The Most Critical “Complete 7” of the 27 Spiritual Disciplines
Want to live a celebratory life? A life that can say
“I feel like a tree planted by a stream, I have wings like an eagle, I love my neighbor, including my in-laws, as myself, follow me as I follow Christ?”
These statements and more, are an experienced reality when you press into living a spiritually disciplined life embedded in grace.
Just like, becoming a proficient piano player or woodworker, or learning a new language requires plenty of discipline, spiritual disciplines are no small feat either.
That is why Paul says “exercise yourself unto godliness”, not wait and do nothing. Spiritual disciplines are the exercises that, when walked out over time cultivate spiritual transformation, a renewing of the mind, heart, and hands.
But you can’t begin with an extensive spiritual disciplines list. That is like drinking from a fire hose.
If you’re new to the practice of spiritual disciplines, or even if you’re in a season of dryness and need to get back to the beginning, start small, start with the basics. But just start.
Today you will learn the spiritual disciplines mentioned in some of the best spiritual disciplines books, which of these disciplines overlap, and the first few to begin.
Soon enough you will be prepared to safely and easily reign with God, on earth as it is in heaven.
“God’s intent is to turn us into the kinds of persons that can safely and easily reign with God” Richard Foster
What are spiritual disciplines?
“The [spiritual] disciplines are activities of mind and body purposely undertaken, to bring our personality and total being into effective cooperation with the divine order. They enable us more and more to live in a power that is, strictly speaking, beyond us, deriving from the spiritual realm itself, ‘as we yield ourselves to God, as those that are alive from the dead, and our members as instruments of righteousness unto God’ Romans 6:13” Dallas Willard
Whatever spiritual disciplines list you come up with, either from observing saints of the past and present, looking at lists like the ones below or other means, all disciplines that are spiritual; are seeds in your life that sow to the spirit.
The law of sowing and reaping from Galatians 6:8 “the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” Galatians 6:8
How Does Your Garden Grow?
Sowing to the spirit is like the name of the garden, and each specific discipline is a faculty in your garden that pushes enemies that harm away or yields a specific fruit.
As any successful gardener would tell you, you don’t plant 17 vegetables in your garden on year one.
You begin with one or maybe a handful, learn how to keep them alive and hopefully get a few tomatoes or melons in season one, then in season two you will bear more fruit from the first few while learning how to keep a couple more alive, and over time, have a bountiful harvest; from less effort.
When your garden, life, is more or less on autopilot because you have become a master gardener, more fruit is produced with less effort than it took in prior seasons.
This is the connection between the easy yoke and a light burden, the self-discipline that equals freedom conundrum.
The Goal of the Disciplines – Spiritual Transformation
The spiritual formation steps from 2 Peter 1:5-8, reveal a process of spiritual transformation, the stages to achieve a transformed and fruitful life:
“But to obtain these gifts, you need more than faith; you must also work hard to be good, and even that is not enough. For then you must learn to
- Know God better and discover what he wants you to do. Next,
- Learn to put aside your own desires so that you will become patient and godly, gladly letting God have his way with you. This will make possible the next step, which is for you to
- Enjoy other people and to like them, and
- Finally you will grow to love them deeply.
The more you go on in this way, the more you will grow strong spiritually and become fruitful and useful to our Lord Jesus Christ. (TLB)”
Ready to be uber useful, fruitful, and spiritually strong?
It only requires commitment to spiritual disciplines and grace (which you already have).
[A note about quotes in this post, unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from my favorite spiritual disciplines book, Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. In it I learned what the fall was, what salvation is, what is kingdom living, why the spiritual disciplines matter and many more pivotal abundant life lessons which is why I now refer to it as, The Hope Book]
The Enduring Spiritual Disciplines List
Dallas Willard, Donald Whitney and Richard Foster have written some of the most extensive spiritual disciplines books,
In Foster’s and Willard’s books, they have categorized the spiritual disciplines they discuss, kind of like fruit or vegetable, and viewing these segments, aids in getting a helicopter view of these disciplines that sow to the spirit.
Dallas Willard places the spiritual disciplines into two categories: Disciplines of Abstinence, and Disciplines of Engagement
Richard Foster in “Celebration of Discipline” has his spiritual disciplines list separated into three sections, The Inward Disciplines, The Outward Disciplines, and The Corporate Disciplines.
