The Slow Work of Spiritual Disciplines

by Jul 3, 2023Worship

When I began this paint-by-number I worked for several hours only to be discouraged by how blank the canvas looked at the end of those hours. While I’d spent hours tediously mixing colors and painting tiny details, it looked as if I’d done very little work. Frustrating. 

Sometimes, my spiritual disciplines feel similar: a lot of work with little to show for it. If you are unfamiliar with spiritual disciplines, I’d invite you to look at this non-exhaustive list as one author has divided them in terms of abstinence and engagement. The disciplines of abstinence generally involve abstaining, while the disciplines of engagement generally involve partaking.

Disciplines of Abstinence:

  • Solitude
  • Silence
  • Fasting
  • Frugality
  • Chastity
  • Secrecy
  • Sacrifice

Disciplines of Engagement:

  • Study
  • Worship
  • Celebration
  • Service
  • Prayer
  • Fellowship
  • Confession
  • Submission*

These disciplines, also called practices, are not required for salvation. They don’t have the power to save. But they can be incredibly useful in our sanctification! These practices don’t actually have the power to sanctify us either—that is the role of the Holy Spirit. But these practices can serve as intentional arenas that we set up and invite the Spirit into to battle our flesh and make us more like Jesus. Much like setting up a coffee date with a friend doesn’t make you closer to them—their presence, their conversation, and the quality time with them does that! But the scheduled coffee date is the arena you purposefully set up in order to experience them. 

The purpose of these disciplines is to fight our flesh and allow the Spirit to transform us. Galatians 5:17 tells us: 

“The desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, in order to keep you from doing whatever you want.” 

When we sin, we reveal that our desires are contrary to God’s desires. And here is where the disciplines of abstinence and engagement can be of assistance. For example, disciplines like chastity and frugality can keep us from committing sins of commission, such as sexual immorality and greed. Similarly,  disciplines like confession and fellowship keep us from sins of omission—neglecting what God has commanded us to do, such as “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16) and “meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25). 

Sometimes these practices feel freeing, joy-filled, and revolutionary! However, often they feel like work, and I wonder if I’ve changed at all. Did practicing secrecy by giving money and telling no one about it really change me? I got no recognition from man—did God recognize it? Or practicing frugality by not buying the “latest thing” that everyone else has—did that really transform my heart? What about fasting? After all, the last time I fasted I didn’t necessarily feel more like Jesus—I just felt hungry. 

But as I realized through my paint-by-number, progress appears after consistent work over a long period of time. Little by little, day by day, the painting began to look more like what it was supposed to look like—what the creator intended it to look like. And it’s the same with me. Because of the Spirit working through the disciplines of abstinence, I am better at denying my body for the Kingdom of God. And because of the Spirit working through the disciplines of engagement, I am better at engaging my body for the Kingdom of God. While it’s hard to see the change from yesterday to today, it is undeniable that I’m a different person than I was ten years ago. Like compound interest, spiritual disciplines yield great results over time. As Hebrews 12:11 reminds us, “For the moment, all discipline seems not to be pleasant, but painful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” 

So I invite you to practice these disciplines that yield righteousness! Take inventory of the disciplines that come easily for you and those your flesh wars against. Practice them within your community and experience the transformative power of the Holy Spirit through them!

Recommended Reading

  • Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines by David Mathis
  • Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Don Whitney

*Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).

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