Introduction to the Spiritual Disciplines
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. -- Deuteronomy 6:5, Quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22:37 as the "Greatest Commandment"
God gives us instructions on what he wants from us, but it can be hard to obey, and often we need help to keep us on the right path. Richard Foster's book, "The Celebration of Discipline" is one help that I (and others) have found helpful for that purpose. This series of articles is my attempt to help guide people, using Foster's book also as a guide, on that path.
I have found Foster's work to be of great benefit to finding the path, but in teaching workshops on it, have found that many others find it a bit "dense" or "academic" for them. My goal here is to help make the material more available to others. While you might get some benefit from just reading my words, it is intended that the reader looking into Foster's work, and especially look into the original source of inspiration, the Bible.
An important aspect that Foster brings out, is that developing these Disciplines isn't a task only for the Spiritual "Elite", but are techniques are usable by the "common man". Maybe we don't reach a "summit" like spending 10 hours in prayer and meditation a day (and that isn't actually the goal of the Disciplines), but they can, with modest but consistent use, bring us into a relationship with God.Back to top
Foster divides his path of Spiritual Discipline into 12 Disciplines divided into 3 categories as follows:
- Inward Disciplines: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study,
- Outward Disciplines: Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, Service
- Corporate Disciplines: Confession, Worship, Guidance, Celebration
An important point to make is that the names, being just a single word, are somewhat imprecise, and should not be interpreted too strictly. Also, the various Disciplines should not be taken to be a totally complete list, or that they are completely distinct from each other. There are definite overlaps in places between the Disciplines, as well as spaces between and outside the Disciplines for a person to be able to grow.Back to top
The Goal of the Disciplines
Another important point is that the Disciplines are not “Goals” to achieve, but just methods to achieve the actual goal, of having a loving relationship with the God Almighty using all of one's being. Foster points out many times the danger of putting the Disciplines on too high of a pedestal and making them into a trap of Legalism. Treat the Disciplines as a Pathway, that guides you to knowing God better, and they will serve you well. Looking too much at how well you are “doing” the Discipline, will make them hollow. This is what Paul was warning about in Phillippians 3,
Also, the Disciplines are not a "Path of Self-Improvement", but a way to open yourself to letting God extend his Grace and draw you closer to him. Do not measure your progress in how well you are "doing" the discipline, but how your attempts to work on the Disciplines are changing your life.
The basics of most of the Disciplines are fairly easy to start to understand and to start practicing, but as you do, and start to understand them, they can get harder. This is natural. The key point is that as you grow in your understanding of what the disciplines are actually talking about, you can come to an understanding that it isn't really in your own power to do this, but you need to depend on God to let you do it. Depending on where you are spiritually, this can make things seem much harder, but if you are really drawing closer to him, they can become easier. This latter state is ultimately the Goal. As the Psalmist says:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
--- Psalm 42
This needs to be the attitude we are driving towards. To have a dependency on God, and accept his Grace.
Another big thing that Foster reminds us of is that a key aspect of the various Disciplines isn't that we are committing ourselves to doing something, but that we are allowing God to FREE us from something. Every Discipline comes with Liberties that it brings. Finding these Liberties is part of our drawing closer to God, and helps us break the bondage of our sinful ingrained habits cause.Back to top
Legalism and Ritual
One of the biggest pitfalls to the Disciplines is forgetting to view them as a path to Freedom, but to start to focus on them as a thing for themselves. This brings us under a tyranny to them either as a Law (leading to legalism) or Ritual (making them hollow actions). These are two different directions for the same basic error, that of putting the importance on the Discipline, and neglecting the actual Goal of the Discipline, that of knowing and trusting God better.
When we try to measure our progress on the path by "How Well" we are doing the Disciplines, we are falling into these traps. The real question isn't how well, (or how much) we are doing them, but how much is our practice of them moving our life. If we focus too much on the acts of the Disciplines, we make them hollow.
This doesn't mean that looking at how well we are "doing them" doesn't have some value.
Another key factor that he points out is that we can not achieve the Goal of drawing closer to God or reaching the Liberties provided by our own force of Will. If we try to achieve the Goals by Will Power, we are turning our focus on ourselves, and not towards God. This just strengthens the grip of the sinful nature. Instead, we need to see that our own power is insufficient to do what is needed but to turn ourselves over to depending on the Power provided by God. (See Colossians 2:20-23)
Another important aspect is we need to be somewhat balanced in our use of the Disciplines. It is an error to find one Discipline that we are "good" at, and strive to "perfect" it while ignoring the rest. But our life needs to be filled with a balance of all the Disciplines. While we are unlikely to be exactly equally skilled in all the Disciplines, we should strive to work on improving our weak points, while not ignoring our strengths.
Perhaps the biggest danger is to turn the Disciplines into an academic exercise, something to "study" but not to do. It is much better to stumble with trying to perform them with little knowledge, than to have all the world's knowledge of them, but not do them, that just denies their power.
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... having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
-- 2 Timothy 3:5
One point we need to remember is that in the older days, these Disciplines were much more commonly practiced, and most people understood their mechanics and who to talk to if they were having difficulties. Our "Modern" lifestyle has caused us to forget some of these basic skills, so they can feel "unnatural" or "strange". As a result, having a guide to get us started is useful, and at first, most of the Disciplines will require spending some time focusing on them. Still, eventually, they become just part of your life, some of them will simply blend into what you are already doing, and others will just feel natural. As Paul describes in the latter part of Romans 7, we have built a life of habits that take us away from God and into Sin, but as we draw closer to God, we can break those habits and replace them with the power that the Spirit gives us. Ultimately, the goal is to learn how to be close to God, to trust in his Grace, and to be a useful tool in his hands. As Paul describes in Ephesians 6:10-20, we will be learning how to obtain and wear the full Armor that God provides for us.
I will end off with a few reflection questions as we start our journey: (Based on Fosters Workbook)
- Why are you embarking on the journey of the Spiritual Disciplines?
- What are your hopes and expectations for the journey in the months ahead?
- What are your anxieties and questions as you look at the journey ahead?
- What area of your life are you looking for greater liberation?