For many of us moderns, the idea of discipline has decidedly mixed connotations. We live in a culture of quick fixes and life hacks, large returns with minimal effort. Discipline seems like too much work. Surely there must be a shortcut to our goals. More than that, discipline sounds a bit scary, conjuring images of punishment or consequences due to failure.
However, the truth is we all take part in discipline of one sort or other. Elite athletes engage in gruelling training regimens, artists and musicians spend long hours each day practicing their craft. Students spend evenings and weekends hitting the books. People seeking to improve their health commit to exercise, better diet and improved sleeping patterns.
All these forms of discipline require commitment and sacrifice, but we’re willing to make the effort because we want to achieve the goal we’ve set ourselves. The discipline may be difficult, but as we look past it to our desired outcome, it becomes something we’re willing and even happy to endure.
As followers of Jesus, we want more than anything to know our Lord better, to love him more deeply and to become more like him. God has not only put this desire in our hearts, but he’s also given us the means to pursue it, through what we call the spiritual disciplines.
The first, most basic discipline for followers of Jesus is engagement with his Word. Throughout its pages, Scripture contains countless directives recommending itself to the reader. We’re told to treasure it, cling to it, hide it in our heart, taste its sweetness and value it beyond gold. To be able to do these things, we need to read it regularly, studying and memorising and meditating on its truths.
The primary reason isn’t to gather information about ourselves or about our world, but to encounter God and experience him more fully. God has chosen to reveal himself through his written Word, and ultimately through his incarnate Word, his Son Jesus Christ. To be sure, Scripture has much to say about our world and our human condition, but it does so only with reference to God, in order to display his power, character and glory.
More specifically, the Scriptures point to Christ, God’s ultimate revelation of himself. This isn’t just true of the Gospels but of every book of the Bible. On several occasions, Jesus told his original followers that all of Scripture – Law, Prophets and Psalms – was about him. He claimed that Moses and David had written about him, centuries before he was born. When Jesus prayed for his disciples, he asked God to sanctify them through the truth of his Word (John 17:17).
This, then, is the ultimate purpose for reading God’s Word – that we may encounter Jesus more intimately, grow in our faith and love for him, and be transformed to be more like him. In this light, engaging with Scripture ceases to be a chore and becomes a delightful – though sometimes challenging – journey of discovery. If that’s not our current experience, we’re invited to cry out to God with the Psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).
Prayer is the second basic principle of spiritual discipline, hand in hand with reading God’s Word. Both are enjoined on countless occasions in Scripture, and they are the primary, complementary means through which we encounter God. One of the most fruitful ways we can pray is in response to Scripture we have read. When God’s Spirit opens our eyes to some new or wondrous truth in his Word, we can respond by talking to God about it.
When we pray, we’re not telling God anything he doesn’t know. As Jesus said, our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask him. And we’re certainly not trying to persuade God or to change his mind, as if he’s reluctant or has made a mistake. According to Jesus, God is our good Father who delights in giving us good things. He’s also sovereign and infinite in wisdom, knowing what’s best for us and determining the end from the beginning.
Why then do we pray? We pray because God has graciously chosen to work through our prayers. Like a kind Father, he patiently uses our imperfect efforts to accomplish his perfect will. It’s a mystery we can’t truly grasp, but also an astounding privilege. In light of this truth, Jesus urged his followers to pray and never give up, assuring us that anything we ask in his name and according to his will, he will do.
Beyond having our requests answered and participating in God’s work, prayer offers an even more profound wonder. For those who are in Christ, prayer is a gateway into the presence of God, an opportunity to spend time with him, sharing our joys and sorrows with him and getting to know him better. As with reading the Word, prayer allows us to encounter God more intimately and to be reshaped into his image. It’s no wonder Paul could write, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Solitude is something of an alien concept in our contemporary Western societies. We feel we’re too busy to spend time alone in quiet contemplation. Yet we manage to find the time to scroll through our social media feeds or binge the latest series on Netflix. There’s nothing innately wrong with those activities, but we’ve grown accustomed to over-stimulation and short attention spans, and we dread spending any time alone with our thoughts.
As followers of Jesus, we want to emulate the example of our Lord. Despite a hectic itinerant ministry in which thousands flocked to hear him teach or to be healed by him, Jesus would go off by himself, up a mountain or into the wilderness, to spend time praying and communing with his Father. Sometimes he would invite a few of his closest friends to come away with him for rest and reflection.
It’s a practice men and women of faith have followed through the centuries, and still do. Solitude is an opportunity to step away from our cares and concerns to rest and be refreshed, a healthy part of a life balanced as God designed us to live it. More than that, it’s a chance to be alone with God in prayer, to meditate on his Word and to fill our hearts and minds with his beauty and his truth.
We live in a culture that claims to value community, but without the inconvenience, messiness and long-term commitments that entails. Just as we feel too busy for solitude, we feel too independent for genuine community life with all its warts and challenges, preferring to filter our relationships through the screens and apps on our electronic devices.
However, just as God wired us to require times of solitude, he also designed us for community, for relationship with him and with one another. At our most fundamental level, we need to belong, to love and to be loved. It could hardly be otherwise – we’re created in the image of the triune God, whose three persons have shared a perfectly loving, intimate relationship for all eternity.
It only follows that Christ would build his Church, his ekklesia, with women and men he has called out from every background to form his new redeemed community of faith. It’s the context in which diverse believers grow together in becoming like their Lord. As his brothers and sisters, we’re to form a family whose members share their lives, their burdens and successes, encouraging one another in their faith and showing each other grace in their failings. Following the example of Jesus, this community is to be a safe and sacred space that receives all comers with kindness and respect.
Abiding in Christ
Hours before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus offered his disciples an evocative metaphor to illustrate his relationship with them: he was the vine, they were the branches (John 15:1-17). He was the source of their life and their vitality, and they could only bear fruit through their connection with him. In fact, Jesus was rather blunt in telling them that apart from him, they could do nothing.
Just as the branches need to stay connected to the vine, Jesus stressed over and over that his followers need to abide in him, to remain in him, to find their home and haven and joy in him. This is a vital connection that flows in both directions – as we abide in him, he also abides in us. The ultimate purpose, according to Jesus, is that we bear much fruit, thus proving to be his disciples, to the glory of his Father.
How then are we to abide in Jesus, and what kind of fruit are we to bear? Jesus gives us the key – we abide in him by his Word abiding in us, shaping and changing us and revealing more of him to us (John 15:7). And the fruit we bear is the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – demonstrating that we’re being remade in his image as living branches of the true vine (Galatians 5:22-23).
We can’t accomplish any of this by trying harder and doing more. Only God can grow his fruit in us. As his daughters and sons, we simply hold his hand, knowing that our loving Father is holding us and will fulfill all his good purposes in us.
At the same time, we’re not passive in the process. To abide in Jesus means we spend time with him, getting to know him better and better, growing in our trust and love for him and allowing him to change us to be like him. We do this by meeting him in the places he has appointed – Scripture, prayer, solitude, community – what we call the spiritual disciplines. In more poetic terms, we place ourselves in the paths of grace.
Like all discipline, these require effort, but through them our sense of wonder and worship can only grow, along with the clusters of spiritual fruit we’ll bear to the glory of God. Jesus promised that as we abide in him, his joy will be in us, and our joy will be full. The journey will give us an ever-expanding foretaste of the life we’ll share with our Lord for all eternity. As followers of Jesus, we scarcely need more incentive than that.