- Inward, disciplines of abstinence, that help you to “know God better and discover what He wants you to do, and; learn to put aside your own desires”;
- the Outward & Corporate, disciplines of engagement “enjoy other people and to like them and finally you will grow to love them deeply ” the reign of your effective will, your kingdom, with the people you encounter consistently,
“Abstinence and engagement are the out breathing and in breathing of our spiritual lives, and we require disciplines for both movements…
Abstinence, then, makes way for engagement… A proper abstinence actually breaks the hold on improper engagements so that the soul can be properly engaged in and by God.” Dallas Willard
While no spiritual disciplines list could be conclusive, many “exercises unto godliness” sow to the spirit, here are reliably helpful, modern and classic disciplines:
- Celebration Foster Corporate, Willard Engagement
- Chastity Willard Abstinence
- Confession Foster Corporate, Willard Engagement
- Evangelism Whitney
- Fasting Whitney, Willard Abstinence, Foster Inward
- Fellowship Willard Engagement
- Frugality Willard Abstinence
- Guidance Foster Corporate
- Journaling Willard, Whitney
- Learning Whitney
- Meditation Foster Inward, Willard Engagement
- Perseverance Whitney
- Peregrinatio Willard
- Prayer Foster Inward, Willard Engagement, Whitney
- Sabbath Willard
- Sacrifice Willard Abstinence
- Secrecy Willard Abstinence
- Service Foster Outward, Willard Engagement, Whitney
- Silence Willard Abstinence, Foster Inward, Whitney
- Simplicity Foster Outward, Willard
- Solitude Willard Abstinence, Foster Inward, Whitney
- Sowing to the Spirit Willard
- Stewardship Willard, Whitney
- Study Foster Inward, Willard Engagement, Whitney
- Submission Foster Outward, Willard Engagement
- “Vigil” or Watching Willard
- Worship Foster Corporate, Willard Engagement, Whitney
On our way to find a starting place of focus, these seven are mentioned in each book:
Solitude, Silence, Study, Worship, Prayer, Fasting, Service
Let’s make it even more straightforward.
The First Four – The Most Important Spiritual Disciplines?
In Richard Foster’s “last” public address he says,
“Now our task, our great task, our central task, is incarnating a with-God life into the daily experience of our people right where they live, work, cry, pray, and curse the darkness. If we do not make substantial efforts here, all of our other efforts will simply dry up and blow away.”
“it begins by quieting our own creaturly activity. We are to become still even though everything around us feels dark.” Richard Foster
How do you quiet your own creaturly activity? This aim requires committing to primarily two spiritual disciplines, solitude and silence.
21-years prior to this Richard Foster keynote, Dallas Willard concluded his flagship book, The Divine Conspiracy, with a curriculum for Christlikeness.
In this curriculum, Willard urges all disciples that want to live like Jesus to begin with these most important spiritual disciplines.
“Other disciplines such as fasting, service, fellowship and so on should be discussed as well…But if these four are pursued with intelligence and prayer, whatever else is needed will certainly come along.”
In order to deeply and truly understand biblical submission, frugality vs. the possession and use of money, and more unfathomable disciplines, this requires immense study.
In order to effectively meditate, journal, or pray, the habits of solitude, silence, and the ability to turn off distractions in your mind must already be in place.
This made me laugh and cry at the same time, reading a conclusive paragraph in William Law’s prayer chapter from A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life confirmed Willard’s guidance of beginning with solitude, silence, worship and study. [Bullets added to emphasize how many points are being made.]
- “ If such were to appoint some certain spaces of their time to the study of devotion, searching after all the means and helps to attain a devout Spirit;
- if they were to collect the best forms of devotion, to use themselves to transcribe the finest passages of scripture prayers;
- if they were to collect the devotions, confessions, petitions, praises, resignations, and thanksgivings, which are scattered up and down in the Psalms, and range them under proper heads, as so much proper fuel for the flame of their own devotion;
- if their minds were often employed, sometimes meditating upon them, sometimes getting them by heart, and making them as habitual as their own thoughts,
- how fervently would they pray who came thus prepared to prayer?”
Oh, that’s all I need to do to figure out how to pray fervently, no wonder I sucked at it all of my life!
Beginning with these four spiritual disciplines in my morning routine, was how I accidentally began living a spiritually disciplined life.
A surprisingly outward discipline and a spiritual discipline of abstinence.
“In solitude, we purposely abstain from interaction with other human beings, denying ourselves companionship and all that comes from our conscious interaction with others. Solitude is choosing to be alone and to dwell on our experience of isolation from other human beings.”
Why is this critical?
One of the largest things permeated in our minds is “measuring themselves by one another and comparing themselves with one another” 2 Corinthians 10:12. Solitude fails, the moment someone other than yourself or God enters your mind.
“Nothing but Solitude can allow the development of a freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order.”
How is this an outward discipline?
The fruit of solitude is a full inward cup that is more capable of being with people, to engage better, to be entirely present with increased sensitivity and compassion.
Another surprising outward discipline of abstinence.
“In silence we close off our souls from ‘sounds’ whether those sounds be noise, music, or words.”
How is this an outward discipline?
The outward part of silence as a discipline is the art of only speaking when necessary.
“Why do we insist on talking as much as we do? We run off at the mouth because we are inwardly uneasy about what others think of us.”
Need help in controlling when you yell?
“This discipline provides us with a certain inner distance that gives us time to consider our words fully and the presence of mind to control what we say and when we say it.”
In addition to enhancing peace around you instead of adding to the chaos, James 1:26 reveals this is a pretty serious habit to get under control.
“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”
Silence and Solitude, The All Together Separate Foundation
“Of all the disciplines of abstinence, Solitude is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops.” and “Just as silence is vital to make solitude real, so is solitude needed to make the discipline of silence complete.”
But, why is this one of the most important disciplines for the spiritual life?
What did Paul pray for the Colossians he never met?
