Spiritual disciplines are supposed to be normal in Christian life. The revival of evangelical interest in them, especially since the publication of Richard Foster’s watershed Celebration of Discipline, has been of inestimable importance. Yet, because the disciplines tend to get sucked into the black hole of American self-help religion, I’m interested in highlighting a missional understanding of them.
Christian spiritual disciplines exist theologically as a dimension of soteriology (specifically, as component of the doctrine of sanctification). In missional theology, salvation is teleological—essentially for a purpose, namely, God’s ends, rather than essentially from a state of being, such as guilt or sinfulness. Whereas many Christians treat spiritual disciplines (e.g., daily “quite time”) as a way of becoming spiritual (which betokens an ontological fixation on being something per se), or at least as a way of measuring “spirituality” as a kind of abstract quantity, a missional conception of the disciplines understands them as practical lifestyle choice for the sake of mission.
The ontological fixation on becoming spiritual might assume that spirituality has a causal relationship to mission (and perhaps this is near the truth), but in practice it treats participation in God’s mission at best as an eventual consequence rather than the purpose for which the Spirit forms God’s people. If this causal fallacy looks like the Reformation understanding of the relationship between “grace and works,” it is because fear of works righteousness is often the theological framework of Protestant theology. Within this framework, the discussion about spiritual disciplines is fundamentally a discussion about the slippery slope of works righteousness. I suspect, therefore, that the evangelical struggle to practice spiritual disciplines is deeply rooted in a psychological conflict.
The Protestant theology of grace and works is built upon a presuppositional commitment to both the inherent (ontological) sinfulness of humankind and its inability to change that condition. Yet, the practice of spiritual disciplines is ostensibly what humans do in order to become spiritual instead of sinful. Even though, in such theology, discipline follows an ontological change from guilty to forgiven by grace through faith, that imputation does not change the nature of the person forgiven. Thus, the Protestant is ontologically simul justus et peccator. Cognitive dissonance is therefore often unavoidable for Protestants who practice the disciplines.
On one hand, many feel that the disciplines are indeed righteous works, and because humans are by nature incapable of their own righteousness, they are therefore incapable of spiritual disciplines. When Protestants fail repeatedly to read their Bible daily or pray consistently, they can fall into a vicious, often unconscious cycle of reasoning: “Failure at spiritual practices proves I am sinful by nature; because I am sinful by nature, I will fail at spiritual practices.”
On the other hand, to succeed at the practice of spiritual disciplines, to become a spiritual person, would undermine the foundational ontological claim about sinful human nature. To become, through spiritual disciplines, simul justus et sanctus would put the need for grace in question. If humans are capable of doing practices that result in sanctification, doesn’t that mean the premise of salvation by grace alone is flawed? This is, of course, a question that lacks nuance, but that is the nature of most cognitive dissonance. I merely wish to point out the apparent conflict. As a Protestant, not only am I theoretically incapable of doing spiritual disciplines insofar as they are truly spiritual and I am truly sinful, but to become is not tenable in the first place for a theology built upon an ontological claim.
This must remain a suspicion, of course, but I believe it is difficult for many Protestants to engage actively in practices that lead to sanctification without feeling the psychological rumbles of friction in their theological substructure. Authors are, in fact, often at pains to reassure readers that the disciplines are nothing more than a means of grace. Foster is a good example:
God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.
The apostle Paul says, “he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6: 8). Paul’s analogy is instructive. A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines—they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace. The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us. 1
I have no objection to this description. By all means, let’s understand the disciplines within a robust theology of grace. I have used Foster over the years to define the disciplines in this way and also to clarify what the disciplines are not2:
- They are not antinomianism: trust in the absence of human effort.
- They are not moralism: trust in one’s own efforts to achieve one’s own righteousness.
- They are not legalism: trust in external norms.
The categories are Foster’s, but the definitions are mine. I find trust (faith) to be the most helpful way of juxtaposing these negative points of reference with the disciplines as acts of dependence on God’s grace through Christ by the power of the Spirit. Foster characterizes antinomianism and moralism as chasms to either side of a narrow path—which is probably the most unhealthy aspect of his work on disciplines. Then he devotes a whole section to legalism, which he terms externalism. (While I share a concern about legalism, it is precisely here that Willard is the best compliment to Foster, for he is far less preoccupied about law and therefore more able to deal with disciplines as nonnegotiable practices of transformative action in and for the world, more on which below). I prefer to stick with legalism, though my definition is a tip of the hat to Foster’s vision of externality. These definitions in view, I hope it’s clear that I’m in favor of a grace-oriented vision of the disciplines.
Yet, I want to ask what happens to our understanding of the disciplines when we step onto a different theological foundation than fear of works righteousness. What happens when the story of God’s mission is our theological foundation, and that story includes a significant plot line about our capacity and responsibility to collaborate, not so that we may attain inner righteousness or merely be blessed but so that we may do justice and become a blessing–so that we may become conduits of grace rather than receptacles? For one thing, the cognitive dissonance dissipates. Furthermore, the urgency of practicing spiritual disciplines increases in proportion to our missional calling. The disciplines become a tangible means of preparation for participation in God’s mission and a concrete avenue for loving one’s neighbor (and spouse, children, friends, and colleagues). This is how we become what we should be, not as an ontological concern but as a missiological one, as participants. For the spiritual disciplines are the church’s tried and true practices of the imitatio Cristi, insofar as we imitate the Holy and Sent One. Dallas Willard puts it this way:
I want to inspire Christianity today to remove the disciplines from the category of historical curiosities and place them at the center of the new life in Christ. Only when we do, can Christ’s community take its stand at the present point of history. Our local assemblies must become academies of life as it was meant to be. From such places there can go forth a people equipped in character and power to judge or guide the earth.
