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Disciplines or Routines?
Modern Christians are not lacking in "relevance." What they do lack isa disciplined life and a critical mind to resist the temptation to conform towhat everybody thinks or does.
But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
2 PETER 3:18
I played football in college. Well, I should qualify that: I was onthe football teamI never really played much. At the end of each schoolyear every team member would adopt a series of personal disciplines thathe was expected to follow over the summer. The idea was, by the time wereturned in the fall, we would be in good shape and hopefully a littlestronger and faster and more adept at our individual positions than whenwe left school in May. Typically, those disciplines would include weighttraining, running, dietary controls and honing of techniques, and thecoaching staff expected us to devote serious time and energy to those disciplinesevery day. Each week we were supposed to increase how far wecould run in twelve minutes, the amount of weight we could lift in differentexercises, excess body weight lost or "relocated," and our skills atsuch techniques as blocking, quickness, lateral movement and so forth.
Many of my fellow teammates devoted themselves to those disciplines,making them the centerpiece of their summer. They worked hard,sacrificed much and immersed themselves fully in their personal plansand disciplines. They loved to work out and, each fall, were stronger andfaster than when theyhad left school in May. They were the ones whoplayed. For my part, I never gave more than half-hearted attention toany of the disciplines that I would go away from school in good faithdetermined to engage in daily. My intentions were noble, but somehow itwas too much trouble. I never pushed myselfin running, exercising orlifting weights. That is, when I managed to do them at all. I did justenough work on my techniques to keep from falling back in the depthchart (I was number two at my position but definitely not trying harder).It just seemed like my mind was always somewhere else, thinking aboutthis or that and keeping me from focusing my attention on the business athand. I barely tolerated the time I invested in these activities and cut itshort more often than not. I skipped or skimped on my daily disciplinesas often as I carried them out. I did just enough of each discipline to beable to say to my coaches that I had kept up my routine pretty wellthroughout the summer. But I never got much stronger or faster, and Inever improved sufficiently in the skills required by my position to logmany minutes of play. I sincerely hoped at the end of each school yearthat my summer would be sufficiently disciplined to enable me to get alittle more playing time in the fall. But this usually turned out to be threemonths of half-hearted routines, with little in the way of improvement toshow for my trouble.
There are some fundamental differences between routines and disciplines.While each is essential to life, they are not the same. For this reason,maintaining disciplines and not allowing them to lapse into mereroutines is very important. And nowhere is this as important as in ourspiritual lives, where, for too many followers of Christ, the disciplines ofgrace that God has given us to help us grow in him have become routineactivities devoid of life-changing power.
Routines and Disciplines
A routine is something we do in order to maintain a status quo, likebrushing our teeth and getting ready for the day, changing the oil inour car, locking the doors and turning out the lights before we retireeach evening, or making the bed each morning. Such routines have animportant place in our lives, but they do not change or improve anything.They simply allow us to maintain a certain level of existence thathelps to keep all our systems functioning normally.
Routines require a minimum of effort. We hardly exert ourselves inaccomplishing them. Indeed, we may complete a routinelike driving tothe office or taking out the trashhardly conscious of having exertedany energy or effort at all. Moreover, routines require little thought.They take no planning, require no serious monitoring or evaluation, andare done most of the time almost without thinking. In fact, much of thetime we are involved in routines, we are thinking about something else,as when someone listens to the radio while getting ready for the day ordriving to the office. Routines cost us little more than time and inconvenience,which we willingly invest for the benefit we derive from observingthem. And routines seldom change. We always drive to work thesame way, follow the same order of activities in getting ready for the dayor clean up the kitchen in the same manner after a meal. We have nosense of a need to change our routines, so we continue to follow themwithout much thought or adjustment day after day, year after year. Andour routines serve us well, allowing us to maintain a certain status quo indifferent areas of our lives but not really helping us to advance in any ofthose areas.
A discipline is different. A discipline is something to which we submitin order to effect change. As Dallas Willard says, "A discipline is anyactivity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what wecannot do by direct effort," like losing weight or getting in shape (so thatwe'll look and feel better and live longer), or learning a new skill on thejob (so that we can secure a promotion, raise or better position). Wecan't make ourselves feel better, and we can't achieve a promotion orraise on our own, so we submit to certain disciplines that we believe willenable us to accomplish those things not immediately within our power.
