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Spiritual Disciplines - An Introduction
1Tim.4 :7-8 "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."
To Be Like Jesus
God’s plan for us as Christians is that we should be transformed so that we become more and more like Jesus.
Rom.8:29 "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,"
And what is more he is determined that his plan will be carried out successfully. Every true disciple of Jesus Christ will be made like him when Jesus returns in glory:
1Jn.3:2 "Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is."
Now we don’t understand this to mean that we will somehow be made to look like Jesus physically – but rather we understand this to mean that our entire character, both morally and spiritually, will be brought to resemble his.
If you are a Christian this evening then this is what lies ahead for you and it is something wonderfully glorious.
God is determined to have all his family members share in the family likeness and has a number of means to achieve his goal. In making us like Jesus he has three main ways of proceeding – and he will usually use each of them in each of our lives.
First, he uses other people. Sometimes it will be lovely people whose presence in our lives will serve to inspire and encourage us. Sometimes it will be awful people who are difficult to get on with and they will have to bump into us a lot to knock off some of our hard edges. The writer of Proverbs described the beneficial effect of coming into contact with other people:
Prov.27:17 "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another."
The preacher of Ecclesiastes too knew the value of companionship:
Eccl.4:9-11 "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?"
Second, God uses circumstances:
The classic verse here would be Rom.8:28:
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (NIV)
Paul also wrote about circumstances to the Philippians:
Phil.4:11-12 "Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need."
With both of these measures God works on us from the outside using elements that are outside of our control. His third major means is different. He works internally through our own use of the spiritual disciplines. The exercise of these is under our control. We can choose, for example, whether we will read the Bible or not, whether we will pray or not, whether we will fast or not etc. etc.
The exercise of these disciplines is a means of receiving his grace which is freely given to us that we might grow.
Knowing then that God’s purpose is to make us like Christ and knowing too that he uses means to attain his purposes we should not expect to sit back and quietly wait for it all to inevitably happen: God expects us to actively pursue holiness:
Heb.12:14 "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord."
That word strive is an energetic word and our text in 1Tim.4:7 pushes in the same direction and to the same conclusion:
"Rather train yourself for godliness"
The AV and the church Bible have:
"exercise yourself towards godliness".
The word in Greek that is translated "train" or "exercise" gives us the word gymnasium. The whole picture is not of simply paying your gym membership dues but of fully using the facilities and the equipment of the gym in order to attain a specific goal.
Now you might sign up at a gym in order to lose a few pounds or to reduce your waist size by a couple of inches but you exercise in Paul’s spiritual gymnasium in order to do something far more important – you exercise there in order to become more and more like the Lord Jesus while you wait with eager expectation for his return.
If you were to join your local gym and there develop a personal fitness plan in collaboration with one of the staff members you’ll be very aware that there is a great difference between identifying the goals and attaining them. If you lose sight of the goals and simply try to adhere to the list of exercises you’ll probably sooner or later give up. In the same way we must not imagine that by focusing upon a series of spiritual disciplines in themselves that we will attain what we want: the disciplines are useful only in so far as we keep our focus on becoming more godly, more Christ-like.
Remembering our goals will turn those disciplines, which would otherwise quickly become dull and tedious drudgery, into a delight. Remember too that discipline rightly exercised is not bondage but the high road to liberty. The athlete who competes at the highest level makes it look all so easy but that is because he has trained and trained. Similarly with the concert musician whose fingers glide so seemingly effortlessly across the keyboard – he’s free to make the most wonderful music but only because of those hours of practice. Think of your exercise of spiritual discipline in this same way!
The spiritual disciplines that we will consider together are the God-given means we are to employ in the Spirit-filled pursuit of Godliness.
What are these Spiritual Disciplines?
As we hear the word "discipline" we may well have a negative reaction. Discipline may conjure up in our minds the idea of punishment or correction for having gone wrong.
That is not what is meant by this term spiritual discipline. As far as we will be concerned spiritual disciplines refer to:
Practices which are found in Scripture and that serve to promote spiritual growth. We will be dealing with spiritual activities and not merely with spiritual attitudes or a certain spiritual outlook. While having the right mind-set is important we must move on to action and it is specifically spiritual action that spiritual discipline is all about. In addition to the focus on activity the only kind of discipline that will interest us will be those that are either urged upon by Scripture or which are clearly demonstrated by examples found in Scripture.
Scripture itself teaches us that it contains all that we need in order to be made spiritually mature people:
2Tim.3:16-17 "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."
Thus, at the very least, other practices that are not endorsed by the Bible (and which we’ll not be considering) are unnecessary at best and at worst will prove to be unhelpful and counter-productive. Plenty of folk are out there with their own plans and schemes for promoting spirituality but if the origin of such plans are not to be found in the Bible then Paul’s words to the Colossians are very apt:
Col.2:23 "These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."
