Proverbs 25:28 tells us, "A man without self-control [or self-discipline] is like a city broken into and left without walls." Back in the Old Testament time, a city is protected by its tall and thick surrounding walls from her foreign intruders. When a wall is broken down, it usually indicates that the city is in a great danger. Inevitably, the lives in the city become vulnerable. Can you imagine your house today without any fences, doors, and windows? You will get all kinds of unsolicited animals, bugs, dusts, rains, snows, wind, and the worst yet, bad people. Even the good people may feel tempted to swing by when no one is looking. This is what is like to people who lack self-discipline. Their guards are down and they have no protective shield. They are vulnerable to attacks, like people with the weak immune system, who can easily contract illnesses. They are also like what James describes the waves tossed back and forth by the wind. They are unstable and when trials and temptations come, they quickly fall.
Many of us can think of at least one person whose godly character we want to resemble. They seem joyful and less distracted from the world. 1 Tim 4:7 says, "Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness." No one becomes a great basketball star without going through many years of extensive training. In the early 1990s, a few psychologists conducted an experiment at a school in Berlin called Academy of Music. They divided the school's violinists into three groups. The first group consists of stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists, the second group were those judged to be merely "good," and the third group were those unlikely to be professionals. Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly five years old. For a few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount of time, about two or three hours a week. But by the age of eight, the real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else - six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age 12, 12 hours by age 14. When they got to be 20, they were practicing well over 30 hours a week. So the result was that the elite performers had each totalled 10,000 hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totalled 8,000 hours, and the future music teachers had totalled just over 4,000 hours. (p.38-39, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwelll) We are all familiar with the saying, "practice makes it better." It is true. In fact, the Greek word for 'discipline' is Gumnazo which is what our English word 'gymnasia' is derived from. It means to train and practice repeatedly.
Meanings and Purposes of the Spiritual Disciplines
There is no doubt that there are many people in our community who are highly disciplined. But many of them push themselves so hard to excel in their careers or other worldly interests, but pay very little attention to godliness. Even among so many professed Christians, they are spiritually undisciplined and they bear very little fruit and power in their lives. Paul urges us in 1 Tim 4:8, "For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." Pity to those who have skewed priorities. They have gone nowhere because they have placed the cart before their horses, just like this quote from Harry Llyod, "success is only another form of failure if we forget what our priorities should be." Discipline! Discipline! Discipline!
Having said all that, Donald Whitney, in his book "Spiritual Disciplines For the Christian Life," lists the importance as well as the practical steps in Spiritual Disciplines. The Spiritual disciplines are the means to godliness, or Christ-likeness. They are "those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times." (p.17) Dr. Whitney in this book examines in detail the following disciplines - Bible intake, prayer, meditation, worship, evangelism, service, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, journaling, and learning. Again, in 1 Tim 4:7 we are told, "discipline yourselves for the purpose of godliness."
Benefits of the Spiritual Disciplines
Before I talk about the advantages of the Spiritual Disciplines, I want to mention the danger in neglecting the Spiritual Disciplines. In John 15:5-8, Jesus commands us to bear fruit, and this is how we show ourselves to be His disciples. In another words, this is how we show ourselves to be genuine Christians. As for those who do not bear fruit, they will be cut off from the branch and tossed in the fire. This is a horrible imaginary of judgment that is coming to those who are not faithful. Those who do not practice the Spiritual Disciplines have no spiritual growth and they will face God's wrath. Not only their end is unthinkable, their life now is also miserable. Many professed Christians today still live in bondage of sin, guilt and shame. They want to live a life of peace but they find themselves powerless. Although our sins are forgiven and we are set free in Christ through faith, but we can still fall away from God interpersonally and relationally. This means that if we do not remain in Him, we fall away from the fellowship with Him. The result is that we "wither."
The Spiritual Disciplines have many great advantages. One of them is that they bring freedom. They liberate us from guilt, shame, powerlessness, bitterness, etc. They empower us with peace, joy, strength, love, faith, courage, etc. Many people do not like disciplines because they seem painful and unpleasant. But they produce great results, as Dr. Whitney notes, "Spiritual Disciplines become a delight instead of drudgery." (p.17) Have you seen an expert ballet dancer effortlessly jazzing through the dance floor with fluid motions and gleeful rhythms, as if the music, stage, and body are moving as one? Well, it is a freedom she is experiencing with her feet and body on the stage. It is a delight to the dancer also a delight for the viewer. The Spiritual Disciplines are likewise. We can live a life of godliness in such freedom if we practice them.
Practical Example of the Spiritual Disciplines
I certainly cannot list all the examples of the Spiritual Disciplines here, that is what that book is for. I just want to give one example - meditative prayer. I have heard people complain that prayer gives them mental stress, or they just don't know how and what to pray for. This will not be the case if we have some guidelines. Meditative prayer is the combination of Scripture meditation and prayer. Let’s take a psalm for instance. Psalms are the good place to begin Discipline! Discipline! Discipline!
because they are the prayers, petitions, and exhortations of God's faithful people. There are 150 Psalms. Since we have 30 days a month, so each day we can have up to five psalms to choose from. I first select a number that is today's date which is 30th. But for the psalms that are difficult for meditation, I add 30 to it. So now I have 30, 60, 90, 120, 150 to choose from. Let's take the first one, Psalm 30.
Scripture meditation is to fill our mind with "God and truth". As we read slowly through Psalm 30, we ponder and reflect on God's word, "I will exalt you, O LORD, for you lifted me out of the depths." I will put more emphasis on "exalt" as I read it slowly again, "I will EXALT you, O LORD." As I do so repeatedly, I reflect on the message, and whatever comes to my mind will become my prayer. "Oh, LORD, you are worthy of my praise. You are exalted among all nations, you are exalted above all gods. You are the LORD of lords and King of kings. When I look out the window and see your creation, it reflects your beauty and majesty. When I see myself, how wonderfully I am made with all its complexities and unsearchable mysteries, you are just too big for me! I marvel at your greatness…" We can also offer petitions through meditating on the next part, "LORD, thank you for saving me through your suffering and death, now I am delivered and alive because of your love and mercy. Please make me your servant. Teach me how I can exalt your name through the way I live my life. Teach me how I can love my friends, family, classmates [or co-workers]. It is difficult for me to love Tom and even say kind words to him. Please help me to love him the way you have loved me..." Then you move along the next verses.
This is just one small practical example of the Spiritual Disciplines. Dr. Whitney has listed many examples in his book. Since I took this course with Him three years ago at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, I have not let my fingers off this book ever since. Wherever I went, I introduced this book to small groups, fellowships, and even pastors. I often used its materials in teaching and preaching. I highly recommend this book to you serious Christians. Remember, practice makes it better!