Spiritual Disciplines, Legalism, and Laziness
August 12, 2014
Spiritual Disciplines Don WhitneySpiritual disciplines are a lot like physical exercise. You know it’s important, but it’s not always easy to get excited about leg lifts and pushups. Watch someone who seems naturally drawn to various disciplines, and you can quickly get discouraged, as the subtle strain of legalism infects and paralyzes your efforts toward spiritual growth. It’s no wonder some throw up their hands and give up trying.
I hesitate to recommend a book on spiritual disciplines, simply because I know too many people who will consult a book like this and think that if they aren’t fervently and thoroughly practicing everything recommended here, they are behind the curve spiritually. I also harbor concerns that spiritual disciplines can turn us inward, make us become too introspective, and lead to a privatized piety that harms our mission.
But they don’t have to. That’s why, when I consider my own spiritual life, I can’t help but think about certain practices and disciplines that the Lord has used to shaped me over the years. It’s with that heart and mind that I approach this topic.
Don Whitney, Professor of Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently revised his respected work – Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. I asked Dr. Whitney to respond to a few questions about his book and the formative power of spiritual disciplines. His website is BiblicalSpirituality.org.
Trevin: You write of spiritual disciplines as “the means to godliness” and point to biblical evidence and historical examples to make this case. Are you speaking of spiritual disciplines in a general sense or particular practices, some of which are not prescribed in Scripture (journaling, for example)?
Don: I am speaking of specific practices found in Scripture by command, example, or principle. I’ve never seen a supposed “definitive list” of the spiritual disciplines, and I state in the book that I am not attempting to present an exhaustive list, but I do think a case can be made that the ones presented in the book are the most prominent ones in Scripture.
Admittedly, there’s less biblical evidence for keeping a spiritual journal than for other disciplines in the book. But in the book as well as in this Baptist Press article I have argued that there is something very much like journaling in the Psalms of David and in the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
Trevin: I hear two common concerns with regard to spiritual disciplines. The first is from the Christian who fears that emphasizing spiritual disciplines turns Christianity into a checklist of rules and can weigh Christians down with unnecessary guilt. How do you respond to those who worry that spiritual disciplines detract from our experience of grace?
Don: This reminds me of a famous line from Martin Luther that Jerry Bridges more recently popularized: “We need to preach the gospel to ourselves every day.” At times during the day, we need to be reminded of that part of the gospel that tells us what God requires of us to live a life for Him. At other times each day, we need the reminder of the grace in the gospel, the assurance of forgiveness in Christ for not living up to God’s standards — that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done, not what we do.
Moreover, the spiritual disciplines—both the personal disciplines (which are the subject of this book) and the interpersonal ones (the subject of my Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church)—are means of grace. In other words, these disciplines are God-ordained means by which we experience God and His grace. Our job is to place ourselves before God by means of these disciplines, and then, when we look to Him by faith through them, we can expect to experience Him and His grace.
Think of how many times you awoke on Sunday morning and said to yourself, “I don’t feel like going to church today.” But you disciplined yourself to do what you knew you should do and what was best, and you went. There, after a meaningful encounter with God in worship you said, “I am so glad I came!”
That you had the desire and the power to gather with God’s people to worship Him was all by grace. Anything fruitful that came from the experience was all by grace. But God didn’t drag you out of bed. That was your grace-enabled discipline.
The same is true with all the spiritual disciplines. Grace doesn’t mean we coast spiritually until we get to heaven. Grace gave us the disciplines; grace gives us an affinity for the disciplines, and grace is experienced through the disciplines.
Incidentally, for those who fear that practicing the spiritual disciplines can lead to legalism, be aware that there’s a greater concern out there. While it’s true that legalism in all its forms is a legitimate danger, a danger we should preach about and warn against, a proclivity we all have in one way or another (for not all legalism looks the same outwardly), I see far more of the opposite error today.
For every legalistic practitioner of the spiritual disciplines I come across, I see ten who ignore or minimize the disciplines. So while on the one hand we need to preach grace to our legalistic tendencies, on the other we need to emphasize the spiritual disciplines against our tendencies to sloth and spiritual laziness.
Trevin: The second concern deals with specific spiritual disciplines, primarily those concerned with meditation on God’s Word or spending time in silence and solitude. How do you respond to those who believe time in silence is a misinterpretation of Psalm 46:10, an extrabiblical innovation that can lead us to place personal experience over God’s revealed truth?
