Updated: May 16, 2022
The need for spiritual disciplines is not new.
Many of us are familiar with the monastic orders and the huge role they have played in shaping the Christian faith. Over their history, these communities have practiced many of the disciplines we practice today: prayer, fasting, confession, hospitality, and more. These orders also added some more involved pursuits like pilgrimage and “getting away from it all” retreats to experience God more fully.
The call to discipleship isn't new either. Jesus didn't just preach at his disciples; he lived with them day in and day out for years (Acts 1:21-22). His disciples learned how he prayed, how he fasted, how he handled temptation and conflict—and they were able to watch him practice those disciplines under pressure before they were called on to do them themselves.
We aren't much different than those first followers of Jesus—the ones who watched their teacher work out his faith before they tried it themselves or the monks who devote years of their lives to studying with an old master before trying a practice on their own. We want someone to show us how it's done so we can learn along side them until we're ready to go it alone. That's why spiritual formation is so important for new believers; where else are you going to learn about things like confession or prayer if not from a mentor?
It's the ancient path that leads us to life.
This ancient path is the source of wisdom we need to run the race. It’s the source of guidance and direction for life. It’s the source of spiritual disciplines that train us for godliness and produce fruit in our lives. The Bible is the ancient path, and it leads to life.
So why do spiritual disciplines seem so hard?
Maybe because you have forgotten what you have signed up for when you follow Jesus—you have chosen to live with him on an ancient path, a narrow road that has been worn down by countless faithful followers before us. You are not alone on this journey; others who have walked before you have shown us how it is done, and they will show us how it is done again. They did not find this road easy; they found it difficult at times too but keep walking because they knew where they were going—to find Jesus, to know him and be known by him.
Our flesh rebels against anything but itself.
Imagine you’ve just woken up from a deep sleep. The light is dim, and the air is cold in your bedroom, but you don’t notice. Your eyes are closed and your mind is still miles away. But what is that noise?
The sound that has roused you from bed is the alarm on your phone. It’s 6:30 am—time to get ready for church.
You lie there for another moment, debating whether or not you should get out of bed. You know this will be a long day after a long week at work, so maybe it would be wise to stay in bed and catch up on some much-needed rest? You could always watch online tomorrow instead …
Spiritual disciplines are hard because of our environment.
You’re not alone. In many ways, our culture has shaped you and me for life in the fast lane. Our culture is driven by immediacy and impulse — we want answers right now! We live in a culture that is ever-changing and disconnected — we’re always on to the next thing! We live in a culture that is more individualistic than community-oriented — it’s all about me, myself, and I.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love our culture. It provides us with many benefits as human beings: it offers us new ways of doing things, develops an entrepreneurial mindset, creates greater connectivity between people who are physically distant from each other, etc. But with every upside there is a downside (I know this sounds like something my grandfather would say). Unfortunately, if we want to pursue spiritual disciplines like Bible reading or prayer on a consistent basis, they will be difficult because our environment was not initially designed to cultivate these types of habits. The reality is that we are shaped more by our culture than our culture is shaped by us
We live in a culture that does not seek God or his righteousness.
You live in a culture that does not seek God or his righteousness. Every day you are surrounded by people who do not believe the same things you believe (if they believe the same things at all). The media tells us what to think and what to say and how to talk. Our desires tempt us in every direction, our sins hold us back from doing what we know is good, and our flesh rebels against what we know is right.
These are all forces—people, ideas, actions—acting on you every single minute. If it’s hard for you to make time for prayer, or difficult for you to read your Bible daily, then remember this: it’s not just difficult because of your busy schedule or because of lack of discipline (though those can be factors). It’s difficult because the world is working against you!
But hear this: Jesus has overcome! Christ has defeated death! Nothing can separate us from God! Press on toward the goal set before us; our reward awaits in heaven.
Spiritual disciplines are hard because of our motives for doing them.
Perhaps you've done this. Felt the pressure from inside or outside your head to be a better, more spiritual person? Maybe because of shame over bad behavior, fear of God's wrath, or guilt about being a lousy Christian? If so, you're not alone. In fact, many Christians have fallen into the same trap of trying to improve themselves through rules and regulations. Unfortunately for them (and us), it doesn't work out very well—or at least not in the way we'd hoped it would. As is usually the case with human efforts to get closer to God without him leading the way, people who try to force themselves into becoming "better" Christians typically end up giving up in frustration along the way.
Why? Because if we're not careful when choosing our motives for doing these disciplines-whether it's feeling guilty/ashamed/afraid or trying to get some control over ourselves-we'll fail every time.
If I'm motivated by guilt, shame, or fear, I will likely give up in frustration along the way.
I am not saying that we should never be moved by guilt, shame, or fear. There are situations in which we may need to be motivated by these things. But I am saying that if you are only motivated by guilt, shame, or fear, then you will very likely give up when life gets tough—and it will eventually get tough. You will either give up on the spiritual disciplines themselves because they become too hard when you experience a trial or crisis in your life (i.e., “I just can’t pray right now; there is so much going on!”), or you will give up on God because the spiritual disciplines don’t seem to be making a difference.
If we're trying to get something out of spiritual disciplines-like control over ourselves-we will probably fail at them as well.
Spiritual disciplines are not a way to gain control over yourself. If you're going about them with that mindset, if you're using your spiritual discipline as a means to an end, then it's very likely that you will fail at it.
It may be that we would like more control over ourselves. That's probably why we went on this self-help odyssey in the first place. But it's easy to use spiritual disciplines as a way of manipulating God into giving us more power over our lives, and that is not how they work. Spiritual disciplines done right will transform us into something new and unfamiliar, but they don't give us power or control. Spiritual disciplines are all about surrendering ourselves to God and his purposes for our lives, not about controlling ourselves or others so that we can achieve our own goals!
Spiritual disciplines are hard because they require faith.
We were never meant to go it alone. That is why we need God in the first place. When Jesus began His earthly ministry, there was a group of men who traveled around with Him, listened to Him teach, witnessed His miracles and shared their lives with Him. They were with Jesus for three years, learning from Him. They watched and learned from Jesus as He lived a life of obedience. When they made mistakes -- which happened often -- He showed them grace and mercy and taught them how to live in light of that grace.
When it comes to pursuing spiritual disciplines or any type of discipline for that matter, community is vital! We need others on our journey with us, encouraging us when we are struggling or fail and celebrating with us when we make progress or succeed!
In order to be effective they must be rooted in grace and empowered by the Spirit
It's all about grace. If we try to do it on our own, we will fail. We must base our efforts in faith. The gospel is the only thing that can free us from the bondage of self-rule and give us the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us. Only then can we live lives pleasing and honoring to God.
I have come to realize that I have been a spiritual disciple practitioner all along but in the wrong place and for the wrong reasons (in my own strength). It has not been effective nor fruitful in my life because it was not based on faith alone in God’s grace but rather upon works and fear of punishment (Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery”).