What are disciplines of the spirit?

Oct 7, 2018 1:40 PM

Ephesians 3:14-21 (KJV)

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.

First of all, 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 strenghtens 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:

  • Self-humbling
  • Forgiving
  • Thanksgiving
  • Waiting

Tomorrow we’ll have a look at the first three.