Spiritual Disciplines Intro
I have a friend who is a personal trainer. And if you are interested in becoming a fitter person, Josh could tell you how to do that. I’m sure you’ve already figured it out, but he’s my friend, not my trainer.
But if you wanted to become fitter and healthier, Josh is the guy. And if that was your goal, he would give you a routine of various exercises to do. Some you would do on some days and others you would do on other days.
It would be great if Josh could provide you with one exercise that would benefit your entire body, kind of a one-and-done type thing. Do this one thing ten times and presto change oh, you would be healthy fit and attractive. There was a time when I would suggest whom you might look like, either male or female. But that is no longer a safe or wise distinction to make, for various reasons. Needless to say, if you close your eyes and think about it, you can picture what it means to be fit and attractive.
However, there is no magic bullet, no one exercise that will benefit every part of your body and make you healthy and attractive and fit, looking like that person whom you pictured in your mind moments ago.
It doesn’t work that way.
Instead, there are exercises that you could do if you wanted to develop your pecs, which would be your chest, you could do push-ups or bench presses or chest flys.
On the other hand, if you wanted to firm up your glutes, that would be your butt, those exercises wouldn’t help at all. Instead, you’d want to do step-ups, fire hydrants or the infamous Bulgarian Split Squats.
And, then there are the exercises that you would need to do in order to develop your legs and arms. Because if you don’t focus on all the various parts of your body, you will end up unbalanced physically.
Perhaps you would have a great deal of upper body strength but very little strength in your legs, looking something like this.
I get tired just thinking about it, and that’s why Josh is my friend and not my trainer, and why I look like this and not like whomever it was that you were picturing in your mind just moments ago.
In the scripture that was read this morning, Paul is writing to a young pastor by the name of Timothy, and he reminds him of how important it is to not only be fit physically but also to be fit spiritually.
He reminds Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:8 “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.”
This is a theme that Paul comes back to time and time again. As a matter of fact, as I was working on this message, I realized that Paul must have been an athlete, because of the number of times he uses physical exercise and training as an analogy for our Christian life.
As preachers, we tend to gravitate toward what’s familiar to us. I tell sea stories, because before becoming a preacher I spent my time at sea, on Salvage Tugs, Oil Tankers and offshore fishing boats. It’s what’s familiar to me.
I have a friend who loves hockey, both the playing and the watching, and his preaching is full of hockey metaphors.
Listen to some of the things that Paul tells us,
1 Corinthians 9:24–27 Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.
Philippians 2:16 Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless.
Galatians 5:7 You were running the race so well. Who has held you back from following the truth?
2 Timothy 2:5 And athletes cannot win the prize unless they follow the rules.
Elias L. Taylor Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Coppin State University writes, “Although there is no documented evidence that Paul was an athlete, this qualitative analysis of Alexandrine Greek text, which Paul used to write his epistles, as well as archaeological evidence, points out Paul’s usage of many athletic/sport related references (words) in spreading his evangelical message. In the arena of Christian spiritual contests, Paul was an exceptional Isthmian “athlete”.”
Over the next six weeks, we are going to be focusing on the subject of Spiritual Disciplines, or training for Godliness as Paul refers to it.
We’ll be looking at what those things are and why they are important part of our Christian life.
However, before we can discover what spiritual disciplines are, we should first define what they are not.
First, Spiritual Disciplines are Not a way to Salvation.
We’ve been down this road before, but regardless of what you think or what anyone tells you, you cannot earn your way into heaven.
You will never be good enough, holy enough or righteous enough to earn your salvation. That’s why the bible reminds us in Isaiah 64:6 We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.
We want to be able to earn our way, but how holy is holy enough? The Bible tells us that none of us are righteous, that we are all infected and impure with sin. And if that applies to the Mother Theresas and Billy Grahams of the world, where does that leave the rest of us?
And some religions require you to do this or do that to earn your way into heaven.
They tell you that if you want to achieve salvation, heaven, nirvana or whatever they might call it, you have to eat this or not eat that. You have to pray a certain number of times a day in a prescribed way, and you must meditate for so long and recite various mantras. And then, after you have done all the things you should do. If you don’t do any of the things you shouldn’t do, you can hope for the best.
