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How to develop spiritual discipline

How to develop spiritual discipline
Posted on January 15, 2020  - By Lisa Mattackal

After a long night shift, I just about collapsed on the couch at 6.30am when I heard the sweet, quavering tones of a Malayalam hymn filtering through from under my grandmother’s bedroom door. Ammachi has risen at 4.30am for as long as I can remember, but her day doesn’t begin until her time of singing, reading the Bible, and praying. It’s a practice that she has followed for decades, honed over time until it became as vital to her day as brushing her teeth. 

I’m nowhere close to being as disciplined as my Ammachi. Despite our best intentions, practising spiritual disciplines like reading Scripture, praying, meditating, fasting, and having fellowship, to name a few, is a struggle. The cycle of trying and failing is exhausting — and often, our failure to meet our spiritual “goals” is so frustrating that we’re ready to give up. I’ve been there, but I’ve realised that I had many misconceptions about why we need to practise spiritual disciplines. Understood and practised correctly, spiritual disciplines are life-giving habits that enable us to grow in God’s grace.  

1. Spiritual disciplines do not earn God’s love.

I never verbalised it, but I lived for many years as if God’s love was directly proportional to the length of my quiet time. Nothing could be further from the truth! God’s love is everlasting and faithful, no matter how successful we are at following Him. In love, He gave us the means to experience His grace. I like how Tish Harrison Warren puts it: “If God doesn’t already love you, daily prayer is not going to help. Begin with your beloved-ness.” Begin by understanding that God’s love and favour do not depend on your success. When you miss a day (or more!) of Bible reading, don’t let discouragement hold you back. Rest in the knowledge that your loving Father desires to fellowship with you.

When you miss a day (or more) of Bible reading, don’t let discouragement hold you back

2. Spiritual disciplines are the means, not the end.

In 1 Timothy 4:7, Paul tells us to “exercise (discipline yourself) for the purpose of godliness.” Our goal is not to accumulate hours of prayer or chapters of the Bible read. Our goal is godliness or Christ-likeness. To know Him, to have our minds renewed, and to reflect His goodness to the world. While only God’s grace can accomplish such a transformation, appropriating this grace does not come naturally to us; we need to be intentional about pursuing it. One author uses the analogy of a fruit tree, intentionally planted to receive the right amount of life-giving nutrients. “Through [spiritual disciplines], we position ourselves to receive the sunlight of God’s grace.” Without “positioning ourselves”, we will never experience a truly transformed Christian life. Don’t look at your quiet time or church attendance as another thing ‘to do’, but as the means to the glorious reality of knowing the Lord! 

3. Spiritual disciplines are not a competition.

Hearing about believers who spend hours in prayer and the Word can feel discouraging when you’re trying to maintain a consistent quiet time for 15 minutes! It’s like walking into a gym packed with bodybuilders while you reach for the 3kg dumbbells. But it’s no accident that Scripture uses the metaphor of an athlete when describing the Christian life. No athlete begins training with the heaviest weights. Spiritual disciplines are commended to every Christian, not just the “extra-spiritual”. Be inspired by their faith, but don’t assume that you need to instantly measure up to that standard. Begin with realistic goals — if you don’t pray consistently, begin with a simple list or aim to pray for a set period of time. If you’re a busy parent, don’t feel ashamed if most of your prayers are said over a laundry basket. Trust that the Lord will honour your desire and do the best you can.

No athlete begins training with the heaviest weights

4. Spiritual disciplines should be practised together.

In his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Don Whitney identifies personal disciplines (personal Bible study and prayer, etc.) and interpersonal disciplines (corporate worship, communion, service). Beyond the interpersonal disciplines, Scripture tells us to exhort one another to good works. You don’t have to be perfect to encourage another believer. Find people to hold you accountable, pray for you, and even give you a morning wake-up call. Better yet, be that person for someone else. Yes, practising the spiritual disciplines can be challenging, but the Lord never intended us to do it alone.

As we embark on this new year, there is no time like the present to begin practising the disciplines given to us in Scripture. May we strive to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Lisa Mattackal

About Lisa Mattackal

Lisa is a 20-something millennial discovering how to glorify God in all aspects of life. Despite being a "recovering introvert," she's always up for coffee and good conversation. She works as a journalist in Bangalore, India.



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