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Spiritual Disciplines

Since he had to be out of town, Brother William asked me to share some of my thoughts tonight regarding the spiritual disciplines.  And we talked about this a little bit before I agreed to do it.  I've been a Christian for over 30 years, so he assumed that I had some experience, and I do.  Unfortunately, my experience is very checkered.  There have been a few times in my life when I've been faithful and consistent in my practice of spiritual disciplines.  But more often than not I've been very inconsistent, even inexcusably negligent.  So what I have to offer this evening, I offer from a sense of my own inadequacy and failure.

I wanted to say that for two reasons:  One is to reassure you that no matter how badly you've failed in your own practice of spiritual disciplines, that experience is not in any way unique to you.  I would be surprised if there is even one person here who has not struggled to some degree with spiritual disciplines.  The other reason is that I feel that I need to confess my own faults to you in order to be honest, and in order to be accountable to you for my own spiritual progress.  I sincerely hope that's an attitude that grows stronger in my own heart, and in yours as well, as Brother William leads us through this series. 

WHAT WE MEAN BY SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES

[READ 1 Timothy 4:7-8]  The phrase we want to focus on in this passage is "train yourself for godliness" or "Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness," as the NASB reads.  The Greek word for "train" in v.7 is an athletic term that conveys the idea of rigorous, persistent, sacrificial discipline.  So the clear command here (and it is a command, not a suggestion) is for us to rigorously, persistently exercise or discipline ourselves, for a specific purpose.  And what is that?  For the purpose of godliness.  There's a word don't use nearly as much as we should.  Godliness.  And as v.8 implies, it's impossible to calculate the value of godliness.  It promises us benefits both in this life, and more important, in the life to come.

Not only did Paul instruct Timothy (and us) to discipline ourselves, he practiced vigorous discipline himself [READ 1 Cor. 9:24-27].  For the sake of his own soul, so that he would not be disqualified from the race, but would instead receive an imperishable wreath at the end of his race, Paul vigorously disciplined himself.

As we saw in Philippians 2 this morning, we're commanded to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling," and the only thing I want to point out about that phrase is the word "work."  There is no such thing as work without effort.  The first rather obvious point that I need to make about all spiritual disciplines is that they all require some effort on our part in order to reap spiritual dividends.  For every one of us, that means we will have to make specific, concrete changes: We will have to begin doing some things that we're not now doing, and we will have to stop doing some things that we are now doing.  I say that so you that we can all mentally prepare ourselves this evening to make some real changes in our lives in the days and months and years ahead.  I doubt that any of us would dare say that we're fine the way we are; that we don't need to make any changes in our habits or schedules or daily routines in order to more diligently train ourselves for godliness.  I know that I need to make some changes.  So let's prepare our hearts and our minds to do just that.

There have been a lot of books written on the subject of spiritual disciplines.  As you would expect, some are good, and some are not so good.  One of the authors who's written quite a bit on the subject is Donald Whitney, who is a professor at Southern Seminary, and I can wholeheartedly recommend anything that he's written.  In one of his books, Whitney defines spiritual disciplines as "the God-ordained means by which we bring ourselves before God, experience Him, and are changed into Christ-likeness."  These "God-ordained means" are all of the intentional, habitual practices, either commanded or modeled in Scripture, that foster a life of godliness.

As you can see from that definition, there are a lot of Biblical practices that might come under the heading of spiritual disciplines.  Here's just a partial list of the things that different Bible teachers consider either personal or corporate spiritual disciplines:  Fasting, Prayer, Solitude, Bible Reading, Meditation on Scripture, Singing, Giving, Confessing Faults To One Another, Submission, Service, Evangelism, Congregational Worship, Fellowship, Family Worship, Showing Hospitality; and I could go on and on.  Again, you can think of all of these as the means God has given us and commanded us to use in our quest to know Him better and to become more like Him.

I want to take just a few minutes now to share with you a couple of things I've found helpful over the years, and a few dangers I think we need to guard against as we take spiritual discipline more seriously.

