For 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 Timothy 4:8).
If you want to excel at a sport, you need to practice specific disciplines. Each sport has some disciplines that require constant commitment and other disciplines you only work on occasionally. For instance, if you're a long-distance runner, you have to maintain your stamina and watch your diet, but you might go through seasons where you focus on more resistance training to build strength.
Spiritual disciplines are similar. If you want to grow spiritually, you consistently commit to certain disciplines (like prayer, Bible reading, community) and adopt others (like fasting, meditation, and journaling) when you want to grow in specific areas.
How spiritual disciplines work
We all understand what discipline is. It's choosing to study on a gorgeous day when you'd have more fun at the beach. It's talking yourself out of eating an entire sleeve of Oreos. It's choosing to floss every night even though you hate it.
A concert cellist disciplines herself to practice scales and arpeggios every day, but not because people pay to hear her play a G major scale. It's because the time she devotes herself to practicing these disciplines pays off in areas related to her musical understanding and performance.
For Christians, spiritual disciplines are tools that equip us to be more like Jesus. The goal isn't to show off the tool. We read Scripture to transform us, but not necessarily to demonstrate how much of the Bible we know. We may fast to learn how to tell ourselves no and press into the Lord, but we don't do it to show everyone how good we are at self-denial.
Like a football player who runs drills or a pianist who practices their chords, spiritual disciplines help Christians grow in ways that enable us to follow Jesus's teachings and live the life that He modeled.
Putting spiritual disciplines to work for you
An essential part of practicing spiritual disciplines is in finding ones that help bolster areas of weakness. This means that you need to be aware of growth opportunities. If you notice that you're struggling with greed, you might want to develop a discipline focused on sacrificing more of your time and resources. This might be something you focus on for a couple of months, or it could be a discipline you need to devote more time to.
Reading your Bible is an example of a regular discipline you want to maintain, but there are many different ways to approach it depending on your focus. You can read a chapter a day, join a study group, work on memorization, or engage in praying Scripture. Bible reading doesn't need to be a mechanical experience. You can tailor how you engage Scripture so that it intersects the areas where the Lord is at work in your life.
There are disciplines that the Bible talks about like prayer, worship, confession, community, etc. But our disciplines don't have to be limited to those things. Sometimes you might want to craft disciplines that zero in on a specific issue. Struggling with gossip? Maybe you want to commit to coming to someone's defense when they're absent and people are being critical. Has a friend pointed out that you're becoming overly negative? Maybe you want to start each morning focusing on what you're thankful for or things you're looking forward to.
Dallas Willard was a well-known Christian scholar and author who focused on spiritual disciplines later in life. In one of his classes, a student aggressively challenged Willard with some questionable facts. Instead of putting the young man in his place, Willard ended the class for the day. When asked why he didn't counter the student's terrible argument, Willard said, "I’m practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word." Willard had recognized an issue in his life, and he was working on it with a tailor-made discipline.
We tend to think of spiritual disciplines as these static expectations that have very prescribed methods. But the goal is to get closer to Jesus, mature in grace, and grow the kingdom of God. This calls for leaning into the idea of disciplines as exercises that the Holy Spirit can use to develop our character and calling.
Strengthening your faith
Just like physical exercise strengthens your body, spiritual disciplines build us up on the inside. It's up to an athlete to know their strengths and weaknesses and create a regimen that builds upon their assets and improves their areas of vulnerability. Christians can approach spiritual disciplines in much the same way. And as we put those disciplines to work, God uses them to conform us into His image.
If you want to continue exploring spiritual disciplines, check out these posts: