Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the Spiritual Disciplines.]
We end this series with a brief word on the philosophical underpinnings of the spiritual disciplines.
There are certain basic, underlying realities that help to explain the need and usefulness of spiritual disciplines. They are as follows:
It is possible to deliberately grow in godliness.
We have an active role to play in our sanctification. Change is not something that simply happens to us. We can pursue change. We cannot guarantee the exact timing or the precise outcome, but generally, we can expect fruit when we sow. Here are a few passages that get at this concept of personal effort:
- Galatians 6:7-9 – “ Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
- 1 Timothy 4:7 – “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness…”
- 2 Timothy 1:6 – “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands…”
- Philippians 2:12b – “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”
- 2 Peter 1:5 – “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge…”
God uses means.
God uses striving and effort and practice. Consider the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17). The twelve address Jesus. Jesus multiplies actual food. The disciples distribute it. If you were present for that miracle, your experience of it would actually be quite unmiraculous. You would have simply been handed some food by a grubby fishermen. That’s it. But it was a miracle through means. And this is how it goes. Sometimes God sends manna from heaven, but oftentimes he raises up farmers.
We are spirit-bodies.
We are spirit-bodies all rolled into one, and that makeup means that spiritual things can have bodily consequences, and bodily things can have spiritual consequences. You probably already knew that spiritual things can have bodily consequences. We know anxiety can give you an ulcer. We know happiness can make you energetic (Proverbs 15:30). We know stress can give you a heart attack (Proverbs 17:22). These are all immaterial concepts or realities having effects in your physical body. But the effect works in reverse, too.
What we do physically can affect us spiritually. Paul speaks of the spiritual consequences of physical sexual union (1 Corinthians 6:15). Jesus speaks of the spiritual consequences of how we use our physical eyes, the lamp of the body (Luke 11:34ff). Where your treasure (literal, physical) is there your heart (spiritual) will be also (Matthew 6:21).
We know that the less you eat the more angry you may be (hangry). I once heard John Piper remark that he came to realize that he was more likely to hope in the Lord when he was getting enough sleep. Why? Because we know that physical exhaustion can make us feel down. As Patton once commented, “Exhaustion makes cowards of us all.” I even saw a TED Talk once where the person talked about how studies have shown that there is a connection between making ourselves physically bigger (raising arms, etc.) and feeling bigger, and so the speaker said you could do these exercises before a job interview, for example, to feel more confident.
So you might ask why do I need silence and solitude to pray? Can’t I pray anywhere, anytime? Sure! But silence and solitude can actually quiet your spirit so as to better pray. Or, you might ask why do I need to physically go to church and listen to a sermon? Because you are physically acting out your submission to the Word, which in turns help you actually submit to the Word.
Anecdotally, this is so often how the Lord works. If we pray for patience, he does not often zap us with patience. Rather, he gives us situations (literal, physical) that require patience and we grow in our patience (spiritual) as we exercise through those situations.
I hope this series has been helpful. Next up, we will dive into one particular discipline: Solitude.