Don: First, I trust that no Bible-believer has an issue with the responsibility, privilege, and value of meditation on God’s Word. Passages such as Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:3, 2 Timothy 2:7 and others should settle that. How could anyone who loves God and His Word discount the importance and benefits of meditation on Scripture? And the fact that meditation would frequently be most fruitful when done in privacy stands to reason.
But to unite the two (solitude and meditation on Scripture) on the basis of Psalm 46:10 is an error. Psalm 46:10—”Be still, and know that I am God”—is indeed frequently misinterpreted. In fact, I would say that when it’s used in the context of the devotional life it’s always misinterpreted.
While I do think it represents a biblical principle, namely that it’s always beneficial to stop and be reminded of the sovereignty of God in the midst of all circumstances, that’s not what Psalm 46:10 is about. Rather the context there is international, not personal. It’s about God’s exaltation above the nations, not about an individual’s personal piety.
Meditation on Scripture, done rightly, leads to the richest “personal experience” (with God), but never at the expense of God’s revealed truth. Rather I would contend that the richest experiences with God come most consistently by means of meditation on His Word.
Why is it that so many Christians, people who read the Bible every day, cannot remember the last time their daily time in the Word of God changed their day, much less changed their life? Why is it that most days, if pressed, as soon as they close their Bible they would have to admit, “I don’t remember a thing I read?” I would argue that the reason is a lack of meditation.
While reading the Bible is the exposure to Scripture—and that’s essential; that’s the starting place—meditation is the absorption of Scripture. And it’s the absorption of Scripture that leads to the experience with God and the transformation of life that we long for when we come to Scripture. My contention is that people just don’t do that, even people who read the Bible every day.
It’s not that people can’t meditate on Scripture; they just don’t. Often it’s because they’ve not been taught about meditation, and/or they just don’t know how to meditate on a verse of Scripture. That’s why in the section of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life where I write about meditation I conclude with seventeen different ways to meditate on Scripture, ways that are doable by any Christian (for any devotional practice–like meditation–expected of all God’s children has to be fundamentally simple).
Trevin: One of the reasons why worship attendance is down in some denominations is that the faithful Christian who is active in church is attending less often. In your opinion, does it help us to see the public worship gathering as a “discipline,” or is conceiving of worship as an “obligation” one of the reasons of why Christians are attending church less often?
Don: In my opinion, the reason the “faithful Christian” you mention attends church less often has nothing to do with the intentional rejection of an “obligation” imposed by the church. Having no interest in gathering when God’s people gather for the purpose of publicly honoring and enjoying God, finding no delight in the incarnational (not merely recorded) proclamation of God’s Word, and having no appetite for the grace of the Lord’s table comes from a deeper root than an avoidance of legalism. In the New Testament, the concepts of “faithful Christian” and avoidance of church life never characterize the same people.
Because of the internal war of the Spirit against our flesh and our flesh against the Spirit (Galatians 5:17), there remains within us while in this world a gravitational pull of our hearts away from the things of God (such as public worship) as well as a Spirit-produced gravitational pull toward them. For the one who intentionally fights against the flesh and who “sows to the Spirit” (Galatians 6:8) it’s right and biblical to speak of participation in congregational worship as a discipline.
As I mentioned earlier, the blessings experienced in the worship of God with His people will often be forfeited if we attend only when we feel like it when we awake on Sunday morning (if indeed we even awake on time without discipline).
Trevin: In this newest edition of your book, you have added more than 10,000 words of new material, adding more Bible references and a more cross-centered focus. What led you to make these adjustments in the new edition?
Don: The single biggest addition to the book was the expansion of the section on methods of meditation from six to seventeen. Some of the book’s enlargement came simply from including things I’ve learned about the disciplines in the twenty-three years since the original edition was published. I also took the opportunity to delete a few lines and quotations that could be construed as inclining toward mysticism.
Most importantly, I added more of the gospel in every chapter. In 2011 I did a year-long series on “The Gospel and the Spiritual Disciplines” for Tabletalk magazine. Much of that material found its way, chapter-by-chapter, into the revised and updated edition of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. I wanted to do my best to ensure that no one separated the gospel from the disciplines or became tempted to think that by the diligent practice of the disciplines they could earn God’s favor.
I’d also like to mention that the terminology of the book has been updated, and I believe it’s now a better-written book. I reviewed every line, and I hope I’ve learned a few things about writing in the last twenty-three years. Overall, I think this edition is a big advance for the book in style, but especially in content, and I hope your readers find it to be so.