DISCIPLINES OF THE SPIRIT
Garry D. Nation
Jesus among his Students
Rembrandt van Rijn
14 For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, 16 That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; 17 That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;19 And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.
Ephesians 3:14-21 (KJV)
Right up front I need to explain: I make a distinction between the practices commonly called (by R. Foster and others) “spiritual disciplines”—viz., prayer, attention to the scriptures, fasting, etc.—and what I am calling disciplines of the spirit. The former (which I think are better, or at least more precisely called disciplines of godliness) are practices that are essential to Christian discipleship. They are not unique to Christianity, however, and every religion in the world has its own versions of them. They can be practiced by any soul, regardless of whether that soul has been touched by God's grace, redeemed by Christ's blood, and made alive by his Spirit.
Disciplines of the spirit, as I conceive them, are movements of the spirit of a person who has been reborn by the Spirit of God. These movements are initiated in the grace of God by His Spirit “in the inner man.” The spiritual disciplines work from the outside in, but disciplines of the spirit work from the inside out. They are exercises that directly strengthen the faith of the believer in his inner being.
These exercises may coordinate with the disciplines of godliness, but they are prior to them, distinct from them, and consist not in habitual practices, but rather in immediate, prolonged, and determined resolution to believe in, hope in, trust in, and obey the Lord in the face of good apparent reasons not to.
We might compare spiritual disciplines (prayer, etc.) to physical exercises that strengthen the muscles of movement, and disciplines of the spirit (which I shall name below) to exertion that strengthens the core muscles of the body—those muscles that insure stability and prevent injury. It is interesting to me that, in contrast to exercises that require the body to move, those that strengthen the core often require stillness—planking, for example.
Examine the intercessory prayer of the Apostle Paul above. The end and goal of the prayer is that we "might be filled with all the fullness of God.” In order for that to happen we must be able to comprehend and experientially know “with all saints” the multi-dimensional, all-surpassing love of Christ. Our ability to do that is based on our being “rooted and grounded” or firmly established in that love, and being able to count on the fact that whatever happens in our lives, God loves us. That realization comes when Christ makes his home in our hearts as we exercise faith in him with a kind of faith that is only made possible by the empowering of the Holy Spirit “in the inner man.”
Power is only effective when it is exercised, and exercise cannot happen without stress. The Holy Spirit gives us inward power to meet stress, and enables us through faith to say with the psalmist, “I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.” (Psalm 131:2) As he does so, we learn the disciplines of the spirit.
I can think of at least four such disciplines, which often have to be practiced simultaneously. They are all commandments of Scripture, but I am calling them disciplines jbecause they require a deliberate choice and entail an active engagment from the inside out in doing what others may see from the outside as passivity and disengagment. They are:
The phrase disciplines of the spirit refers to a response to a given situation in life in which the believer must call upon the inner resources of his* faith in order to be obedient to God as a follower of Jesus Christ.
*The reader of course should understand that I am using the generic masculine pronoun because it is still grammatically incorrect to use the plural “their,” tiresome to keep repeating he/she, and confusing to switch genders every other usage.
Being empowered by the Holy Spirit, the believer engages his mind, exercises his will, and check his emotions in order to see the will of God fulfilled in his life—both in the immediate situation and in the larger purpose of God in the advancement of his kingdom.
The word discipline by itself seems to connote some measure of unpleasantness, of having to make ourselves do something that we otherwise would not want to do. If we are going to be honest we must admit that this is not wrong. We do not have to exert our will to indulge in something pleasurable. But it is not the whole truth of the matter, or even the main thing. The primary purpose of a discipline is to learn, to acquire a knowledge or skill that we desire to master even if the process is difficult, tedious, even painful. So it is with disciplines of the spirit.
As indicated above, I identify four things that I regard as being disciplines of the spirit, disciplines that are exercised from the inside out.
The first is the discipline of self-humbling. It is first in priority, and fundamental to all other disciplines. It is the essence of the first beatitude, to be poor in spirit, which is when we come to grips with our lowly status and acknowledge it to God, to others, and to ourselves. To such persons the kingdom of heaven belongs.
Many pious people pray for humility. If you do that, I recommend that you stop. It is an unscriptural prayer. There is neither command nor example in scripture of praying for humility. There are, however, numerous occasions in which God commands us to humble ourselves, describes the grace he shows to the humble, and warns of the judgment that comes to those who exalt themselves. Here is one of them.