A FEW OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS I'VE LEARNED

1. The value of structure.  I assume everyone here has seen a mold of some sort.  Even most of our kids have played with Play-Doh molds.  Structure works like a mold.  You create a mold (a time, a place, a plan) for any of the spiritual disciplines, and then fill it with substance.  For instance, establish a time, a place, and a plan for reading your Bible and praying, and then pour your heart into praying and reading.  Establish a time, a place, and a plan for giving, and then give freely and cheerfully.  We create the mold, and the we fill it with substance; we pour our heart into it.

2. As a general rule, some disciplines, such as meditation on Scripture and prayer, should be practiced together.  First, let me say that reading and meditating on Scripture are two of the most important spiritual disciplines.  And in one sense, it's unwise to separate Scripture from any of the spiritual disciplines.  If a spiritual discipline is not firmly rooted in Scripture, then I doubt it has any real value, no matter how spiritual it might sound.   But that's not exactly my point.  I'm thinking now about the importance of practicing some spiritual disciplines together.  I think we can learn a vital lesson from George Mueller, who was a man of tremendous faith and prayer.  And as an aside, I encourage your to read anything you can get your hands on by or about George Mueller.  This is what he had to say about keeping prayer and meditation on God's word together:

I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished...

Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer, after having dressed in the morning. Now I saw, that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord. I began therefore, to meditate on the New Testament, from the beginning, early in the morning.

The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord's blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God; searching, as it were, into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word; not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon; but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer.

I think there's great wisdom in those words.  We need to learn to let the Word of God ignite our prayer and set our hearts on fire.

3. Invest yourself in others.  [READ Hebrews 5:12.]  According to this verse, there is an expectation that everyone who's been a Christian for a while should be able to lead or teach others in some sense or in some capacity.  I think this means, at the very least, that we should be able to teach those in our own homes.  I don't have time to elaborate on this now, but family worship has always been, both in Scripture and in church history, a vital spiritual discipline.  It was a top priority in the first two centuries of the church, but eventually the practice was lost.  So when the Reformation came along, one of the well-documented goals of the Reformers was to restore the practice of daily family worship; not daily private worship (although that was important too), but daily family worship.  That's a little bit of an aside, but my main point is that investing yourself in others is a tremendous aid in growing in many of the key spiritual disciplines.  As you begin to lead and teach your family and others outside of your family, you become acutely aware of your own inadequacies.  I never feel more inadequate than when I stand here to teach.  Now that may not sound like a good thing, but it is, because it drives you to a deeper dependence on the Lord in prayer and Bible study and service and confessing you faults and many other spiritual disciplines.  Invest yourself in others.  All of us are called to do that in some capacity.

SOME DANGERS TO RECOGNIZE AND AVOID

For the most part, this is simply a list of some of the mistakes I've made, or that I've seen others make.  I offer these in the hope that at least some of them may be helpful to you.

1. Beware of the danger of human reasoning.  When God tells us to do something, we should do it whether we understand why or not.  It's very possible to over-think some things in the Christian life.  Here's an example from my own experience.  I can begin with knowing that God is Sovereign and that He does all that He pleases in heaven and on earth, as the Bible clearly teaches, and reason my way to wondering what difference my puny, pitiful prayers could possibly make to the All-powerful, All-knowing God of the universe.  I'm ashamed to say I've struggled with that.  I hope it's obvious how foolish it is to take what God has revealed about Himself and then use it to reason away what He's clearly commanded.  I've used prayer to illustrate this danger, but we could make the same mistake with any of the spiritual disciplines.

2. Beware of the danger of distractions.  We probably have more ways to be distracted, and even to intentionally distract ourselves, than any other generation in history.  We can punch a button before we even get out of bed and be distracted, if we want.  We have TV, and movies, and the internet, and video games, and iPods, and sports, and leisure time, and business deals, and home repairs, and a thousand other things to distract us from the one thing that really matters.  And even if we put all of those things we aside, we can be distracted by just thinking about them.  There was a line in a song years ago that really struck me the first time I heard it: "The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the giver of all good things."  That's so true.  We can't allow the stuff of earth to distract us and compete for our allegiance to the Lord.