Disciplines can require a great deal of effort. We push our bodies tonew levels of exertion as we go through our daily workout, or we stretchour minds in new directions to understand some new procedure or mastersome new technology. We force our brains and bodies into concentrated,strenuous activity in order to prepare ourselves for taking on newroles or responsibilities or assuming a new lifestyle. A good disciplinerequires serious intellectual involvementin planning, monitoringprogress, evaluating levels of mastery and so forth.
Further, disciplines tend to involve significant investments of time. Todo them we have to sacrifice other activities we might otherwise chooseto do and concentrate time and effort on mastering those disciplines thatwe hope will get us what we want. We have to be willing to give up certainthings we enjoyfoods, leisure activities or restin order to devotethe time and effort needed for getting in shape, becoming a better workeror preparing for a new job. And disciplines tend to get adjusted fromtime to time. As we reach one level of expertise or mastery, we may alterour disciplines in order to push beyond that level to a still higher one.
Both routines and disciplines are important in our lives. Yet they areclearly not the same. A problem arises when we allow what are intendedto be disciplines to become mere routineslike my summer workouts.When that happens, not only do our disciplines not produce the desiredresults, but they become tedious, boring and dull. We may be faithful inattending to them, but not in the way they were designed and certainlywithout much in the way of results to show for our effort.
This problem is especially serious in the area of our spiritual liveswhen our practice of the disciplines of grace is allowed to become a merespiritual routine instead.
God has given us the disciplines of grace as means to help us grow inlove for him and our neighbors. These precious toolsprayer, the Wordof God, worship, solitude, giving, fasting, silence in God's presence andso forthbring us into his presence in ways that everyday living doesnot, enabling us to glimpse his glory and tap into his power for dailyrenewal in Christ. But when our practice of the disciplines of grace isallowed to lapse into routine devotional activitieswhen our disciplinesbecome mere routinesthey lose their power to bring us face to facewith the Lord in life-transforming ways.
In Jesus' day no group of people was more renowned for their disciplinethan the Jewish religious leaders. One and all knew them as themen who prayed the most, knew Scripture the best, fasted the most consistentlyand gave the most alms to the poor. Some of them were sincerelyspiritual, even godly persons, such as Zacharias and Nicodemus.Yet, for a great many of them, their disciplines had not served to preparetheir hearts for the coming of the Messiah or for being able to recognizehim when he appeared among them teaching and doing good. Theirpractice of the disciplines of grace had not helped them grow in love,either for God or their neighbors. Many of them were proud, greedy,scornful of the ignorant masses and protective of their special status insociety. They saw Jesus as a threat and, after putting up with him forthree years, conspired to put him to death.
All their disciplines had been of no use in helping them to experienceGod's glory and enter into his grace. They pursued their practice of spiritualdisciplines merely in order to keep their place in society rather thanto grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. Their disciplines hadbecome mere routines, giving them a certain amount of self-satisfactionand enabling them to preserve their status in the eyes of the people; yet theirspiritual lives were empty and devoid of any real relationship with God.They had become "whitewashed tombs," as Jesus observedself-satisfied,self-righteous, complacent and smug.
Before our own spiritual lives degenerate into such a condition andwe become negative and judgmental, lacking in compassion and havinglittle zeal for the life of faith or the mission of Christ, we need to considerwhether our own use of the disciplines of grace is according to God'spurpose and plan.
The State of Spiritual Disciplines Today
In the church today we are blessed with abundant resources and givenendless advice and encouragement for using the disciplines of grace forChrist and his kingdom. There is no shortage of Bibles and Bible studymaterials, groups and classes for learning the Word of God, books andconferences on prayer, manuals concerning and opportunities for worship,or calls for fasting. Most people I know who profess to be followersof Christ are engaged in spiritual disciplines at some level, althoughmany of them will at the same time admit to a certain lack of satisfactionwith their devotional lives. On the whole, though, it would seem that thepractice of spiritual disciplines is alive and relatively well among themembers of the church.