“'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.' Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you.” 1 Peter 5:5-6 (ESV)
Self-humbling is when we respond to the command of God to humble ourselves so that he does not have to humble us. It is to set aside our pride when we think we ought to be exalted; to stand aside when others are lifted up who may not be as estimable as we are; to contribute to the success of others when others are not returning the favor. It is counter to what we naturally think and feel, but when we lower ourselves we are putting ourselves in a position where we can do service to others that honors God, and in turn be honored by God. It is God's will and desire to honor us, to lift us up, to fill our lives with true significance, but he can only do that for the humble.
It is also, as we shall see, a prerequisite to all of the other disciplines of the spirit. Before we can forgive, before we can give thanks, before we can truly wait upon the Lord, we must humble ourselves.
Our chief example is Jesus Christ, who not only modeled the behavior of humility (John 13:1-20), but whose very life and presence among us demonstrates the self-humbling attitude God requires of us all (Philippians 2:5-11)
Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son portrays the love of God for his straying children, but it draws its power from our real world understanding that forgiveness is hard. We all would like to think we deserve forgiveness, but we all struggle when we are confronted with one whose offense seems unforgivable—all the more so when we are the ones who have been offended.
Rembrandt's painting above captures much of this power. The face of the ragged, penitent son is hidden in the breast of the father whose expression combining both pain and compassion is the focal point of the painting. But looking on are the faces of the uncomprehending friend to the right, the disinterested servant waiting for orders in the background, and the open-mouthed, vacant-eyed incredulity of the unforgiving older son in the shadows.
Forgiving others is central to the ethics Jesus enjoined on his disciples—he even embedded it in the center of the prayer he taught them, and linked it directly to the forgiveness they prayed from the Father. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive when his brother sins against him. “Seven times?” he proposed, hoping perhaps that this generous offering would please his teacher. Jesus responded, “I do not say to you seven times,” and all the disciples let out their breath in relief—until he added, “but seventy times seven."
Peter's question indicates that even though he did not “get it,” he got some of it. Jesus had just taught them about the procedure of dealing with grievances, and ended with teaching about forgiveness. What Peter “got” was the fact that it is all well and good to talk about forgiving people who hurt and offend, but it is not at all easy to do. Anyone who forgives easily has not really, seriously been either hurt or offended. The commandment to forgive is a demand that reaches into the deepest part of a person and calls out, “Have you been forgiven, yes or no?” and if the answer is yes, then forgiveness is not optional.
That is why forgiving is a discipline. We must call upon all the strength and resources God provides to us “according to the riches of his glory” in order to accomplish it. It is not automatic. Forgiving requires self-humbling followed by sacrifice. It cannot be done with a simple decision of the will. It may start that way, but it is a decision by which one declares war on his own sense of honor and justice and worth until finally these sense come to agreement, regardless of whether the offender perceives, receives, and responds to the forgiveness.
There is much that can, should, and must be said about forgiving others that I am not going to speak of here. My purpose is to point out that it is one of the core exercises of the Christian's spiritual life. Going back to Ephesians 3 where this discussion took off, it is as a discipline of the spirit that being mastered gives us the strength to know the multi-dimensional love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (v. 18).
The story of Simeon is told in the Gospel of Luke 2:25-35. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ.” We do not know how long he waited for the promise to be fulfilled, but Luke seems to suggest that it had been a long time—perhaps many years. Taking the infant Jesus in his arms, though, he was flooded with joy and broke forth in a song of praise and release.
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation.
Perhaps the most difficult and trying of the disciplines of the spirit is the discipline of waiting. Waiting is not passive. It only looks that way from the outside. To wait—more specifically, to wait upon or for the Lord—means to continue on a path of obedient faith during a prolonged period in which God seems silent, distant, and inactive toward performing that which we had believed he would do.
Waiting is a theme that permeates the scriptures, and is often (not always) connected to the portentous number 40, starting with Noah who waited 40 days and 40 nights for the rain of judgment to cease. What is the significance of that particular number? I think it is connected to the fact that it is outside the natural rhythms of life when we expect things to happen. We live in a world that passes through 24-hour night/day cycles, 28-day lunar cycles, 365-day solar cycles. Our bodies follow the rhythms of the world, and our society organizes life accordingly. “40” stands outside of those cycles and rhythms. Elijah and Jesus both fasted 40 days. Moses waited in exile for 40 years, and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. 40 marks a time of waiting in faith, because it passes beyond the time that we might expect a season of waiting to end and pushes us to the limits of our faith.
The specific phrase “waiting on the Lord,” however, does not appear until the Psalms, and outside that book is only used widely by the prophets Isaiah and Micah (who lived around the same time period). I think it may have been coined by David, who certainly learned the discipline of waiting in his own life: Anointed by Samuel as a lad; called into service as a singer by Saul; but brought forward as a warrior by Goliath; spending years in the kings service, then expelled from the court and hunted as an outlaw, finally going into self-imposed exile; returning to his homeland, waiting to be crowned king first by his own tribe, then by all the tribes of Israel. He waited years to see God fulfill the promise on his life. It was he who wrote these lines and many others like them (Psalm 27:14):
Wait for the LORD;
be of good courage and he shall strengthen your heart.
Wait, I say, on the LORD.
Isaiah, writing prophetically to a people who waited in exile, assured them that their hope in God was not in vain for the length of their wait (Isaiah 40:31.
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
All of us will endure seasons of waiting, likely multiple times in our lives. Waiting takes many different forms and God has different purposes for them at different seasons of life. Sometimes waiting is through suffering as it was with Job. Sometimes the waiting is corrective discipline as it was for Israel in the wilderness. Sometimes it is a test of faith as it was with Abraham, who waited thirty years until after the ability of himself and his wife to have children had passed before the promised gift arrived. Often the wait is painfully long, and many are the prayers that cry out, “How long, O Lord?” Indeed, all of creation "waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19), and we who believe are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
Again, waiting is not a passive thing, and faith may waver. Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” The waiting takes a toll. We may be tempted to give up, tempted to despair. We may even loose sight of the thing we had hoped for. But the second part of the proverb is also true: “But when the desire comes it is a tree of life.” God always proves the worth of the wait. It is indeed a discipline that strengthens the spiritual core to be able to know the love of Christ that passes knowledge.
It never occurred to the disciples who were crossing the Sea of Galilee with Jesus to give thanks to God when the winds rose that threatened to swamp the boat. Instead they were alarmed that he was so unconcerned about the waves that he could sleep soundly through the storm.
Yet thanksgiving is a necessary discipline of the spirit. Every situation calls on us to give thanks whether we feel thankful or not. For thanksgiving is not the same thing as thankfulness. Gratitude is a feeling, but to give thanks is to be obedient regardless of how we may feel.
“In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” (I Thessalonians 5:18)
It does not matter whether the circumstance is pleasant or adverse. It is God's will for us to give thanks.
Some are quick to point out that the above scripture says “IN everything,” but at least it doesn't say “FOR everything,” so at least there is that loophole.
Except that Ephesians 5:20, in the midst of an important passage about Christian spirituality, does say FOR everything:
“Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (ESV)
Why is it important to give thanks in and for all things? To give thanks is not merely an expression of gratitude, it is a primal confession of faith. Romans 8:28 says, not that “everything happens for a reason,” but that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” So to give thanks is a confession by which the believer says:
I believe in a God who is sovereign and in control over all things.
I believe that the sovereign God is good and wise.
I believe that the good, all-wise, sovereign God loves me and will work all things for my good.
I believe that God's good, loving purpose for me will be fulfilled in this situation, no matter how it may look to me now.
ThThere are numerous testimonies of people who have seen God change their situation after they gave him thanks, but that is not what thanksgiving is for. What commonly does change, however, is our response to the situation. To give thanks is the single most important expression of faith a Christian can make.
CoConsider this: At the Last Supper Jesus “took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you.”
ThThis was more than the simple giving of thanks before a meal, more than a formal thanksgiving before a ceremonial observance (Passover). “This is my body,” he told them. He was looking forward to the terrible execution he would face in a matter of hours, and the bread represented the sacrifice of himself he was about to make for their—our—sakes. And he gave thanks. Though the situation he was facing was unspeakably grim, he gave thanks because he looked beyond it to “the joy that was set before him” and thus "endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
Let us follow our Lord in the discipline of giving thanks, both in and for every situation.
Old Man Praying
Rembrandt van Rijn
Return of the Prodigal Son
Rembrandt van Rijn
Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple
Rembrandt van Rijn
Storm on the Sea of Galilee
Rembrandt van Rijn