Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines
A brief definition:
While I was researching this topic I discovered that my understanding of the term “spiritual disciplines” was somewhat, and significantly, different from how others use the term. It turns out there is a fairly strong polemic from some evangelicals against the theology of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Specifically, some charge that they are calling for something extra-biblical that borders on paganism/mysticism. I read Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines in Seminary and, though it has been a while, I think some of the stronger criticism is overblown. Nevertheless, I do want to distinguish my use of the terminology “spiritual disciplines” in this series from that of Willard/Foster, or at least what others perceive of them.
I recommend reading D.A. Carson’s post on the topic here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/spiritual_disciplines/. Carson observes: “What is universally presupposed by the expression ‘spiritual discipline’ is that such disciplines are intended to increase our spirituality.” I would submit that that is not universally presupposed since I did not previously presuppose it, nor have I ever heard it described that way. It is, of course, quite possible that I am seriously ignorant of the state of public debate in this area.
Instead, when I refer to “spiritual disciplines” I am referring to biblically prescribed activities that require some level of systematic effort on our part (discipline) and which contribute, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to our progressive sanctification (spiritual). It’s quite probable that D.A. Carson would call these efforts “means of grace,” which he offers at the end of his article as preferable terminology.
I elect to use “spiritual disciplines” instead of “means of grace” because the most likely readers of this blog have the same contextual understanding of spiritual disciplines as I do and because the language of “means of grace” is, by comparison, not widely used and could be misunderstood and related to some kind of works-salvation.
Ironically, whichever direction I went with my choice of semantics I was going to have to offer an explanation. I elected to offer an explanation to those “outside” (the broader community) instead of those “inside” (those in my own community who use the language in a similar way as I do/have). What makes this even more ironic is that my most likely readers won’t need this explanation and will not have thought that I was referring to any sort of mystical practice.
Oh well, at least that was a good exercise which helped me clarify my own thinking in the matter.
The Purpose of Spiritual Disciplines Expanded:
As I noted above, I am using the term “spiritual disciplines” to refer to practices that, by the work of the Holy Spirit, contribute to our progressive sanctification, that is, having once-for-all been justified, these practices ought to be instrumental as we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2). They contribute to our transformation in several ways. First and foremost, as Carson writes, “the truly transformative element is not the discipline itself, but the worthiness of the task undertaken: the value of prayer, the value of reading God’s Word.”That is, prayer and the Bible reading are intrinsically good things to do. Regardless of my thesis below, that a regular practice of the spiritual disciplines can tear down false patterns of thought found in modernity and build up the truth of God’s Word, these practices are still intrinsically valuable. I only mean to highlight a few ways that they are even more valuable to today’s generation than are often discussed.
Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Spiritual formation is very much a transformation (or a renewing) of the mind. In our sin, our whole persons experience brokenness, including our patterns of thought. This is true on both the personal and the cultural level. That is not to say that every thought someone has apart from Christ is wrong. God gives a great deal of common grace. For that reason every culture is a mixed-bag of error and insight. Nevertheless, every thought needs to be brought into conformity with Truth. Some just need to be corrected more than others.
Our cultural mindset, let’s use the term modernity for now, espouses several core beliefs which pose a risk to the believer in regard to his or her spiritual growth. Here is a short, non-comprehensive list:
Autonomous reason: The belief that the individual has the capacity to make completely rational decisions based only on empirical evidence.
Self-sufficiency: The belief that the individual has the ability to provide for all of his or her own needs.
Materialism: The belief that the material world is all there is.
Self-gratification: The belief that our first priority is to gratify our desires.
Self-law (autonomy): The belief that we are our own bosses and that no one has the right to tell us what to do.
Self-worship: The belief that the individual is the highest good.
Engaging in the spiritual disciplines provides a way for us to tear down, or at least whittle down, these deeply held beliefs that we all hold, to some degree or another either in practice or in creed. I will expand on the “how” of this in later posts but here’s a quick overview:
Bible Reading challenges autonomous reason. In the study of Scripture we accept revelation from outside ourselves. Bible reading also challenges self-law as it calls us not only to receive information, but also submit to the authority of Jesus.
Prayer challenges self-sufficiency. In prayer we call for help from outside ourselves. It also challenges materialism. Indeed, prayer is completely meaningless apart from the existence of a real spiritual world.
Fasting challenges self-gratification. In fasting we are telling our bodies to temporarily give up one of our most basic needs in order to seek first the kingdom of God.
Worship challenges self-worship. We are called to bow down to God as the ultimate good. In worship we see ourselves in relation to God – as created is to Creator, a necessarily humbling experience. Worship also challenges materialism as the people of God gather together in the presence the God through the Spirit of God.
Service challenges self-gratification. It forces us to look outward with the goal of fulfilling the needs of others, instead of the self.
Tithing challenges self-sufficiency. When you tithe you are saying – “God can do more with my 90% than I can do with my 100%” and “I stand in a place of gratitude for all that God has already given to me.”
I’m sure the list could continue and, since I am not writing all of these at once, I may add some later.
If you’ve made it this far, remember that feedback (positive or negative) along the way is appreciated.
 I am using this term lightly. In Seminary, research meant hours of scholarly research at the library of Cornerstone University. Now, research means a little light reading and a few internet searches. This is a function of my available time and energy. I clarify this here so that the reader does not put too much stock in my “research,” though I hope my logic and use of Scripture is still valid.
 I am attempting to be careful with my language here. Spiritual disciplines do not transform us – only God transforms us.
 I am using this term broadly, and probably not technically, to refer to the subset beliefs commonly held and valued in Western society in the 21st century.