But the question arises as to why the church appears to be so lackingin power. Why do our biblical convictions play so meager a role in shapingour culture and giving direction to our society? Why are the ranks ofchurches declining as a percentage of the population as a wholein spiteof the megachurch phenomenon? Why do such behaviors as incivility,vulgarity and indecency continue to rise and be tolerated in our society?Why are believers in general so reticent about their faith? Why do weexpend so much effort in squabbles over such matters as forms of worship,the role of women in the church and the place of Christian pop culturein the life of the community of faith? Why are we so despised by thecultural and social elite of our society? And why, when we dispersethroughout society as the leaven of Christ's kingdom in the loaf of a sinfuland dying age, are we so indistinct as citizens of the heavenly realm?
There are doubtless many answers to such questions, but one suggestsitself to me that, from my own experience and observations, as well as myreading and study, requires further examination. That is, as a community,believers are not experiencing what God intends for them from their practiceof the disciplines of grace. As Simon Chan suggests in the earlierquote, either we are not involved in spiritual disciplines or our involvementhas become perfunctory and not a source of grace and glory for transformedliving. It is possible that many have allowed their spiritual disciplinesto lapse into mere routines without being aware. They are praying,reading their Bibles and faithfully attending worship services, but nothingmuch is happening in their lives as citizens of the kingdom of God. Theycontinue to be strapped with the same besetting sins, seem hardly moreinclined to offer themselves in sacrificial service to the Lord, are quick tocriticize and condemn those who disagree with them on spiritual matters,and are reluctant to engage their neighbors in spiritual conversations forthe cause of the gospel. At the same time they are active in the disciplinesof gracehaving their daily devotions, being in a study group, faithfullyattending at worshipbut they are not growing in grace. Rather, they arebarely managing to maintain a kind of spiritual status quo amid the pressof temptations, duties and the hectic pace of postmodern society.
For such people it may well be that their spiritual disciplines havebecome mere routines, without power and effect for turning the worldupside down for Christ.
What God intended as disciplines to bring us into the presence of hisglory and to transform us increasingly into the image of his Son have, formany of us, become mere routinesmindless, effortless, fruitless undertakingsthat placate our sense of duty but do nothing to equip us forkingdom living in the world.
In the Arena of Grace
The disciplines of grace constitute a special arena of grace in which,through intensive personal encounter with the living God, in the presenceof his Spirit and the power of his Word, our love for him is renewedand deepened, and we are further enlivened in Christ to love our neighborsas ourselves. This is not to say that we do not meet Christ at othertimes in our lives or that God is not to be found throughout the course ofour day as he makes himself known through the world around us orguides and prompts us by his Spirit. It is simply to insist that, in the disciplinesof grace, there is an intensification of God's presence and powerthat comes from careful and deliberate attention to these disciplines, andthat can effect dramatic and permanent change in our lives. This experienceof the transforming grace of God cannot be found anywhere else.Without it we can hardly expect to know the life-changing power ofChrist in the normal course of our lives.
What happens in the practice of spiritual disciplines? How should weenter into them, and what might we expect as a result? In 2 Corinthians3:12-18 the apostle Paul shows us what God intends should happen duringthe practice of the spiritual discipline of God's Word. What we discoverhere is equally valid for all the spiritual disciplines:
Therefore, having such a hope, let us be very bold, and not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel might not continually look upon that which was fading away. But their minds were hardened, for until this very day the same veil remains at the reading of the Old Covenant. It has not been removed. Because it is done away with in Christ. But until this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil remains over their hearts. But when someone turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. And the Lord is the Spirit; and wherever the Spirit of the Lord isliberty! But we all, with our faces unveiled, as we behold the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into that same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit (my translation).
Notice first of all that spiritual disciplines are arenas of grace in whichwe encounter a special concentration of the power of God's Spirit and ofhis Word. God's Word prescribes the spiritual disciplines, and his Spiritprovides the power enabling us to benefit from the disciplines prescribedin his Word (we shall examine this more carefully in the next chapter).These two powers, present in all the spiritual disciplines, are at work inour lives according to God's good pleasure for each one of us (Phil 2:12-13),that is, according to our individual needs and the opportunities forministry that God places before us each day.
