WHAT ARE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES?
| Definition of Spiritual Disciplines The word “exercise” in 1 Timothy 4:7 KJV (can also be translated as “discipline”) comes from the Greek word from which we derive gymnasium and gymnastics. In the ancient world, those who “exercised” in this way removed even their clothing to focus on working out and training without any hindrance.The apostle Paul, in this context, is warning Timothy of false teachers and worthless teachings. He tells Timothy to “refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7 KJV).
Just as Timothy was to shun what was unhelpful and harmful, we too must say no to that which is unprofitable and actively exercise ourselves for the purpose of growing in godliness. We need to practice specific disciplines, or exercises, taught in the Word of God if we are to become more holy and Christlike.
Spiritual disciplines, then, are exercises designed to strengthen one’s spirit and grow one in godliness – things we must actively engage in to see progress.
Biblical spiritual disciplines are exercises designed to strengthen one’s spirit and grow one in godliness that are taught by command or example in the Bible.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect [complete], thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
TYPES OF SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES
Spiritual disciplines can be broken down into two further categories: personal and inter-personal. Personal spiritual disciplines are those we can practice as individuals (individual Bible reading, prayer, fasting, etc.). Inter-personal spiritual disciplines are those practiced with others (corporate worship, etc.).
WHY ARE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES IMPORTANT?
I. They are a means to an end – godliness.
We are to exercise or discipline ourselves “unto” or for the purpose of growing in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). The disciplines are not ends in themselves, any more than going to the gym, using an exercise machine, or practicing musical scales are ends in themselves – they are a means to a greater goal.
- “…Exercise thyself rather unto godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).
- [The ultimate destiny for believers is] “to be conformed to the image of His [God’s] Son” (Romans 8:29).
- “…with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
- “Follow [pursue] peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
II. God expects them to be a part of our lives.
God commands them. The word “exercise” or “discipline” in 1 Timothy 4:7 is a present active imperative verb, where we are commanded to keep on exercising or disciplining ourselves.
- “Thou shalt meditate therein” (Joshua 1:8)
- “Watch and pray” (Mark 13:33).
God assumes them. Some of God’s commands speak to how to practice the disciplines with the assumption that we are practicing them.
- “When ye pray…” (Mark 11:24); “When ye fast…” (Matt. 6:16)
III. Spiritual disciplines have been modeled for us.
Scripture provides authoritative examples.
- “…He went up…to pray…” (Matthew 14:23)
- “…when He had fasted…” (Matthew 4:2)
- “Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do…” (Phil. 4:9)
- “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you… making request with joy… and this I pray…” (Phil. 1:3-4, 9)
Church history provides encouraging examples. Through journals and eyewitness testimony, we may learn of many believers blessed by God through their pursuit of Him through the spiritual disciplines. Examples include:
- The Puritans
- Jonathan Edwards
- George Muller
IV. We neglect them to our harm.
- spiritual weakness (Mark 14:38)
And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. (2 Peter 1:5-9)
V. We benefit greatly when we practice them rightly.
- Godliness – we become more like Christ
- Joy – as we become more like God, we will enjoy communing with Him and serving Him more and more.
- Usefulness – as we grow in godliness, we are more useful in ministry
- Freedom – to quote Scripture; to pray spontaneously, etc.
Freedom and discipline have come to be regarded as mutually exclusive, when in fact freedom is not at all the opposite, but the final reward, of discipline. (Elisabeth Elliot)
Spiritual disciplines are a means to an end – getting to know God. Not about performance, but about pursuing a relationship with Christ.
It is easy to get so distracted with things of no profit (1 Timothy 4:7) but we need to pursue God through the spiritual disciplines for the purpose of godliness!
For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. (1 Timothy 4:8)
HOW ARE WE TO APPROACH THE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES?
The right approach to the spiritual disciplines sees them as a means to grow in God’s grace, NOT as a basis for acceptance with God.
I must take care above all that I cultivate communion with Christ, for though that can never be the basis of my peace – mark that – yet it will be the channel of it. – Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Let us see the spiritual disciplines as training exercises that will help us become stronger spiritually and more Christlike. Let us head to the spiritual gym and devote ourselves to the workouts taught in the Bible – to exercise ourselves unto godliness.
Recommended book: Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life