"For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters" (Romans 8:29).
While we'll never be perfect on this side of eternity, God is at work spiritually transforming us. Paul addresses this with the Galatians, "My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . ." (Gal. 4:19).
Paul uses the term "morphóō" (form), which is closely related to "metamorphóō" (transform). The change that believers experience in Christ is a metamorphosis, a spiritual transformation.
This work is not accomplished by our own efforts. We can't will or force this metamorphosis, but we do participate in it. In his book, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered, James Wilhoit says,
"Spiritual formation is the intentional communal process of growing in our relationship with God and becoming conformed to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit."
This "intentional process" speaks to the part we play in partnering with God in our transformation.
What are spiritual disciplines?
In 1 Timothy 4:7, Paul instructs Timothy "train yourself to be godly." Paul goes on to say, "physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim. 4:8).
An athlete works hard to excel at a particular sport. Every step forward in their athletic development is the result of choices. Sometimes those choices require that they tell themselves "no" when they want to enjoy junk food, hang out with friends, or sleep in. Because each sport requires them to improve individual skills, an athlete has a specific workout and diet. Basketball or soccer might need more stamina than bodybuilding, so they're going to do a lot more running (and eat a lot less protein).
But it's not like spirituality is a muscle that we can work until it's big and strong—Is it? Can we train ourselves to be godly?
Our spiritual exercises
Throughout the centuries, Christians have used plenty of activities (or disciplines) to train themselves to align with God so that he may do his work in them. Biblically, these disciplines have included:
- Scripture reading
These exercises aren't to quick-fix your spirituality. But as you create a habit of using these disciplines, you will find yourself closer to God and more spiritually empowered.
4 Reasons why disciplines are important
If you're serious about becoming spiritually mature, spiritual disciplines will play an important part in your life. Here are five reasons why they're important.
1. Jesus modeled them
The number one reason these exercises are important is also the most compelling. Jesus was the only perfect person ever to live, and he still practiced spiritual disciplines. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus:
- Praying (Luke 5:16)
- Reading Scripture (Luke 4:17–21)
- Fasting (Matt. 4:2)
- Submitting (Matt. 26:39)
- Worshiping (Matt. 26:30)
- Practicing community (Luke 22:7–23)
If Jesus thought spiritual disciplines were critical for himself, then they're even more important for us.
2. Abiding in Christ is not a passive activity
Jesus tells us "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). It's essential that we recognize that remaining in Christ is not a passive activity. Jesus tells us that staying connected to him is something that we’re to do actively.
Spiritual disciplines enable us to maintain that connection. As that connection is maintained, fruit is produced in us.
3. Disciplines help us understand "spirituality"
It's easy for us to think that our responsibilities as children of God are to avoid bad behavior. And while denying ourselves and making intentional sacrifices is important, we grow when we see that Christian spirituality is an invitation to an intentional life. We're not simply called to avoid bad behavior, but to pursue God's will.
Through spiritual exercises, we embrace the activity of faith. As we train ourselves to be godly, we develop a faith that's diligent and dynamic. (You can learn more about God’s will here.)
4. Disciplines help us understand our physicality
Despite what we occasionally might think, we're not spirit beings trapped in physical bodies. God designed us as a vital mixture of body, soul (will), and spirit. But when we try to figure out where one ends and the other starts, we run into problems. They're dynamically linked, and the posture or health of one has a direct influence on the others.
Typically, spiritual disciplines are physical activities that empower us spiritually. For instance, as I deny my physical appetites (fasting), I can increase my spiritual clarity. This can empower my prayers, and give me more wisdom and guidance.
The power of spiritual disciplines
Like athletes that train themselves to exceed their physical limits, spiritual exercises enable us to do what we're unable do by our own effort. As we invest our energy into developing spiritual disciplines, we partner with God in our growth and transformation. Then we can grow in his grace and produce fruit.
"If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples" (John 15:7–8).
Check out Jesus Film's "Walking with Jesus (Africa)" series and its Walking in the Spirit episode, to experience a community in Africa learn the importance of walking with God and living by His Spirit.