Spiritual Disciplines: Grace or Guilt?

“To experience the richness of life in God’s kingdom, we must reorder our lives. We need to see through the shallow promises of our culture, and we need rhythms, signposts, and practices that reorient us to another world.” Mike Cosper

My wife (Melissa) is an excellent cook. I’d much rather find myself in front of a home cooked meal from Café Crowe than any other restaurant—and not just because I’m cheap frugal. But, there was one time when her cooking didn’t sit so well with my stomach. It was eggplant parmesan. I’m still not sure what it was, but something about this eggplant made me very sick to my stomach (to say it nicely). If you’ve ever gotten nauseous after eating a particular food, you know how it scars you…maybe forever. Even today, several years after “the meal,” the very mention of eggplant sends a shiver down my spine. It’s now “it which shall not be named” in our house.

For some people in the church, the language of “spiritual disciplines” can hit them with similar effects. Maybe those words brings on guilt or disappointment, or maybe they bring on joy and excitement. If you and “spiritual disciplines” have a long, baggage-filled history that leaves a sour taste in your mouth when you hear about them, then you might have any number of reactions to a class on spiritual disciplines.

  • Your shoulders might slump if you’ve seen disciplines used as legalistic weights loaded onto people, shaming anyone who didn’t read their Bible and pray often enough. The disciplines for you were more about guilt than grace, another box to check rather than a gift to enjoy.
  • Maybe your teeth grind in frustration from regularly hearing about the importance of spiritual disciplines without ever having someone explain how to do them and which ones to prioritize.
  • It could be you roll your eyes in discouragement because you’ve tried them before but they’ve not seemed to “work.”
  • You might perk up if they have been instrumental in your own growth.
  • You might have a bewildered look if all this talk of spiritual disciplines is new to you.

I don’t know how the language and thought of “spiritual disciplines” strikes you, but I’ll admit that the Church has often failed its people by talking about spiritual disciplines without equipping people on how to practice them and providing encouragement as they do so.

And yet, because spiritual disciplines (rhythms, habits, practices, or whatever term you like) are such an essential part of Christians knowing and following Jesus, I’m wanting to help us take one small step in closing the gap between talking about the importance of spiritual disciplines and our actual experience of them. 

Year after year, I hear a similar story repeated as I’ve talked with other Christians. We know we won’t grow in our love for God and others if we don’t do some of these disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, serving others, evangelism, etc.), we even have a desire to do these things more often, but they just never seem to become a meaningful part of our life. Because they don’t become a regular rhythm, we don’t experience much fruit from them. We’re not eager to admit this. We assume everyone else around us on Sunday is reading their Bible and praying daily, so I must be the only one on the spiritual disciplines struggle bus. We don’t want to seem like a terrible Christian or lazy Christian before others, so we try to keep up an appearance that our time in Word or prayer—or other disciplines—is going well. All the while we’re discouraged and frustrated by either how little we do these things or how little effect they have on our lives when we do them.

If that’s your experience, then maybe an upcoming class on spiritual disciplines might be helpful. There’s no money-back guarantee that in nine weeks your spiritual life will be revolutionized. I can’t guarantee that and I’m not suggesting spiritual disciplines are some magical formula that automatically mature us. But, what I am hoping to see happen is that we get together to study God’s Word to learn about some (neglected) disciplines that can help us better pursue and know Jesus, that we then actually practice those things since we grow not merely by learning but by doing, that we encourage one another and pray for one another as we work towards these practices becoming (holy) habits that are a part of our life.

“Spiritual formation is about a life oriented to God in Christ by the Spirit. Since spiritual formation is not, ultimately, about us at all, but about God, we must set our minds and hearts on him rather than our problems, our shortcomings or our desire to change.” Kyle Strobel

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