Multitudes are now turning to Christ in all parts of the world. How unbearably tragic it would be, though, if the millions of Asia, South America and Africa were led to believe that the best we can hope for from The Way of Christ is the level of Christianity visible in Europe and America today, a level that has left us tottering on the edge of world destruction. The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes—a time for men and women to be heroic in faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.
Holiness and devotion must now come forth from the closet and the chapel to possess the street and the factory, the schoolroom and boardroom, the scientific laboratory and the governmental office. Instead of a select few making religion their life, with the power and inspiration realized through the spiritual disciplines, all of us can make our daily lives and vocations be “the house of God and the gate of heaven.” 3
When Everything Is Mission
One of the most quoted critiques of missional theology is: “If everything is mission, then nothing is mission.”4 To this I say: bollocks. If everything is mission, then the church is the church. And when local churches realize that everything is mission, the meaning of the spiritual disciplines come into focus.
John Ortberg makes a helpful point about the way Christians often see spiritual disciplines:
Too often people think about their “spiritual lives” as just one more aspect of their existence, alongside and largely separate from their “financial lives” or their “vocational lives.” Periodically they may try to “get their spiritual lives together” by praying more regularly or trying to master another spiritual discipline. It is the religious equivalent of going on a diet or trying to stick to a budget.
The truth is that the term spiritual life is simply a way of referring to one’s life—every moment and facet of it—from God’s perspective. Another way of saying it is this: God is not interested in your “spiritual life.” God is just interested in your life. 5
Ortberg is trying to convince readers that all of life is spiritual, and I appreciate his tack. It’s no good trying to relegate spiritual formation to one corner. The trick, however, is to grasp that every dimension of life is caught up in God’s mission and then to see that the disciplines are about how we participate. When everything is mission, and spiritual disciplines are for mission, there is nothing they don’t touch.
What Ortberg puts his finger on, and what motivates the denial that everything is mission, is the dualism deeply ingrained in Western culture. It is so pervasive that it’s necessary to address those who are now skeptical about spiritual disciplines because they appear to be escapist and out of touch with real work in the world. Marjorie Thompson argues the point incisively:
The Christian spiritual life, modeled in Jesus, is thoroughly incarnate. It represents a complete unity of spiritual and physical life, including deep feeling, enjoyment of the created order, concern for the welfare of the city, and compassion for all people. Our “journey into Christ” is the lifelong process that our tradition has called sanctification— growth in holiness. But holiness is not some ephemeral, antiseptic state separated from family, work, or life as a public citizen. It is absolutely practical and concrete. Holy people (saints) get into the dirt and sweat of real life, where light and darkness contend with real consequences. This is where God is at work. If the Word I hear Sunday morning or during my private prayer has no bearing on the way I relate to family, friend, and foe or how I make decisions, spend my resources, and cast my vote, then my faith is fantasy.
The Spirit insists on transforming us at every level: personal, social, economic, and political. God is Lord of the whole of our lives. When we think of categories such as prayer and service, contemplation and action, individual and community as opposites, we create false and unnecessary divisions. Nurturing the inner life and addressing social realities are both important aspects of the Christian spiritual life. One is not more “spiritual” than the other, but either by itself is less than a full embodiment of the life we are called to in Christ.
. . . It is deeply damaging to the church and its members to suppose that we can transform the world if we are unwilling to be transformed personally.6
Holiness, as she says, is practically about getting involved “where God is at work”—to my ears, a clear reprise of missio Dei theology. The disciplines are finally about our capacity7 as God’s transformative agents, since we cannot transform the world “if we are unwilling to be transformed personally.” In other words, what is at stake in our personal transformation is not our personal transformation but the world’s.
What, then, are the spiritual disciplines?
- Intentional, habitual activities that compose the medium used by the Holy Spirit to transform human life into the image of Jesus.
- The lifestyle of Jesus that allowed him “to receive his Father’s constant and effective support while doing his will.”8
- “Realistic methods of human transformation” through a “constant interaction with the Kingdom of God as a real part of our daily lives, an ongoing spiritual presence that is at the same time a psychological reality.”9
How are the disciplines related to mission?
- They are part of the good news about new life. We have an actual, practicable lifestyle that constitutes new life. To live like Jesus is not an impossible demand but a gift that God’s people can share with every seeker.
- They are the church’s preparation for participation in mission. By them we increase our capacity for collaboration in God’s work through and beyond us.
- They are the substance of discipleship. It is no etymological trick to point out that a disciple is one who is disciplined. The spiritual disciplines are the way of Jesus in which his followers walk. If mission entails making disciples, it entails modeling and teaching spiritual disciplines.
- Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Kindle ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 7. ↩
- Adapted from Foster, 8–10. ↩
- Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, Kindle ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), “Preface.” ↩
- Stephen Neill, Creative Tension (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1959), 81. ↩
- John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 15. ↩
- Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, Kindle rev. ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), locs. 663–76. ↩
- It is common to refer to the idea of the capax Dei in the discussion of spiritual disciplines. Augustine states in De Trinitate 14.8.11: “For, as we have said, although worn out and defaced by losing the participation of God, yet the image of God still remains. For it is His image in this very point, that it is capable of Him, and can be partaker of Him; which so great good is only made possible by its being His image.” The idea of participation stands out in connection with the human capacity for God. ↩
- Willard, 9. ↩
- Willard, “Preface.” ↩