This is a very broad topic, and this one post cannot entirely deal with it. I have three points in this write-up: What are spiritual disciplines? Why spiritual disciplines? How can I develop spiritual discipline?
Before I go on, I will mention some books that will do you much good, should you decide to study this subject further. These books are the foundation for all I will discuss in this post.
- Donald Whitney — Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life
- R. Kent Hughes — Disciplines of a Godly Man
- Barbara Hughes — Disciplines of a Godly Woman
- John Piper — A Hunger for God
- Paul E. Miller — A Praying Life
What are Spiritual Disciplines
Spiritual disciplines are habits of devotion found in the Scripture that promote spiritual growth in the lives of God’s people. Let’s break it down by understanding the keywords; Habits are repeated activities. Devotion is a pious or religious activity that is God-ward, i.e., focused on God. We can’t create spiritual disciplines on the fly, they are developed deliberately with the leading of the Scripture– the Bible.
The Bible describes some of these habits as personal activities–carried out on our own–while others are described as activities in the community–carried out with other believers. Let me say something about the dual nature of spiritual disciplines. We must keep both dimensions steady if we want to grow. Sometimes, by our personalities, we swing to either side of the pendulum. But we must be aware of our personalities and strive for a balance between the two.
For our discourse, I will talk about just three spiritual disciplines that will be very helpful for us to develop this new year: Bible intake, prayer, and fasting.
This is the most important discipline any believer can develop. It is a multidimensional discipline that includes;
- Reading God’s word, which we need to do daily. “But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4). The allusion to bread tells us that we need it every day.
- Studying the Bible isn’t just for pastors. Every Christian needs to study God’s word. Jerry Bridges famously said, “We read for breadth, we study for depth.” A quick tip for studying is to have a pen and paper when you read.
- The public hearing of God’s word. Salvation comes from hearing God’s word—read and preached. And the faith we need to continue walking with the Lord will also come from hearing God’s word.
Jesus expects us to pray. We can find this in his famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:5; 6:6; 6:7; and 6:9.
“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Luke 18:1
“Pray without ceasing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17
There are some challenges that people face when it comes to praying. Some people, having spoken in tongues for years, wonder how they can begin to pray without it. People who don’t have a regular prayer life wonder how they can develop a prayer life.
The first answer to these questions is, “Pray!” A child of God will learn to pray as a child learns to talk.
Secondly, use God’s word to pray. It is quite simple. After reading God’s word, a few minutes of meditation will help us to pray from the Bible. A few questions to ask when reading and meditating are, “Is there something to be thankful for in the text? Is there a sin to be repented of? Is there a duty to pursue?” We can then pray using the answers that the text provides.
Christian fasting is to voluntarily abstain from food for spiritual purposes. Jesus expects us to fast:
“When you fast. . . “ Matthew 6:16-17. The passage says “when” not “if”. Fasting also seemed to have been a regular discipline for the apostles in the early church (Acts 9:9; 13:2; 14:23).
Fasting helps our Christian discipline by strengthening prayer. John Calvin said, “Whenever men are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer.” Fasting is also an intensifier of spiritual desire.
Fasting also helps us to confess sin and return to God, as we find with Nineveh (Jonah 3-4). Added to this, fasting can help us dedicate ourselves to the Lord and have seasons of worship to him. John Piper once wrote, “The price for bread of life in the kingdom is hunger.” Our Lord himself once taught that the spiritually hungry are those who will be filled with God (Matthew 5:6).
Why Spiritual Disciplines?
I don’t think anyone will pursue any of these disciplines well without knowing “why”. I find that knowing the purpose of an action often serves as a great push for us to pursue those actions and achieve our goals.
- We should practice spiritual disciplines because they make us like Christ; they put us on the path of receiving grace to grow in Christlikeness.
- Spiritual disciplines mature us in the faith. One of the markers of anyone the Lord used to leave a lasting impact in the church is maturity, which came from spiritual disciplines.
- Spiritual disciplines are the path to greater knowledge of God. We won’t accidentally stumble upon a knowledge of God, rather we have to train ourselves 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.” 1 Timothy 4:7-8
We sometimes think we can know God through sudden revelations (i.e., visions and dreams), but it’s through the ordinary disciplines that we can get a true knowledge of God.
How to develop spiritual disciplines
I will make five suggestions. The first two may sound radical, but they’re not.
- Buy a Bible. You need to have your own Bible that you can underline and make notes in. A Bible that you can have readily available to read at any time. I have found by personal experience that our digital Bibles do not provide the same benefits as a physical Bible.
- Delete your social media. Maybe that sounds extreme to you, but that’s the seriousness that spiritual disciplines deserve. We underestimate the amount of time we spend on social media every day. It is a major source of distraction that takes away time we could spend on these spiritual habits.
John Piper once famously tweeted, “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.” — John Piper
You will find that time off social media will often translate to more time to be with the Lord or to cultivate godly habits.
“It has been said that no great work in literature or science was ever wrought by a man who did not love solitude. We may lay it down as an elemental principle of religion, that no large growth in holiness was ever gained by one who did not take time to be often alone with God.” — Austin Phelps, The Still Hour
- As much as we need to work at our spiritual discipline, we -more importantly–need to depend on the Spirit for grace to do the work and change, otherwise it will just be activity. Do not forget that the self-control you need is the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:23).
- Solitude is important but you must not isolate yourself from the community of believers. Make use of Christian fellowship–find an accountability partner, attend public worship, ask for prayers, and pray for others. J. I Packer said, “Fellowship is seeking to share in what God has made known to Himself to others, as a means of finding strength, refreshment, and instruction for one’s soul.”
- Do not be discouraged, it is hard work and our bodies are weak. We are finite, frail creatures. Be willing to start again when you fail. May the Lord grant us much grace in the new year to pursue him more and more. Amen.
The talk “Spiritual Disciplines for the New Year” was first delivered as a talk at a seminar at Trinity Baptist Church, Abuja.