2 months later than planned, after parts 1 and 2 (on time out and accountability respectively), part 3 on moving from a Christian life that treads water to one that is developing and growing.
Several of the best Christian writers of modern times have tackled this subject, so if you're really serious about spiritual disciplines you should have a look at:
Richard Foster Celebration of Discipline
Dallas Willard Spirit of the Disciplines
John Ortberg The Life You've Always Wanted.
Reflecting on Ortberg a few weeks ago, I quoted his analogy of 'training versus trying harder'. No athlete, footballer, cricketer etc. just relies on turning up and being inspired. The Olympic athletes are already well into their training routines for events that are still months away. If you are planning on turning in a peak performance, then you discipline yourself: sleep, diet, habits, exercise. Everything has a goal in mind: to make your body ready for that moment when the greatest demands are upon it, so that you perform at your best.
Bible authors talk about training. Paul talks about disciplining his body, becoming it's master, so that he can be subject to Christ. In 1 Corinthians 9 he uses training for the Greek games as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Timothy is instructed to 'train yourself to be godly'. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of training to distinguish good from evil: bringing the discernment muscle up to full strength.
2 alternatives to training
Unfortunately, we've missed out on this language, and the wisdom behind it, in favour of two other models:
1. The teaching/learning model. A common myth in evangelical circles used to be that if you got a correct grasp of the truth in your mind, your behaviour would automatically change. Favourite texts were 2 Timothy 3:16, on the use of scripture to 'correct' behaviour and train in righteousness. The way to train disciples was to train them in the scriptures, and to teach. Discipleship (this is a bit of a caricature, by the way) consisted of grasping the right truths from the right texts.
The danger of this model is that it produces people who know plenty, and believe that this is the main thing that God requires of them. The prophets wouldn't agree, and neither would Jesus, who had plenty to say to people who knew their Bibles backwards but whose lives dishonoured God.
2. The exhortation model. This is more of a 'sugar boost' model of disciple making. The basic idea is that if you hit people with an inspirational message, or better still they get zapped with the Holy Spirit, then that will tip them over into being more like Jesus. Preaching starts to overlap into motivational speeches, and the danger is that Chrisitans become lazy, and start to rely on getting pumped up by their preacher/zapped by the Spirit/going to Spring Harvest or New Wine to get the spiritual sugar rush that will at least keep them going for a couple of months.
Now there is plenty of 'striving' language in the Bible, pretty much every New Testament letter has some sort of exhortation in it. So exhorting and encouraging and motivating people is a good thing. But it's not the only thing.
A red letter life
Willard, Ortberg and the rest tell us to look at Jesus. If we want to live a life like Jesus, we must do 2 things a) do what he says b) do what he does. Unfrotunately those red letter bibles which put Jesus words in a different colour to his actions perpetuate the Gnostic myth that the main thing we need is Jesus teaching, and we can pretty much ignore what he does and how he does it. Anything which separates Jesus words from his life makes them a timeless body of truths, detached from history and the fact of the incarnation, and makes salvation dependent on grasping the right truths, rather than on trusting the right person. This is not salvation. And I mean salvation in it's fullest sense: wholeness, healing, full restoration of all that we are to the image of God in which we were made.
So what does Jesus do?
a) He prays regularly, in solitude
b) He goes to quiet places, like the desert
c) He fasts: the 40 day fast at the start of his ministry is unlikely to be a one-off. Jesus probably wouldn't have managed it if he'd not been fasting already, and maybe done other extended fasts before.
d) He knew the Bible: not just in an 'I can quote Isaiah 28:3' kind of way (I have no idea what Isaiah 28:3 even says......!!), but he knew what it meant and how to apply it and think it through
e) He practiced servanthood: washing feet and so on.
f) He renounced possessions - all the evidence suggests that Jesus lived rough, or on other people's hospitality, for his time of public ministry. When the disciples are sent out they are told to take nothing. There is no argument, as there might have been if they'd seen Jesus not playing by his own rules.
The Bible, and Jesus, regularly point us to things like this which are the God-ordained means of spiritual training. If you want to train for a marathon, there are certain practices you'll need to get stuck into in order to get your body in condition. If you want to run the spiritual race, here are the practices which make you fit enough to stay the course, and to run the race to the finish line, rather than stagger to the floor out of breath part way round.
How spiritual disciplines work.
Spiritual disciplines work on two levels. On one level, it's fairly obvious. If we practice saying 'no' to food, even when we're hungry (fasting), or keeping our mouths shut even when we're tempted to speak, or craving for noise (silence), then we are training our wills. So when the big challenges to willpower come, we will be more able to meet them, because we've trained our wills to be stronger. There is a clear logic of cause and effect.
At another level, there is a divine logic. We don't know how fasting, solitude and scripture meditation work to open ourselves up to God, but many who have done these things testify to an increase in spiritual sharpness. Rees Howells, a great Welsh prayer warrior of the 20th century, devoted himself to prayer and fasting, and was massively used by God in mission and in intercession. Early accounts of St. Anthony, father of the monastic movement, speak of a depth of holiness and wisdom acquired from solitude and prayer in the desert. Though there is probably some legend in Athanasius' account of his life, there must have been something pretty compelling about this one man to launch one of the most significant, and long-lasting, moves in global Christianity.
The best place to start is probably Fosters book, which has a chapter on each of the classical spiritual disciplines. And for a time framework, a good place to start is the church year. One of the great things about Anglican worship is that we regularly have 'seasons' - 40 days in Lent, 4 weeks in Advent, 40 days after Easter (to ascension day) 10 days from Ascension to Pentecost etc. All of these are great 'trial periods', to start on a particular spiritual discipline. You give yourself a get-out clause after a few weeks, so to start with it doesn't look like you're taking up (say) fasting forever, but hopefully by the end of the 40 days (or whatever), the new spiritual habit is already well on the way to becoming ingrained.
There are links to parts 1 & 2 as well. Accountability is a great thing for helping us to get started and keep going, with other people supplying what's lacking in our own willpower or self-discipline. Doing things together with others can be very powerful - there are plenty of corporate fasts and prayer times in the Bible. At a personal level, regular time out gives us the chance to see how we're getting on, to pick ourselves up if we've fallen over, and to hear what it is God would like us to do. And both of these are spiritual disciplines in and of themselves.