In anticipation of entering these arenas where the powers of God areespecially concentrated for our growth, we look forward in faith eagerlyto what the Lord might do in our lives. Our attitude is like that of thepsalmist who prayed, "Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrousthings out of thy law" (Ps 119:18), or like David when he camebefore the Lord saying, "Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness:thou hast enlarged me when I was in my distress; have mercy uponme, and hear my prayer" (Ps 4:1). A sense of eagerness and heightenedexpectation settles on us as we enter by faith into the practice of spiritualdisciplines. Like Moses ascending Mt. Sinai, we experience a feeling ofwonder, excitement and fear at the prospect of meeting with the livingGod. And we do have faith that we shall meet with him, shall "look full inhis wonderful face" and hear him speaking directly to us, have audiencewith him concerning the desires of our heart, and be warmed andrenewed by his love and instructed by his Word. Our joy in this privilegeand in our love for him who provides it for us begins to rise and revive aswe enter the arena of his power to encounter him afresh. Like childrenrushing downstairs on Christmas morning, we are filled with wonder,excitement and the prospect of blessing and delight.
Once there we encounter the glory of God, that is, the very presence ofGod as he makes himself known through one or more means, assuring usof his presence with us and enveloping us in his grace. Paul tells us thatthe glory of God comes off the pages of Scriptureor fills the atmosphereof our prayers or any of the other spiritual disciplinesand we are suddenlyaware of a loving, other-worldly power making itself known to us,affecting us heart, soul, mind and strength. We see God in new ways,experience him more profoundly and really hear him speaking with us byhis Word and Spirit, feel his comforting or convicting presence withgreater intensity and passion, and desire to draw closer to him. WithMoses we plead, "Lord, show me your glory!" We know what Jeremiahexperienced when he exulted, "Thy words were found, and I did eat them;and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart" (Jer15:16). Our bodies may be affected by such an encounter with the livingGod. We may raise our hands in praise or supplication, weep tears of joyand gladness or sorrow for our sins. We may cover our faces in shame, cryout in joy or burst into a song of praise and thanks to God. Our heartsmay race with the prospect of new growth or opportunities for servingthe Lord. We may find our minds transfixed for long moments on aphrase from God's Word or some aspect of his creation that reveals hisbeauty and glory in a new and wondrous way. We may fall to our kneesor leap to our feet. Or we may simply sit in stunned silence and marvelat the grace of God for sinners such as we. We feel ourselves, whetherslowly or suddenly, being drawn beyond our present condition to agreater sense of Christlikeness, a deeper love for him and strongerdesire to show his love to others. Like the disciples on the Mount ofTransfiguration we would prolong this experience of the glory of God,for there is nothing in this world that can compare with it.
But this manifestation of the glory of Godwhatever form it takesisnot merely for the purpose of exciting, soothing or stimulating us duringthe practice of spiritual disciplines. Rather, it is given to transform usincreasingly into the image of the Lord. The Spirit of God, says Paul,takes the manifestation of God's glory that we encounter in the practiceof spiritual disciplines and brings it to bear on our lives to make us morelike Jesus Christ. From one experience of God's glory to the next, we seenew aspects of his nature that we long to possess in ourselves. Our ownsins are illuminated with such brilliance that we come to hate them andlove the righteousness of the Lord more and more. We discover newways that we might lay down our lives for our friends, reach out to ourlost neighbors or show the love of Christ to members of our family orchurch. A new resolve begins to form in our hearts. Old selfish thoughtsand ways are despised and rejected. Definite plans take shape by whichwe will act on what God has shown us, and we become aware of a newpower at work within us, preparing us to live for Christ in new and excitingways. Hope, confidence and joy rise, and we are thrilled with theprospect of going forth to live for Christ in whatever he may bring ourway this day. Even in those "dark nights of the soul" we will know thecomforting presence and grace of God assuring us that his love is surroundingus and that he will never fail nor forsake us (Ps 13; 43).
Excerpted from Disciplines of Grace by t.m.moore. Copyright © 2001 by T. M. Moore. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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