Spiritual Disciplines, Part 1: Is Self-Discipline “Unspiritual?”

Personal discipline is vital to the Christian life, but it seems that a broad misunderstanding exists among Christians as to how personal discipline and heart affections relate to one another. Before we discuss spiritual disciplines, we need to consider the important question of how these disciplines relate to our affections.

All You Need is…Discipline?
On one side I’ve heard folks who give the idea that discipline is all that matters. That is, they’ve concluded that affections (i.e., feelings, emotions) for God aren’t essential to the Christian life and that it is simply our duty to discipline ourselves to do the right thing even when we don’t feel like it (which we often won’t).

If we think this way we may hold rigorously to the practice of Bible reading while neglecting our inward feelings and desires. As a result, our spiritual lives become lop-sided: daily Bible reading is in place, but pride flourishes because we are relying on our own willpower. Soon we exalt ourselves over our brothers and sisters who are unable to discipline themselves with such rigor. Sometimes, however, such wrong thinking about the dynamics between discipline and our affections will lead to no discipline at all because the idea of self-discipline without any reference to our emotions is wholly unattractive.

This approach to discipline is spiritually dangerous. As John Piper has argued for the past thirty years (persuasively, in my opinion), heart affection for God is not the icing on the cake of Christianity; an optional spiritual bonus we can take or leave. No: “salvation is the awakening of a new taste for God, or it is nothing” (When I Don’t Desire God). David Gibson says it this way: “How do you know that you know God? By listening to his words of delight and finding them pleasurable” (Living Life Backwards). This means that genuine conversion consists in a change of desires or it is not true conversion.

To go about our disciplines, therefore, without a concern for our hearts turns a supernatural religion that changes us in the depths of who we are (i.e., our desires) into a natural religion with manageable tasks that we can churn out with our own willpower and often contrary to how we are really feeling about God. “Oh, how easy it is to think we are what we ought to be when the emotions are made peripheral,” Piper observes. “Mere thoughts and mere deeds are manageable by the carnal religious mind,” he continues. “But the emotions—they are the [weathervane] of the heart.”

Frighteningly, it is possible to pursue a pattern of Bible reading for the purpose of atoning for the fact that deep down, we don’t really have a desire for God. Bible reading is a not a time of sweet fellowship, but a time of drudgery; a drudgery they are willing to endure, however, in order to cover up what’s really going on inside and satisfy our restless conscience. “[T]hey cannot sin quietly,” John Owen reminds us, “unless they perform duty constantly” (Temptation and Sin).

This is not the same as the person who has truly tasted of God’s grace and is presently wrestling through times of dryness, longing for God to revisit them (Psalm 42:1-4). This is someone who is using Bible reading as a religious ritual to compensate for an evil, unbelieving heart. If this is where we’re at, we cannot remain for another moment in this condition. If our love for God has grown cold or never been warmed, we need to cry out to the only One who can revive and renew us. The affections are vital (Prov 4:23).

“I Just Want to Be Spontaneous!”
On the other side you might hear people saying or implying that doing what is right is only Spirit-led if we feel like doing it; adding discipline takes away from the “spiritual” nature of our obedience. Don Whitney explains this kind of approach to the spiritual disciplines.

There are no shortcuts to Godliness. But the flesh broods for an easier way than through the Spiritual Disciplines. It protests, “Why can’t the Christian life be more extemporaneous and unstudied? All this talk of disciplining myself sounds legalistic and regimented and harder than I thought being like Christ should be. I just want to be spontaneous” (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life)

In this case, Bible reading may be occasional and haphazard because there will often be distractions in our lives that will keep us from reading the Bible and, we must admit, there are times when we simply don’t feel like reading God’s Word. Pure spontaneity rarely leads to more Bible reading, deeper affections, or greater ministry fruitfulness.

Both of these approaches to discipline are inadequate. The first fails to reckon with the Bible’s clear emphasis on our affections (e.g., Ps 119:47; Rom 12:11; 1 Cor 16:22); the second fails to reckon with the Bible’s call to discipline oneself and the reality that doing what is right will often be difficult (Matt 7:14; 1 Cor 9:27; 1 Tim 4:7). How do we reconcile Scripture’s call to discipline ourselves and its call to care for our affections? We do so by seeing discipline, not as a replacement for heart affections, but a means by which heart affections are stoked, stirred, and maintained. I say it is a “means” because our effort isn’t ultimately decisive. If only God can change us in the depths of who we are, then holy affections are, in the final analysis, a gift of grace.

Applying Discipline to Fuel our Desires
Our initial desires to fellowship with Christ, grow spiritually, and bear fruit in good works was given at our conversion and regeneration (Titus 3:3-7; cf. Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:25-27). We now discipline ourselves so that we can fuel these holy desires and grow in them. Often, however, we may not feel like meeting with God in His Word. When this is the case, we confess this lack of desire as sin, receive his gracious forgiveness (1 John 1:9), ask our Father for renewed affection (“Incline my heart to your testimonies” – Psalm 119:36), and then do whatever it takes, by God’s grace, to put ourselves in the way of blessing. Often times this may mean getting up early, sacrificing some recreational activity, managing our time better, giving up a hobby, and so on.

What about spiritual spontaneity? It flows from discipline. Whitney comments,

I have several friends who can improvise beautiful melodies on the keyboard or the guitar. But the only reason they can play so “spontaneously” is because they have spent years in the disciplines of playing musical scales and other fundamental exercises. Jesus could live so spiritually “spontaneous” because He was in reality the most spiritually disciplined man who ever lived. Do nothing and you will live spontaneously. But if you desire effective spontaneity in the Christian life, it must be the fruit of a spiritually disciplined faith.

Yes, let’s pursue a life of spiritual spontaneity. We should be transformed in such a way that we experience fellowship with God and desires for unplanned worship, prayer, ministry to others, and Bible reading throughout the day. But these kinds of extemporaneous experiences flow most often from a consistent practice of the spiritual disciplines.

Disciplining Ourselves from Justification, Not For it
What about legalism? Isn’t discipline a simply a way of adding works to the free grace of the gospel? It could be. If we pursue discipline in order to establish our right standing with God, then yes: it is legalism. But if we pursue discipline from the status of free justification (Rom 4:5) and seek the Spirit to empower our efforts (by asking for God’s help), then discipline is not legalism or burdensome; it’s wise obedience to Scripture that actually leads to joy.

The true believer disciplines herself to be in the Bible because she loves to see and fellowship with Christ in his Word. The legalist disciplines herself to daily read the Bible so that she can exalt herself over others, impress God, and delight in her own willpower. Spirit-empowered self-discipline flows from a heart that is settled in the truth of justification: Christ’s perfect life and substitutionary atonement, not our disciplined Bible reading, are the grounds for our acceptance with God. With this truth firmly planted in our minds, we are ready to venture into the exhilarating—yes, exhilarating—realm of spiritual discipline. Next, we will discuss the priority of Bible reading and meditation.

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