What Are Spiritual Disciplines?
This week we are joined by Don Whitney, the Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He is well known for writing his classic book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, which was originally published in 1991, and then revised and expanded in 2014 to its present form. Don is also the author of the new book from Crossway titled, Praying the Bible. We’ll talk more about the new book later.
Dr. Whitney, thank you for your time.
It is a great privilege and honor to be on the podcast, Tony. Thank you for having me.
Absolutely. Well 2016 is here, and with a new year brings renewed interest in disciplines and particularly the spiritual disciplines. January 1 is a good date to reset our spiritual practices. So for the first week of the new year I want to ask you five most common questions we get on the spiritual disciplines.
And so we will start broad with this first question: In general, what are the spiritual disciplines?
The spiritual disciplines are those practices found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth among believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are habits of devotion, habits of experiential Christianity that have been practiced by God’s people since biblical times. I describe them several ways — 6 aspects of that description.
1) First, the Bible prescribes both personal and interpersonal spiritual disciplines. There are those spiritual disciplines that we practice alone and those that we practice with other Christians. So, for example, we are to pray alone. That is a personal spiritual discipline. We are also to pray with the church. That is an interpersonal or congregational spiritual discipline.
We are to practice both, because Jesus practiced both (we could give examples from Scripture of that) and because the Bible prescribes both of those for us. So we don’t want to think of spirituality and the spiritual disciplines just as something we do by ourselves. We are to also engage others in the practice of the spiritual disciplines.
2) A second characteristic of spiritual disciplines is that they are activities. They are not attitudes. Disciplines are practices. Spiritual disciplines are things you do. They are not character qualities. They are not graces. They are not the fruit of the Spirit. They are things you do.
So you read the Bible. That is something you do. That is a spiritual discipline. You meditate on Scripture. Your pray, fast, worship, serve, learn, and so forth. These are activities. Now the goal of practicing any given discipline is not about doing as much as it is about being: being like Jesus, being with Jesus. But the biblical way to grow in being more like Jesus is through the rightly motivated doing of the biblical, spiritual disciplines.
The key verse in all this is 1 Timothy 4:7, which says, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (NASB). The goal is godliness, but the biblical means to that is to discipline yourself by the power of the Holy Spirit rightly motivated. We are to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. The practical ways of doing that are things that you do.
Strictly speaking, joy is not a spiritual discipline. That is the fruit or the result of discipline done rightly. So it is that distinction between doing and being. And the spiritual disciplines are about doing. You can do them as a Pharisee. You can do them wrongly motivated. But rightly motivated, they are things that we are to do in order to be like Jesus, to be with Jesus.
3) A third descriptor of the spiritual disciplines is that we are talking about things that are practices taught or modeled in the Bible. The reason that is important is otherwise we leave ourselves open to calling anything we want a spiritual discipline. So someone might say: Gardening is a spiritual discipline for me, or exercise is one of my spiritual disciplines, or any other hobby or pleasurable habit they could call a spiritual discipline.
But one of the problems with that is that mindset could tempt someone to say: Maybe meditation on Scripture works for you, but gardening does just as much for my soul as the Bible does for yours. Virtually anything being a spiritual discipline is one problem. The other problem is that it leaves it to us to determine what will be best for our spiritual health and maturity rather than accepting those things God has revealed in Scripture as the means of experiencing God and growing in Christlikeness.
4) A fourth characteristic of spiritual disciplines is that those found in Scripture are sufficient for knowing and experiencing God and for growing in Christlikeness. We are told in those famous verses, 2 Timothy 3:16–17, that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work,” including the good work of pursuing the purpose of godliness, the good work of growing in Christlikeness. The Scriptures are sufficient for that.
So whatever else a person might claim regarding the spiritual benefits of some practice that is not in the Bible — something that maybe is promoted by some other spiritual cause or spiritual group or some spiritual leader, that if you will do this or you will do that, you will experience God and it will be very meaningful — well, regardless of whatever benefit someone may claim accrues to them from that practice, at the very least we can say it isn’t necessary. If it were necessary for spiritual maturity in godliness and progress in holiness, it would have been found and promoted in the Scriptures.
5) A fifth description of spiritual disciplines is that they are derived from the gospel, not divorced from the gospel. Rightly practiced, the spiritual disciplines take us deeper into the glories of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not away from it as though we have moved on to some advanced level of Christianity. “The gospel is the ABCs. Now let’s get into the really deep things of God, the spiritual disciplines.” No, the spiritual disciplines are derived from the gospel, not divorced from it, and they only take us deeper into an understanding of the gospel.
6) And the last characteristic of the spiritual disciplines is that they are means and not ends. The end, that is, the purpose of practicing the disciplines is godliness. “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7, NASB). And so we are not godly just because we practice the spiritual disciplines. That was the great error of the Pharisees. They felt by doing these things they were godly. No, they are means to godliness. Rightly motivated, they are the means to godliness.
Find other recent and popular Ask Pastor John episodes.