If you have spent much time in a Christian circle, you have probably run across the phrase or title "spiritual disciplines." But what is a spiritual discipline? Why should we do them? And why are they important? These are questions that must first be asked and answered before we try to practice or manage our own attempt at spiritual disciplines. It is pretty common to define spiritual disciplines as "...existing to help us abstain from sin and cling to Christ," "disciplines are practices meant to stir our affection of God," "disciplines exist to show us and bring us into the presence of God." I think all of these are good answers, but I think that all of these answers can be boiled down to one cover all solution. I propose that spiritual disciplines are practices and attitudes for the sake of exposing us to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
We Need Change
Dallas Willard defines the purpose of disciplines as to "apply the acts of will at our disposal in such a way that the proper course of action, which cannot always be realized by direct and untrained effort will, will nevertheless be carried out when needed." According to Willard, the purpose of disciplines are to respond to the day to day functions of your life in a way that is unnatural to man. To respond in a way unnatural to man is to respond in a Godly way. Sin is natural, holiness is not. Disciplines are actions which attempt to form our response and affections in a way contrary to our own default actions. Disciplines change us to become more like Christ in word, thought and deed.
Theology of Change
I find a Biblical example of such a design in Romans 12:1-2, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."
Paul appeals to the church in Rome by urging them to be transformed in renewal, worship and discernment through the mercies of God. "Through the mercies of God," is the key statement in this text for it is a mercy that God has given us a source of transformation. Without the mercy of God we will have no grounds for transformation as our heart lacks any ability to change. Left to our own devices our heart can change only in terms of increased rebellion, not increased worship (Rom 8:7). But through the love of God the Father, he has given us a source of powerful transformation. We see the fountain head of transformation in 2 Corinthians 2:18, "And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is spirit."
Looking at this statement we see a Trinitarian approach to change which shapes our view of disciplines. We are being changed, by beholding the glory of the Lord. This verse implies two things: 1.) That God the father is instrumental in sending his agent of change and has set himself up as a unique force in the hearts of man, 2.) That it is not simply the presence of God the Father that changes us, but a constant gaze on the glory of the Lord, who is Christ (Col 2:9, Eph 3:21, 1 Peter 5:10, Jude 1:25). Paul then tells us how it is that we may gaze on the glory of the Lord: "For this comes through the Lord who is spirit." God the Father has set his Son up as the fullness of his glory revealed to man and that gospel is sealed and preached to us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel Brings Change
Spiritual disciplines are an attempt to expose us to the person and work of Christ because without the gospel manifesting itself inside of a believer, there are no grounds for change. Without the uprooting power of the gospel there is no power over sin, no stirring of affection and no encounter with God. If God has most fully revealed and loved us through the revelation of His son on the cross (Eph 1), then spiritual disciplines must be done not so much out of the desire for discipline, but out of a desire of beholding the beauty of God.
I think a better name than "spiritual disciplines" is "means of grace." It has long been held in church tradition that means of grace are ways in which God brings his people into his salvation. But in Romans 12, Paul shows us that these are one in the same. The way in which we are saved, "the mercies of God," are also the way in which we are transformed, renewed, filled with worship, and given discernment to understand the will of God. Spiritual disciplines allow a believer to place themselves in the river of God and trust that the current will carry them to the ocean of grace. God has promised a special power through prayer, fellowship, service, meditation, scripture reading, memorization, church, celebration and many other means. In becoming an avid practitioner of these things, we simply trust ourselves to the process that God has given us for change. This is what compels us to spiritual disciplines. We desire to put ourselves in locations, situations and mindsets which give the Holy Spirit the greatest venue of gospel proclamation for the glory of God and the good of the Christian.
Change Takes Work
As Paul mentioned in Romans 12, these disciplines take work. Willard confirmed that a Christian and Christ-centered response is not one "realized by direct and untrained effort." That means we are to train. Training takes work, testing takes work, resisting the transformation of the world takes work. But it is for all these reasons that God the father has graciously given us a helper, who will proclaim to us the things of Christ (John 16) and the gospel of Christ will then continue in its transformative and sin killing way. Spiritual disciplines are not something for people who wish to be seen as devote Christians, or spiritual gurus. Spiritual disciplines are for people who realize their need to be transformed by Christ and who are driven to trust the means and process that God has given us to be changed by Christ.