Bill Hybels reminds us in Becoming a Contagious Christian, “Religion is spelled ‘D-O’, because it consists of the things people do to try to somehow gain God’s forgiveness and favour. But the problem is that you never know when you’ve done enough. But thankfully, Christianity is spelled differently. It’s spelled ‘D-O-N-E’, which means that what we could never do for ourselves, Christ has already done for us. To become a real Christian is to humbly receive God’s gift of forgiveness and to commit to following His leadership.”
And the bible sums it up in Ephesians 2:8–10 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
And again, we are told in Acts 15:11 We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.
Salvation isn’t a reward. It is a gift. The gift that is given to us is the fact that Jesus died on the cross so that the penalty for our sin would be paid.
But like other gifts, the gift of salvation must be accepted and acknowledged before it can do you any good.
In the same way, Spiritual Disciplines Are Not a Way to Earn Favour With God.
Once you have accepted the gift of salvation, you don’t have to continually earn God’s favour by performing various tasks. You don’t have to download new updates constantly.
Spiritual disciplines aren’t a means of proving how good you are so you can stay on God’s good side.
They aren’t things that you do for extra credit. Have you ever taken a school course where you were told that you could obtain extra points by doing extra things? When I was teaching at Kingswood and explained the syllabus for my class, I broke down where the student’s marks came from and explained that there was always 10% if I liked a student.
And I explained that I started the course by liking all my students, and all they had to do to earn that 10% was by not being a jerk or annoying. I figured most profs did that, but I was simply being upfront and honest about it.
Now in saying that, understand that while the disciplines themselves don’t grant us favour with God, their outcomes will draw us closer to God.
Sometimes people try to create tension between spiritual disciplines and grace. They declare that they are saved by Grace, not by works. And that’s true, but as Christians, or followers of Christ, we should desire to draw closer to God and to follow more closely to Jesus. And if there are things we can do to help facilitate those goals, that would be a good thing.
When Jesus called people, he didn’t just call them. He called them to follow him, like in Matthew 9:9. As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.
But, if we are going to follow Jesus, we need to know where Jesus is going, and that is the purpose of spiritual discipline. They don’t earn us extra points, but they help us to understand what is expected of us as disciples and followers of Jesus by drawing us closer to him.
And these disciplines aren’t done for God’s benefit. They are done for our benefit. God is God, God doesn’t need our prayers, and God doesn’t need us to read our bibles more. But we do.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor who died under the Nazis, and he wrote, “we must therefore attempt to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship. Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship.”
And thirdly, Spiritual Disciplines Are Not a Measure of our Spirituality.
Spiritual disciplines become a burden when we think God measures our spirituality based on specific behaviours and spiritual disciplines.
Of what we do and how we do them.
We need to understand that Spiritual disciplines are things we do; they aren’t a measure of who we are.
And they aren’t a way to manipulate or bargain with God.
“God, if you do this for me, then in return, I will fast, pray more, and read my bible more.” That’s not the way it works.
So, the fact that you practice some or many of the spiritual disciplines doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a spiritual giant or a better Christian than others or holier than others.
Because you don’t have to be spiritual to practice spiritual disciplines, or for that matter, you don’t even have to be a Christian to practice spiritual disciplines.
Sometimes people equate the doing with the being, and they don’t always correlate.
In Matthew 5:20, Jesus spoke about the righteousness of the Pharisees, and these guys had it down pat; Jesus talked about how they fasted and prayed and even spoke about their giving habits.
They knew the scriptures inside and out. It would seem that they were really good at some of the things defined as Spiritual Disciplines. However, Jesus warned them that as attractive as their spiritual exercises made them appear on the outside, they really didn’t change what was on the inside. He said they were like cups and bowls that had been washed on the outside but were still filthy inside where it actually meant something.
He described them as being like tombs that had been whitewashed, but that didn’t change the fact that they were still filled with the bones of dead people.
We want to be more like Jesus, and we need to understand that while God does the transforming, spiritual disciplines put us in a place where the transforming can happen.
And fourthly Spiritual Disciplines are Not Always the Same for Everyone and Every Time
Sometimes, when we find something that works well for us, we think it will work equally as well for everyone else.
And not just in our spiritual lives.
If you’ve been around Cornerstone for a while, you’ll know that I used to be even larger than I am now. Since 2016, I’ve lost 70 lbs, and when people ask me how I tell them.
Recommending the weight loss program that I followed and worked for me is helpful. But if I insisted that what worked for me was the only way for them to lose weight, that wouldn’t be quite so helpful.
