Cultivating Godly Habits: The Importance of Spiritual Disciplines
The apostle Paul discussed ministering from one’s weaknesses when he mentions the thorn in his flesh:
[God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
-2 Corinthians 12:9-10
I believe I need to follow Paul’s example when I enter into this topic of spiritual discipline. While I have studied the spiritual disciplines, and while I have practiced, and continue to practice, various spiritual disciplines, I minister from my weakness. I am not some spiritual guru or ascetic monk, but I can look to Scripture, look at what others have said concerning the subject, and speak from the experience I do have developing Godly habits, however little that is.
In an interview with Desiring God, Dr. Don Whitney defines the spiritual disciplines as practices “found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth among believers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are habits of devotion, habits of experiential Christianity that have been practiced by God’s people since biblical times.” Richard Foster puts forth a really helpful list of these disciplines:
- Inward Disciplines
- Outward Disciplines
- Corporate Disciplines
Within Reformed circles, spiritual discipline can feel like a touchy subject. Discussing the spiritual disciplines can be indicted as “too Catholic.” While it is easy to make these disciplines into idols, that doesn’t mean fasting or confession should be thrown out the window. Below, I will explore how our habits and practices display our hearts, and how they shape our hearts. It is both/and, not either/or. Then I will look to specific steps to take in developing Christ-centered liturgies. The spiritual disciplines are Christian practices that need to be better understood, and we must perform these practices for the right purpose.
The habits that fill our days display what lies within our hearts.
What we do and what we say illustrate who we are and what we love. Solomon in Proverbs tells his son: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23 ESV). Our heart flows out into our words and our actions. James K.A. Smith rephrases it this way:
“Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person.”
–You Are What You Love
If you spend more time binge-watching Netflix than reading Scripture, this might show you that your heart does not love God beyond all else. If you have a habit of taking naps, but not of meditating on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, then your heart might not desire communion with God as much as you thought it did. I do not wish to condemn watching Netflix or taking naps. Nor do I want to say that you are saved by your works or by these habits and practices but rather it is your daily actions which reveal who you are.
Also, the practices that we perform day by day shape our hearts and what it loves and desires.
While our habits reveal our hearts, we can also begin and continue practices that shape our hearts into the likeness of Christ, by God’s grace. If you notice your recurrent actions and words speak to your love for other gods, pray that the Lord might reorder your loves. This will call you into ceasing certain practices and initiating new habits that will train your heart to love Christ more and more.
This is what the spiritual practices are aimed at. When we talk about reading Scripture, meditation, fasting, prayer, confession, worship, and all these other spiritual disciplines, we are talking about taking practical steps to form our hearts after Christ’s. According to Smith, “Rituals are never just something that you do; they do something to you.” Godly qualities are ingrained into you by God’s grace through the repetition of Godly habits repeated over and over again. Practice the spiritual disciplines so that they might do God’s work on your heart. As humans, as Christians, Smith says in the same article, we ought to “practice our way to believing;” for we don’t already believe as strongly or as rightly as we think we do.
Our hearts are influenced into what they worship and how they worship. Without practicing Godly disciplines, there will be other liturgies that are forming us. Whether you are developing spiritual disciplines in your life, your heart is longing for something; you are in constant worship. Why not become deliberate in evaluating and revising your liturgies into habits that will form you after Christ?
Now that we have looked at how the spiritual disciplines work in our lives, how do we develop Godly habits?
Start practicing spiritual disciplines. This might sound ridiculous answering the question, “how do we develop the spiritual disciplines in our lives?” with “start doing it.” Nevertheless, the way to have healthy habits is by initiating them.
Begin forming habits of reading Scripture, praying, and worshipping regularly. Try fasting, whether it is from food or something else you depend on. Confess your sins to someone you trust. Spend time in solitude—maybe a weekend camping, spending time in the Word and in prayer. Sit for half an hour in thoughtful silence. These are all just ideas that cannot be made into gods themselves.
Begin and maintain habits that you think that will encourage you to love Christ more dearly and deeply. A great place to explore these disciplines is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Perhaps you could spend a week practicing each spiritual discipline he considers in this book.
No matter what, pray that the Lord will use these liturgies to form you into His likeness, and that these practices will not become idols for you. Look to what Foster says himself:
… to know the mechanics does not mean that we are practicing the Disciplines. The Spiritual Disciplines are an inward and spiritual reality, and the inward attitude of the heart is far more crucial than the mechanics for coming into the reality of the spiritual life.
–The Celebration of Discipline
To practice spiritual discipline does not only include being proficient at fasting. Spiritual discipline is spiritual discipline only when it guides your heart to the person of Christ, whether you are “successful” with something like meditation or not. Trust that the Lord is using your efforts in developing these habits for His glorious purposes.