The process of spiritual renewal I discussed in my last two posts leads to an obvious and crucial question: what should we do? We’ve begun to grasp how the process works. We’ve affirmed the biblical balance between the inadequacy of self-generated moral effort and the necessity of participation in Spirit-empowered growth. Now we ask: What role do we play in God’s work of heart renovation?
Two factors come into play: spiritual disciplines and virtues. The two are intimately connected, but we can distinguish them for the sake of discussion. I’ll attempt to unpack the disciplines in this post and the concept of virtue in my next one. But first, I’ll try to illustrate their relationship.
Spiritual disciplines are to virtues as training exercises are to skills. We see this dynamic clearly in the realms of music and athletics. No one expects to sit down and play Beethoven perfectly on the first run. We realize that superb performance requires practice. The musician must learn the language of music, train their fingers, develop rhythm, and much more, in order to become great. Music must become a part of their nature, so they can “make music,” not just play notes. Nor do we expect a ten year old to dribble and shoot a basketball like a varsity starter. We know that it will take thousands of shots and ball handling drills, along with strength and conditioning training for him to excel as a player. Dallas Willard explains: “We advise the young artist or athlete to enter a certain kind of overall life, one involving deep associations with qualified people as well as rigorously scheduled time, diet, and activity for the mind and body.” The point is simple: excellence takes time and training.
We often miss the obvious parallel to discipleship. We imagine we can do what Jesus would do without imitating his overall pattern of life. Willard continues:
Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going the “second mile,” turning the other cheek, suffering patiently and hopefully—while living the rest of our lives just as everyone around us does. This is . . . a strategy bound to fail and to make the way of Christ “difficult and left untried.” In truth it is not the way of Christ anymore than striving to act in a certain manner in the heat of a game is the way of the champion athlete.
Without disciplined discipleship in all dimensions, we default to our old, ingrained ways. We slip back into sinful patterns. We must realize that, just like anything worth pursuing, godliness requires training. Without training we cannot cultivate new skills and lifestyle habits. Encountering Christ may motivate us, but it does not fully equip us. To actually be like him, we must follow his pattern of life. We can no more live like Jesus by simply observing and admiring him than a singer can sound like Celine Dion after hearing her in concert or a basketball player can dunk like Michael Jordan by watching him on TV and wearing his shoes.
The spiritual disciplines move us beyond aspiration to Christlikeness and into the realm of action. They train us as apprentices of Jesus. They are the curriculum in the school of Christ. They are repeatable, habitual practices by which we put off the old self and put on the new, which is being renewed in the image of Christ. They help us slay the sinful nature that once mastered us and offer every part of our body as an instrument of righteousness. The disciplines are pathways to wisdom and virtue.
By practicing the disciplines, we open ourselves to the Spirit’s work. We position ourselves for change. We open our hands to receive grace. We invite God to enter our lives and do his transforming work.
And we need his help. If Jesus was serious about the kind of life he desires us to live, then we must do everything we can to facilitate the deep heart change required for a fruitful life.
- How can a bitter, broken heart learn to forgive?
- How can an angry over-reactor learn to respond with gentleness?
- How can a hedonist learn to give sacrificially?
- How can a workaholic learn to rest in God’s provision?
- How can idolatrous human heart learn to worship and trust in God alone?
- How can a self-centered person learn to truly love their neighbor?
Jesus learned obedience in the crucible of life because he engaged in a life of training. For example, before beginning his messianic mission, Jesus fasted and prayed forty days in solitude. He experienced the deep communion with his Father that was necessary to prepare for the tests he would undergo in the wilderness and during his ministry. He sustained this communion through regular withdrawal to “lonely places.” These times alone in prayer prepared and filled him to continually serve and sacrifice on behalf of others. He clearly studied the Scripture from an early age, as his twelve-year-old encounter with the teachers in the temple testifies. The fact that he can call his whole life and ministry a fulfillment of Torah and Prophets confirms his continual immersion in, meditation on, and application of these sacred texts. He certainly observed the Sabbath and attended Synagogue faithfully. And his own material poverty demonstrates a life of simplicity, totally submitted to and aimed at the execution of his Father’s will.
If this disciplined manner of life was so empowering for Jesus, might it also train us to follow his example and meet his high demands.
- Confession might remind us of our need for grace and empower us to forgive.
- Silence might help us hold our tongue when anger boils.
- Frugality and simplicity might free us to give generously.
- Submission might teach us to rest and trust God to provide.
- Worship would remind us that God alone is worthy.
- Fasting would train us to deny ourselves for others’ sake.
When the Spirit-empowered practice of the disciplines does its transforming work, our character begins to change and we experience the joy and abundant life that Jesus offers. We escape slavery to sin and discover liberating submission to Christ our King. His commands no longer feel burdensome or restrictive. Paradoxically, disciplined training lifts the heavy load of an undisciplined life; under Jesus’ easy yoke and his light burden, we find rest for our souls.