3. Beware of the danger of guilt and condemnation.  When we sin, what is the one thing we most desperately need to do?  Turn to the Lord.  On the other hand, when we sin what is the one thing that we're often the most hesitant to do?  Turn to the Lord.  When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they hid in the garden.  Ever since then, we instinctively hide ourselves from God when we sin.  But the worst thing we can ever do is withdraw from God when we most desperately need to turn to Him.  Allowing guilt and condemnation to grow and fester in our hearts will absolutely cripple us.  That's something I want you to remember throughout this series.  Every one of us will try, maybe harder than we ever have, to implement these spiritual disciplines.  And sometimes we will fail, and fail miserably.  That's when you'll find guilt and condemnation and despair crouching at your door, tempting you to quit trying.  Thoughts like this will run through your head:  "You can't do it."  "Just give up."  I know, because I've heard those thoughts have run through my head so many times.  When that happens, immediately take all of your failure and guilt and condemnation to Christ.  Receive his forgiveness and grace and get right back up and discipline yourself.

4. Beware of the danger of legalism.  There is a relentless pull on us as fallen creatures to focus on our own performance instead of focusing on Christ.  I think this may be especially true when we try to take spiritual disciplines seriously.  When we think we perform well, we're happy; when we think we don't, we're discouraged.  In reality, what we think about our performance is a pretty poor indicator of either success or failure.  It's not that there's anything wrong with self-examination.  In fact, I think it's extremely important.  But it's even more important, once we've taken a good hard look at ourselves, to turn our eyes back to Christ.  Robert Murray M'Cheyne, another man you should find out as much about as you can, once said, "For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ."  Listen to me.  We will never change if our focus is always inward.  All lasting change comes from a Christ-ward focus. [2 Cor. 3:18]  And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.  It is only in beholding, in fixing our eyes on the glory of the Lord (not on our own performance) that we are transformed into the likeness of Christ.

5. Beware of using the danger of legalism as an excuse not to discipline yourself.  Did you know that your heart is deceitful?  The Bible says it is (Jer. 17:9).  We can invent all kinds of ways to excuse our disobedience.  Knowing that legalism is a very real danger, you can fool yourself into thinking that you can avoid that danger by avoiding a disciplined life.  That's a lie.  Don't believe it.  Neglecting the spiritual disciplines is not an option for any of us, for any reason.

6. Beware of viewing the path of spiritual discipline as a joyless path.  The kingdom of God is full of paradox.  The way up is down.  If you want to save your life, you have to lose it.  The greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all.  You can only find true freedom by becoming a slave of Christ Jesus.  And Hebrews 12:2 says that for the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross.  For the joy set before us, for the infinite pleasure of knowing Christ, we discipline ourselves.

By God's grace, let's all strive together to make our lives a relentless pursuit of joy in God.  The only way for us to do that is to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness.  Fast and pray, saturate your heart and mind with God's Word, gather with brothers and sisters for worship, sing, be a cheerful giver, serve each other and encourage each other, confess your faults to one another, and do it all for the unspeakable joy and privilege of becoming like Christ, the One who purchased our lives with His own blood.  With His own blood!  No amount of discipline, no sacrifice we could ever make for Him, would be too great.  He's worthy.  He's worthy of it all.

IN CLOSING

I hope and I pray: (1st) that each one of us would diligently use all of the means God has given us to know Him; and (2nd) that we would do everything in our power to spur each other to do the same.  We need each other.  And as we discipline ourselves, we also need to remember God's promise in 1 Timothy 4:8, that we will reap invaluable benefits from it, both in this life and in the life to come.  What a promise!  Righteousness, peace, and joy await us, now and for eternity.  Amen.

Brother William wanted me to take a few minutes and ask you if there's anything in particular that any of you would like to share either from Scripture or from your own experience that you think might help us be more diligent in our practice of the spiritual disciplines.  [Discussion time]

~ Barry Wallace ~

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 30 July 2008 )

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