Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life
BookRemarks are not book reviews, but topical posts inspired by books. This post was inspired primarily by by Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.
Good habits – and the discipline required to develop them – lead to success. Since the turn of the millennium, bestselling books like David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and James Clear’s Atomic Habits have offered tips on how to succeed in business and in life.
And these are but three of the books that have been published on improving our habits. There are many more out there; self-improvement is big business. Many of the tips in these types of books do work – the problem is that so few people have the willpower and discipline to follow through on the advice.
After all, our bad habits form easily. It’s easy to sit on the couch and binge Netflix shows. We can just grab a sugary soda and some chips (that are engineered to activate our brain’s pleasure center, but not satisfy it, making us crave more), and zone out for the weekend.
Good habits, however, are more difficult to form. Think of all those frequently-broken New Year’s resolutions, such as exercising more, eating more healthfully, or working toward a goal. The problem is, they require effort. So, we can get to them tomorrow, right?
The reason bad habits are so easy to form is because they have an immediate payoff – food that tickles our taste buds, sugar that gives us a dopamine rush, video games that provide an adrenaline rush.
Most good habits, however, rely on our ability to delay gratification. The payoffs aren’t realized for months or years – regular exercise leads to better health, an improved diet leads to better health, consistent investing leads to a comfortable retirement.
In fact, studies indicate that the ability to delay gratification is one of the key predictors to success. Unfortunately, immediate gratification is more enticing.
And this attitude spills over into our spiritual lives, as well. We want church services that make us feel good. We want our prayers to be answered now. We want to experience immediate, miraculous change in our lives.
After all, if God can’t even do that, then what’s He good for in our lives?
It’s easy to develop an attitude like that. We’re naturally self-centered. As discussed in a previous post, we often – and improperly – see God as a spiritual vending machine.
The best way to check our attitude is to get to know God better. And, as the apostle James wrote, “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (4:8).
This is where the topic of spiritual discipline comes into play.
In his classic book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald S. Whitney discusses ten different disciplines we can practice – that is, ten different habits we can form – that will help us draw closer to God.
Below, we will discuss five of the most important habits we can develop in our Christian walk. Please note that for many of these habits, there are both personal and communal elements. They also require commitment – the benefits of these habits only come if we practice them consistently, over a long period of time.
To grow in faith, any Christian must interact with the Bible frequently. First, we can hear the word preached on Sunday mornings by attending church regularly. But deep relationships are not forged by spending an hour a week with someone. In addition to church attendance, we should listen to Christian content as we commute to work – or complete daily chores – via radio programs, audiobooks, or podcasts.
Second, we can read the Bible for ourselves. A morning “quiet time” is an excellent way to start the day. Even fifteen minutes of reading and reflection in the morning will make a difference in our relationship with God, if we make it a daily habit. Pastor and bestselling author Chip Ingram has credited daily Bible reading as one of the things that has most significantly – and positively – impacted his life.
Third, we can also interact with what we read. We can use study Bibles or books to learn more about the historical context of the passages we read; we can meditate on what we read, and write short journal entries about what we see in the text, and how we might apply it to our lives; we can memorize verses. And so on.
(Side note: memorizing Scripture can have an added benefit, as research indicates that exercising our memory can help prevent or lessen the effects of cognitive decline and dementia.)
To study the Bible, pastor and author David Platt has recommended using the REAP method:
Read: The first thing we need to read the text. Many Bibles break the text into short sections; consider studying a book of the Bible one section at a time. Read that day’s section slowly and thoughtfully. Consider reading one of the Gospels first, perhaps the book of John. Or, you might also start with the short letter written by the apostle James.
Examine: After reading the passage, examine it closely: what is it talking about? Are there any words or ideas that are repeated or emphasized? Nouns and verbs can be particularly important. What does the passage reveal about God, Jesus, human nature, or how we should act?
Apply: Next, we should look for ways to apply the concepts in the passage to our own life. For example, is there a sinful behavior we should stop doing? Or, a command that we need to start doing? How should we change the way we behave – or even think – in light of what we have learned?
Pray: Finally, we should pray about what we’ve read. Often, we can’t change our behaviors or thought patterns on our own; we definitely can’t control everything that happens in our lives. We can always ask for guidance – and for the opportunity to share what we’ve read with others.
By using the REAP method, we can give an organized approach to our daily Bible reading.
It’s been said that the Bible is how God speaks to us, and prayer is how we speak to God. There are certainly times when we should have formal conversations with God – kneeling at the altar in church or beside our bed – but those are not the only times we should pray.
In fact, Paul instructs us to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). That is, we should have a constant, informal conversation going on with God. If something good happens, we should thank Him; if we start to worry about something, we should ask for God’s help with it.
There is a lot of overlap between the spiritual disciplines, and one way we can pray continually is to meditate on our morning Bible reading by asking God what He wants to teach us through it. We can ask Him to help us understand it, remember it, and apply it to our lives.
And, of course, we should pray in community with others – share prayer requests with other Christians, and actively pray for the needs in their lives, too. Jesus spoke about the power of two or more believers agreeing in prayer (Matthew 18:19). James also told his readers to pray for each other (5:16).
The Bible provides many examples of the power of prayer, both for individuals (e.g., Elijah in 1 Kings 18) and communities (e.g., the believers in Acts 5).
Of course, many of us can’t help but wonder, “How should I pray?”
Platt provides another helpful acronym we can use here, too:
Praise: We should acknowledge God for who and what He is (creator, holy, loving, just but merciful, powerful, etc.).
Repent: We should confess our sins, and commit to turning away from them. Ask Jesus for forgiveness.
Ask: We should ask God for help when we need it; we can ask Him for things that we want (although we won’t always get them). We can ask Him to help us get to know Him better.
Yield: Finally, we should be willing to yield to God’s will. The night before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
In other words, Jesus didn’t want to die a painful death, but he was willing to follow and accept God’s will; likewise, we must be willing to accept it when our prayers are not answered.
Next time, we’ll consider three more spiritual disciplines: Service, Evangelism, and Worship.
How often do you read your Bible and pray? Are you interested in learning how to become more consistent in these spiritual disciplines? Let us know in the comments below…