Throughout the ages, Christians of all races from all geographic locations and backgrounds have witnessed that the classical disciplines of the spiritual life can produce deep within us an ongoing, life-giving, interactive relationship with Jesus. The spiritual disciplines are the means of God’s grace for bringing about genuine personality formation characterized through and through by love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
God could have created the human species into granites boulders or red carrot, merely minerals and vegetables. But instead God has given us the capacity for developing morale character, the ability to become glorious being that can live in communication within the Triune Reality of Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit for eternity.
This is a great risk on God’s part. The moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom. For us to develop and grow in moral character is God’s great project for human beings. And what God gets out of this gamble is the kind of person we become.
The spiritual disciplines are God’s mean of grace by which we are enabled to bring our little, individualized power pack we call human body and place it before God as a “living sacrifice, “ as the apostle Paul put it in Romans 12:1. They are, more definitely, not “work righteousness,” as it is sometimes said. They place us body, mind, and spirit before God. That is all. The results of this process are all of God, all of grace.
Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. The discipline of spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths.
We must not led to believe that the disciplines are only for “spiritual giants,” and hence beyond our reach. God intends the discipline of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings. Freedom and joy are the keynotes of all the disciplines. The primary requirement is a longing after God (Ps. 42:1-2)
Those who desire to explore the world of Spiritual Discipline are faced with two difficulties:
1. Materialistic base of our age has become so pervasive that is has given people grave doubt about their ability to reach beyond the physical world.
2. The second difficulty is a practical one: We simply do not know how to go about exploring the inward life. In our enthusiasm to practice the disciplines, we may fail to practice the discipline. The life that is pleasing to God is not a series of religious duties. We have only one thing to do, namely, to experience a life of relationship and intimacy with God.
II. The Slavery of Ingrained Habits
We are accustomed to thinking of sin as individual acts of disobedience to God. This is true enough as far as it goes, bit Scriptures go much further. In Romans 3:9-18, Paul refers to sin as a condition that plagues the human race. Sin as a condition works its way out through the “bodily members,” that is, the ingrained habits of the body. And there is no slavery that can compare to the slavery of ingrained habits of sin. Isaiah 57:20 says, “The wicked are like the tossing see; for it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt.”
Our ordinary method of dealing with ingrained sin is to launch a frontal attack. We rely on willpower and determination and then we become “whitened sepulchers.”
Willpower will never succeed in dealing with the deeply ingrained habits of sin. As long as we think we can save ourselves by our own will power, we will only make the evil in us stronger than ever.
“Will worship” may produce an outward show of success for a time, but the cracks and crevices of our lives, our deep inner condition will eventually be revealed. Jesus described this condition when He speaks of the external righteousness of the Pharisees in (Matt. 12: 34-36).
By dint of will people can make a good showing for a time, but sooner or later there will come that unguarded moment when the “careless words” will slip out to reveal the true condition of the heart.
If we are full of compassion, it will be revealed; if we are full of bitterness, that also will be revealed.
It is not we plan to be this way, but when we are with people, what we are comes out.
The will has the same deficiency as the law, it can deal only with externals. It is incapable of bringing about the necessity transformation of the inner spirit.
III. The Spiritual Disciplines Open the Door
When we despair of gaming inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed to change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside.
Happily there is something we can do. God has giving us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a mean of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes it clear that grace is free but it not cheap. The grace of God in unearned and unearnable, but if we ever expect to grow in grace, we must pay the price of consciously chosen course of action with involves both individual and group life. Spiritual growth is the purpose of the Disciplines.
When God works in our inner side of us, there is no longer the tiring need to hide our inner selves from others. Just as the natural motions of our lives once produced mire and dirt, now they produce “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17).
IV. The Way of Death: Turning the Disciplines into Laws.
The Spiritual Disciplines are intended for our good. They are meant to bring the abundance of God into our lives. It is possible, however, to turn them into another set of soul-killing laws. Law-bound Disciplines breathe death.
Jesus teaches that we must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20).
One factor, however, was always central to their righteousness: externalism. Their righteousness consisted in control over externals, often including the manipulation of others.
The extent to which we have gone beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees is seen in how much our lives demonstrate the internal work of God upon the heart.
When the Disciplines degenerate into law, they are used to manipulate and control others. Such a deterioration of the Disciplines result in pride and fear. Pride takes over because we come to believe that we are the right kind of people. Fear takes over because we dreaded losing control.
We must beware of how quickly we can latch onto this word or that word and turn it into a law. The moment we do so we qualify for Jesus stern pronouncement against the Pharisees, “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their fingers? (Matt. 23:4).
In these matters we need the words of the apostle Paul embedded in our minds, “We deal not in the letter but in the Spirit. The letter of the Law leads to the death of the soul, the Spirit of God alone can give life to the soul” (2 Cor. 3:6).
As we enter the inner world of the Spiritual Disciplines, there will always be the danger of turning them into laws. But we are not left to our own human devices. Jesus Christ has promised to be our ever-present Teacher and Guide. His voice is not hard to hear. His direction in not hard to understand. If we are wandering off toward some wrong ideas or unprofitable practice, he will guide us back. If we are willing to listen to the Heavenly Monitor, we will receive the instruction we need.
Superficiality is the curse of our age . Our world is hungry for genuinely changed people. Leo Tolstoy observes: “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself or herself.” Let us be among those who believe that the inner transformation of our lives is a goal worthy of our best effort.