When most of us think of the word ‘discipline,’ nothing good comes to mind. Maybe you think of being summoned to the principal’s office or being chased with Grandma’s favorite wooden spoon. Spiritual disciplines, however, are different. Rather than punishment, these are a different kind of discipline. Specifically, these are skills that Christ-followers practice in order to grow in them. The question then becomes, “Why? Hasn’t God already changed my heart? Why do I need to practice disciplines? And what even are spiritual disciplines?”
Why Do We Need To Practice Spiritual Disciplines?
Spiritual disciplines refer to practices like Bible study, prayer, worship, community with the local church, fasting, or solitude with God. Why do we need to practice these things? Simply put, believers need to practice spiritual disciplines because growth doesn’t happen by accident. Yes, God gives you a new heart and a new spirit the moment you become a Christ-follower, but spiritual growth still needs to happen. This is the difference in regeneration and sanctification. Regeneration is the action of being made alive in Christ where you were spiritually dead. It occurs once and for all time at the moment of salvation. Sanctification is an ongoing process God works in you by which you are “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29) as you develop Christ-like desires and habits. As Nathan Bingham writes, “Regeneration is birth. Sanctification is growth.” And because this growth doesn’t happen by accident, believers practice spiritual disciplines.
I enjoy lifting weights. If I decide I want to benchpress 200 pounds, I won’t get there by sitting on the couch eating Doritos. I have to get in the weight room and work because muscle growth doesn’t happen by accident. In fact, the opposite is true. If I can benchpress 200 pounds and I skip the gym for a month, I almost certainly will not be able to lift 200 pounds when I return. We know that this is how life generally works. If we want to improve at something, we have to practice it. If we don’t practice, we won’t grow and we might actually regress. Unfortunately, many of us forget this principle when it comes to our spiritual lives. We expect spiritual growth to happen while we (metaphorically) sit on the couch eating Doritos, and we are disappointed or confused when it doesn’t. We rarely open our Bibles, and then we don’t understand why we struggle to make our way through one chapter when we’re guilted into reading. We don’t truly worship, and then we are frustrated because we don’t feel the joy in Christ that we hear others talk about. This is why we have to practice spiritual disciplines. Certainly, sanctification is a work of God, but Scripture also make it clear that believers have a part to play in obediently disciplining themselves to follow Christ’s example. This is why Paul wrote to Timothy,
“Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Timothy 4:7-8),”
and to the Corinthian church,
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control (1 Corinthians 9:25-27).
We practice spiritual disciplines because we desire to be more like Christ and because the spiritual growth that we desire does not happen by accident.
When Spiritual Disciplines Feel Like Punishment
“But I just don’t enjoy these things,” people say to me. “I want to read my Bible, but I just can’t get into it. I want to pray, but I can’t pay attention. What do I do?” My first response is usually along the lines of, “Do you know that you are a Christ-follower?” I fear that many churchgoers may be trying to practice spiritual disciplines without being born again. They want the sanctification without the regeneration, but growth can’t come before birth. You can’t love what you don’t know, so if you don’t truly know Christ, you won’t love the things of Christ.
If that person affirms that they are a born again Christ-follower, then my next piece of advice is, “Pray and practice.” When something we want to do is difficult, we practice it until it becomes easier. When I decided to start lifting weights, my first day in the gym wasn’t much fun. It was difficult. The next day was worse, because every muscle I had worked the day before hurt. But I didn’t quit going to the gym, because that wouldn’t help me grow. I continued to return until my body adapted and grew stronger. In the same way, if you want to begin studying your Bible and your first day is difficult, don’t quit. Quitting won’t bring growth. Go back the next day and study again. Pray, asking God to give you a desire for His Word and an understanding of what you are reading, and continue studying until your mind and your spirit are strengthened and it becomes easier. That is practicing spiritual discipline.
Also, as J.D. Greear writes, “God has made us so that in doing certain things we learn to love them.” When I was in high school, I was a runner and needed to drink lots of water. The problem was that I hated drinking water. My coach told me that if I disciplined myself to drink water throughout the day, my body would begin to desire water more and, to my surprise, he was right. The more I drank water, the more I wanted water. The more you study your Bible, the more you will desire to study your Bible. The more you worship from the heart on Sunday, the more you will desire to worship throughout the week.
So practice your spiritual disciplines. Train yourself for godliness. When it is difficult, keep going and ask God to give you a greater desire for the things of Christ. As you discipline yourself in these things, you will see your desire for them increase and find yourself drawing ever closer to God.