These practices can either be carried out alone or in the company of others
These practices that we will be considering are all gospel-founded. This means that all of the disciplines we will think about are disciplines which help us to dig deeper into the gospel and do not move us away from it. In other words the spiritual disciplines that interest us must never be allowed to supplant the gospel as though the performance of one or another (in and of itself) might render the practitioner acceptable to God.
All of these disciplines are to be conceived of as means rather than ends. The end is to be like Jesus and we must never allow the carrying out of a particular discipline to be treated as sufficient on its own.
Spiritual Disciplines can be Demanding
Do we expect too much from too little?
I wonder whether you’re the kind of person who gets drawn in by the kind of publicity that promises amazing results in a ludicrously short amount of time. I am. And I guess that’s because something in me simply wants the promises to be true.
We live in an instant age and most of us long to see results quickly. We used to buy books with titles like "French made Simple" – they’ve largely done now to be replaced by "French for Dummies". But it doesn’t really matter: either will iron out the difficulties of mastering the language of our near neighbours across the channel. And then there are those adverts that promise a quick and easy weight loss before we get on the ferry to go there for our holidays.
We watch programmes on TV about redoing the garden in a day or a entire house make-over in a week. We sign up for courses that offer us proficiency in playing a musical instrument or to paint like Picasso with only a few minutes a day.
But deep down although we’re tempted we don’t really believe the hype. We have learnt from experience that most things worth having and most skills worth developing take time and effort.
The Christian naturally wants to grow as a Christian and is often on the lookout for some foolproof new and easy method of doing so. But although God could transform us all instantly the moment we are converted into mature copies of Jesus he does not normally do so. Instead he works he gives us new life in Christ and expects us to work out the salvation he has implanted in us. We are to grow by using the methods he has given us and if we use those methods then we will grow. Our problem is that we sometimes find his methods too slow for our liking and we think they’re not working and give up or try something else.
But, friends, God’s way is good. He enables us to grow and become progressively like Jesus without us getting puffed up with our own importance which would at once destroy the very likeness we long for.
Patricia St John in writing about her father and his extraordinary knowledge of the Bible recounts a conversation between him and a lady at the end of one of his meetings. This is how Patricia records that conversation:
"Mr St John, I’d give the world to know the Bible as you do." the lady said.
"Madam," he replied "that’s just what it costs."
Too often perhaps we’re prepared to admire something in others and imagine that it all came easily to them. While people do differ in the gifts they have those who shine most brightly will generally be found to have been the most diligent in polishing their gifts with careful, regular discipline.
If one problem we have concerning spiritual disciplines is that we want too much result from too little input and when it doesn’t turn out that way we tend to give up, another different problem crops up when our entire attitude towards this sort discipline goes wrong.
What do I mean? I mean that we can come to view our exercise of the spiritual disciplines as just that ours. We can so focus upon what we are doing that we come to think about any fruit as being totally dependent upon what we can achieve, about what we can get God to give us. It is but a short step from there to thinking of God as reluctant to give us anything and doing his utmost to withhold things from us until we somehow manage to force his hand.
A better way for us to think about our exercise of the various spiritual disciplines is to think of them as placing us in the path of God’s grace. Consider just a couple of illustrations of this found in Luke’s gospel ch.18. The first is blind Bartimaeus. Do you remember him? He was sat beside the road begging and he heard the noise of a crowd passing by. What’s going on he asked? And when he was told Jesus was passing by he started crying out for mercy and he wouldn’t stop. Jesus stopped and healed him. It wasn’t all that shouting out that restored his eyesight to him, it was Jesus who did all that but by his persistent crying out he put himself in the way of blessing.
The next episode that Luke recorded in his gospel was the account of that little man Zacchaeus – perhaps the most well-known vertically challenged man in all of history. He too knew Jesus was about to pass by and he knew that unless he did something about it he would never even see him. If you ever went to Sunday School you know what happened next. He climbed up into a tree to get a better look. His efforts were royally rewarded. Jesus stopped and invited himself for dinner. Zacchaeus hadn’t done anything to deserve Jesus’ time and attention but by climbing up into that tree he had put himself in the path of blessing.
Well we’ve finished for this week. May the reminder that God’s plans to make us like the Lord Jesus be an encouragement to us! May we have a realistic understanding that God is in it with us for the long haul. May we not become frustrated imagining that no change is being effected because it only comes slowly. May we determine to keep our focus upon being like Jesus and not let it slip into an impersonal keeping up with disciplinary rules and regulations. Let us remember that as we work on our spiritual disciplines we are putting ourselves in the path of God’s grace and what better place to be than that.
May God enable us all to grow more like the Lord Jesus.