And so, for some people, they discover the best way for them to connect with God is via scripture reading, that God speaks to them through the scriptures. But someone else might connect better with God through solitude or prayer, that is how they hear from God.
God created us unique, and he connects with us in unique ways. And how he connects with you might not be how he connects with me. Now that’s not to say that scripture reading, prayer, and fasting aren’t things every Christian should do. They are, but often we need to focus on them at different times in our lives.
And you are thinking, great, if I didn’t already feel guilty enough about not reading my bible enough or not praying enough, now Denn is going to dump even more guilt on me.
When I was preparing this message, I thought, “You know, Spiritual Disciplines are a lot like the Pirate code.”
And you’ll remember what Hector Barbossa said, “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
Over the past two thousand years, men and women have found these practices to be helpful guidelines for growing closer to God. When we turn them into rules that have to be followed, then instead of being helpful, they become a burden. Instead of being a means to grace, they become a form of legalism and rule-keeping.
David Burnette writes, “Remember, the ultimate goal is not to complete a Bible reading plan or to pray for fifteen minutes a day; those are a means to an end. The ultimate goal is to grow in your love for God.”
And there are seasons in our Christian lives when we need help growing closer to God, which may come through scripture reading, prayer, solitude, or fasting.
In his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, John Ortberg explains, “If my problem is that I am doing something I out not do to, I need to practice a discipline that strengthens my not-doing muscles.”
And so, we don’t just try to become more godly, we train to become more godly.
Twenty years ago, Harvey MacKay wrote a book about networking in business, and it was entitled, Dig your Well before you are thirsty. And the premise was that there are all kinds of people that you will need in your business and your life, and you should build a relationship with them before you need them.
The premise is the same here. You should have developed those strengths before you need them in a panic.
And there is a big difference between trying to do something and training to do something. Trying to do something is often simply wishful thinking. Training to do something helps make that a reality.
I could leave the building this morning and try to run a marathon. And that isn’t going to happen. Instead, I would first need to train to run a marathon. That’s not going to happen either; remember, this is just an illustration.
There are many things that I admire about my father. I brag about how he had dropped out of school before high school and yet returned to navigation school in his thirties and had to learn advanced mathematics for his courses in navigation and ship stability. I marvelled at how he could handle the salvage tugs that he skippered. Yet one of the things that impressed me from a very early age was how he could crack an egg with one hand. Has anyone here mastered that?
And I remember, as a teenager asking him to show me how, and he showed me how to hold the egg, tap it on a flat counter, and then how to pull it open with my fingers.
And it seemed simple enough, but when I tried it, what a mess. And then he said these magic words, “You just need to practice.” And I knew right then and there that I was happy using both hands to crack my eggs.
I was quite willing to try and do it, but I wasn’t willing to train to do it.
Phillip Brooks wrote, “We will never become truly spiritual by sitting down and wishing to become so.”
After spending most of this message telling you what spiritual disciplines aren’t, let’s tell you very briefly what they are
Collins Dictionary defines Disciplines this way, 1. training or conditions imposed for the improvement of physical powers, self-control, etc.
And while that might not be helpful, here is how Donald Whitney, author of, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, defines spiritual disciplines, “Spiritual Disciplines are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times. They are the means of blessings for followers of Jesus and a part of their growth in godliness.”
The website Zondervan Academic defines them this way, “The spiritual disciplines are the product of a synergy between divine and human initiative, and they serve us as means of grace insofar as they bring our personalities under the lordship of Christ and the control of the Spirit.”
The website goes on to say, “The disciplines of the faith are never ends in themselves but means to the end of knowing, loving, and trusting God. As we implement them in a consistent way, we cultivate holy habits. As these habits grow, they guide our behaviour and character in such a way that it becomes more natural for us to live out our new identities in Christ.”
Hannah Whitall Smith was a lay preacher and author in the Holiness movement. A hundred and fifty years ago, she wrote, “The standard of practical holy living has been so low among Christians that very often the person who tries to practice spiritual disciplines in everyday life is looked upon with disapproval by a large portion of the Church. And for the most part, the followers of Jesus Christ are satisfied with a life so conformed to the world, and so like it in almost every respect, that to a casual observer, there is no difference between the Christian and the pagan.”
Let me end this morning with the words of Jesus’ brother James to the early church, we read in James 4:8 Come close to God, and God will come close to you. . .