustle and bustle of life and the world around us but to see and hear from God, through His still, small voice.
The Spiritual Discipline of Prayer
Prayer is the means by which God can and will transform a person. The closer a person comes to God through prayer the more he will see the need to be transformed and conformed to Christ. In Luke 11, the Bible records an encounter where the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. This passage contains “The Model Prayer” or “The Lord’s Prayer.”
The disciples had prayed most of their lives yet something about the quality and quantity of Jesus’ praying caused them to want to know more about prayer. The concept of praying or communicating with God or talking directly and openly with Him is one of the greatest truths of Scripture. So, why then should we pray? I want to provide some good reasons for praying. First, according to Psalm 116:1-2, praying enhances the believer’s fellowship and intimacy with God. Second, the Bible, the Scriptures, provide the disciple with the command to pray. This fact is confirmed in Ephesians 6:18.
Third, the prayer of the disciple should follow the examples of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The following Scriptures support these examples: Mark 1:35, Numbers 11:2, and 1 Kings 18:36-37. Fourth, prayer provides the power of God in the life of the believer. Acts 4:31 reminds us: “When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak God’s message with boldness.”
Hebrews 4:16 tells us: “Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time.” This verse provides the basis for the fifth reason for praying. This reason is that God provides special grace when we pray. This grace is viewed as the unmerited favor of God. Sixth, prayer can lead the disciple to develop a stronger understanding and knowledge of God. Psalm 37:3-6 provides the Scriptural support for this reason.
Seventh, Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:6-7 that our prayers and God’s answer to prayers give the disciple both joy and peace in his peace in his heart. Philippians 4:6-7 reads: “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Prayer is a powerful spiritual discipline. Prayer can change things. Prayer can bring forth personal godliness and holiness. E.M. Bounds writes in his great book on prayer, Preacher and Prayer, these words: “Prayer-secret, fervent, believing prayer—lies at the root of all personal godliness.” The disciple today, the preacher of the Gospel today must spend time alone with God in prayer in order to find the spiritual power needed to live a live above reproach, a life of personal godliness and holiness. This spiritual power found in a personal discipline of prayer will empower the preacher to lead the church to withstand the forces of evil. Likewise, E.M. Bounds reminds us that prayer leads preachers to yearn after God and become “men who can set the Church ablaze for God; not in a noisy, showy way, but with an intense and quiet heat that melts and moves everything for God.”
Helmut Thielicke, a theologian, once noted that “prayer is no longer the active soil of our life, our home, the air we breathe. We should not only seek to pray one or more times during the day. We should be conscious of the presence of God throughout the day.
When a disciple sets aside time to pray, he must choose the best time and place for prayer. He must focus consistently on God and God alone. A disciple should pray humbly and expectantly. The reading of Scripture is a vital component of prayer. Pray the Scriptures back to God. Through prayer, a disciple must practice the presence of God.
Image is copyrighted by Frank Nuckolls.