Why Spiritual Disciplines Are Important
If you want to get in shape, you have to have discipline. Either discipline to exercise or count calories. So many Christians are powerless and don’t see transformation in their lives because they are so undisciplined in spiritual matters. We live in a culture of comfort and convenience that has tainted our spiritual lives. Playwright George Kaufman was enduring a sales pitch from a man selling stakes in a gold mine. The salesman told him, “This mine is so rich, you can pick up chunks of gold off the ground!” To which Kaufman responded, “You mean I would actually have to bend over?”
I learned in training for a marathon you can’t just run. You have to do other exercises. I talked with a number of personal trainers and asked them what are the best exercises for overall good fitness. When I compiled all of their answers (which were very similar) I had a list of over a dozen basic exercises that cover numerous areas of fitness such cardio, strength, core, and flexibiltity.
The same is true for our spiritual health. There are a number of areas where we must practice discipline if we are to grow. These areas include Bible study, prayer, worship, service, stewardship, and sharing/defending the faith. If all we did was just one exercise, other parts of our body would go lacking. For example, have you ever seen that guy in the gym who does noting but work out his upper body? He has huge arms, shoulders, chest, etc., but his legs looks like toothpicks!
We can’t just work all the time at serving, but fail to study and pray. We can’t work at studying if we never go out and put it into practice through serving and sharing the Gospel with others. My plan is to write a series of posts on the basic spiritual disciplines, but I want to start with looking at the topic from a general perspective. It seems to me that Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 1 Tim. 4:6-10 is a good place to start.
1 Tim. 4:6-10- “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”
A key word in this text is “godliness.” We do discipline with the goal of godliness. The word literally means reverence, but a reverence that leads to action. Like Isaiah who was filled with awe at the vision of God, but then took action. Isa. 6:8- “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’” Isaiah didn’t say, “Thanks for the show God” and then left unmoved. Godliness means we are filled with awe at God, filled with overwhelming appreciation that he would die for us, and bless us, and give to us, and comfort us- and then we go take action in response to that!
Godliness is active. It is not just piety that sits with bowed head and folded hands. It is worship that leads to obedience every day of the week. So, how can we develop spiritual discipline that leads to godliness?
Good Teaching: Godliness Requires the Proper Diet
To get in shape you must eat right. You can’t do this eating Twinkies. Paul says to first reject junk food. Note the phrase “Old wives tales” in v.7 is sarcasm. The phrase was used in Greek polemics of something that had no credibility. Don’t believe everything! Instead, consume good spiritual food. In v. 6 Paul says be nourished on words of faith and sound doctrine. 2 Tim. 2:15- “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” We need to saturate ourselves with the Word of God, good, sound teaching, good books, music, etc. In essence, we grow in godliness when we are disciplined to put good stuff around us- an athlete in training doesn’t go to Taco Bell for every single meal.
Note the phrase “in pointing out these things” in v.6. This means if you are a minister or teacher, lay out good food in front of your parishioners and students. If you are a parent, lay out good food in front of your kids. Good parents don’t serve Ding-Dong casserole topped with Cheetos every meal! The right diet is essential for spiritual fitness.
Godly Training: Godliness Requires the Proper Exercise
Getting in shape means not just the right food, but also the right exercise. The word “discipline” in v.7 is also translated “train.” The word referred to intensive physical training- hard work, sweat, discipline. We kill ourselves to lose weight, build muscle, and run long distances. It’s tragic that we will do this because we are so dialed in to the world’s definition of beauty. The world says what determines your beauty is what you physically look like. A recent news story revealed that a size 6 is now considered a plus size by many in the fashion industry. That’s interesting when over 50% of the women in this country wear a 14 or larger. It’s not reality and it isn’t true. However, God says what makes you beautiful is what’s on the inside- your heart and character. Prov. 31:30- “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
We strive to physically to look good, but when it comes to disciplining ourselves spiritually we hesitate. Are we more passionate about what we look like than growing in the Lord so we give more effort to that? Some criticize spiritual discipline because they say it is legalism. I disagree. Legalism is self-centered, spiritual discipline is God-centered. Legalism says I will do this in efforts to earn merit with God. Discipline says I will do this because I love him and want to please him regardless of what I get.
We need to remember that spiritual discipline is not me earning anything. It’s not even me growing in the Lord in my own strength. Paul had great energy for the Lord and great discipline, but he said in 1 Cor. 15:10- “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Paul gives a huge reason why our spiritual discipline should excel our physical discipline in v.8. Physical exercise is of temporal benefit. Stop exercising and eating right and the flab comes back. Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 146: “Why so large cost, having so short a lease. Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?” That’s a fair question. Why do we spend so much time, energy, and effort on a lease that eventually runs out. But spiritual discipline lasts for eternity.
Global Task: Godliness Requires the Proper Mission
Why train if there is no event or goal? Imagine playing football without an endzone. Why would an Olympic athlete give so much for four years except to perform in their event? Don Whitney shares the illustration of a boy strumming “Home on the Range” on his guitar while he looks out the window and watches his friends play ball in the park. That is discipline without direction. It is drudgery. But suppose an angel came to this boy and showed him a vision of a man playing the guitar in Carnegie Hall in front of thousands of people making the guitar sing like he thought could not be done. The angel says to the boy, “That man is you. But you have to practice!” Suddenly the boy’s practice on the guitar is no longer drudgery. He has direction, a goal.
Why should we work hard at spiritual disciplines? Two reasons:
First, as already noted, spiritual exercise counts for eternity, physical exercise does not. Imagine an athlete spends thousands of hours and years of practice to run a 10 second race. In a flash- it’s over. But spiritual discipline leads to lifelong transformation that stores treasure for you in heaven for all eternity.
Two, v.10 reveals we have the goal of sharing our faith with the world. We discipline ourselves spiritually so we can tell and live by example the gospel of Jesus Christ- the Savior of all men who believe. We labor and strive because our hope is fixed on Jesus Christ (v.10). Spiritual discipline does not earn our way to heaven, but passion for growing in Christ and being transformed by Him is fruit/evidence that we have indeed been saved. When we give of ourselves and discipline ourselves and pay the cost it shows that our faith is not in vain. Our hope is not placed in a false hope, but the true, saving hope of Jesus.