“We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives” Colossians 1:9
How do you gain wisdom and understanding from the spirit?
Being silent enough, quiet enough in your mind, to hear His still small voice, which is incredibly difficult to accomplish.
What is another way to gain wisdom and understanding?
Study, an inward discipline of engagement.
In the spiritual discipline of study we
- “Engage ourselves, above all, with the written and spoken word of God.
- Strive to see the word of God at work in the lives of others, in the church, in history, and in nature.
- Make every effort to sit regularly under the ministry of gifted teachers who can lead us deeply into the word and make us increasingly capable of a fruitful study on our own.
- Read well the lives of disciples from all ages and cultures of the church, building a small Library as we make them our friends and associates in the way.”
Unlike the Colossians, you have the blessing and overwhelm of being able to carry an arsenal of words with you everywhere, in your pocket.
Which means, you have the ability to unlock wisdom and understanding the Spirit gives via study.
In addition to the above aims from study of the Bible, literature, podcasts, videos, and keynotes from gifted teachers.
A huge misconception of this study game is revealed from the demon Screwtapes advice to Wormwood in helping his “patients” soul be captured by hell, C.S. Lewis causes him to say
“the man who truly and disinterestedly really enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without carrying two pints what other people say about it, is by that very fact armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favor of the “best “people, the” right “food, the” important “books. I have known a human defended from strong Temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.”
Because you have the ability to read everything, learning what you love to study is one of the most fast ways to uncover why God created you, your life’s mission and purpose.
Also, just because you can read words, does not mean you are studying.
“Study is an exacting art involving a labyrinth of details. To convince people that they must learn to study is the major obstacle.” Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline.
A very difficult read, but one of the most impactful books I have studied multiple times that helped me to learn this “art involving a labyrinth of details” is the book, How to Read a Book.
In addition to teaching how to study instead of just reading, How to Read a Book shows the way to unlocking passion, purpose, and meaning from reading, for your life.
A corporate discipline from Richard Foster’s list, and a spiritual discipline of engagement. “In worship we engage ourselves with, dwell upon, and express the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God through thought and the use of words, rituals, and symbols.”
While we primarily think of “worship” as a session at church, and Foster places it in his corporate disciplines section, worship needs to be engaged as a discipline in our closets and in our corporate experiences.
“As we worship… giving careful attention to the details of God’s actions and to his ‘worthiness’, the good we adore enters our minds and hearts to increase our faith and strengthen us to be as He is.”
Wait, worship increases our faith and strengthens us to be as He is? It’s not for glory, praising Him? There is something deeper in it for my transformation?
I highly encourage you to listen to Dallas Willard teaching from A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law.
For me, this powerful lesson, especially minutes 25:01 – 29:58, demystified worship and sealed the importance of how worship as a spiritual discipline will “increase our faith and strengthen us to be as He is”.
Conclusion of the most important four –
I hope that you feel compelled to commit to experiment with the first four spiritual disciplines this week, and quit reading.
Research, planning, investigation, are all ideas about an unknown future, not exercises nor action or work.
Below are a few tips and small elaborations on the other disciplines these three books all mention.
Sure read them, but why they are included; is so that after you dial in habits of solitude, silence, worship, and study, you can come back and pick the next discipline to sow.
The ultimate life game is to create a custom unique to you, spiritually disciplined plan and life where you interact with God, discussing what you and Him are doing in the world.
The foundation of that life begins by committing to experiment, analyze, and adapt in the most important disciplines of solitude, silence, study, and worship.
A Spiritual Disciplines Test
A pulse check to know if you need to continue in a discipline is simply this,
Is the spiritual discipline difficult or does it occur easily?
“We can even lay it down as a rule of thumb that if it is easy for us to engage in a certain discipline, we probably don’t need to practice it. The disciplines we need to practice are precisely the ones we are not ‘good at’ and hence do not enjoy.”
The aim is not to become a competitor in the spiritual discipline Olympics, comparing yourself with others but instead: press into and commit to a discipline until your automatic habits are life in the spirit and lay it aside, picking it back up if necessary at a future time.
This is another reason I love Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines book, at the conclusion of his spiritual disciplines list he says this,
“Which disciplines must be central to our lives will be determined by the chief sins of commission and omission that entice or threaten us from day to day. Arrogance, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lasciviousness – the seven “deadly” sins in the theological and literary history -along with many others are not phantoms or jokes, but hard bitten realities whose dreadful effects can be viewed hour by hour.
They call for a comparable hard-nosed, tough response on our part, supported by infinite grace. The above list of disciplines provides just such a response.”
An inward discipline and a spiritual discipline of engagement. “Prayer is conversing, communicating with God. When we pray we talk to God, aloud or within our thoughts.”
In prior times of my life, prayer would have been listed as one of the first spiritual disciplines to exercise.
“In many Protestant churches prayer and Bible study are held up as the activities that will make us spiritually rich. But very few people actually succeed in attaining spiritual richness through them and indeed often find them to be intolerably burdensome.”
Prayer and Bible study as “intolerably burdensome” would not have been the language I would have used, mainly from fear of others, summarizes well the struggle with these disciplines for most of my life.
While praying is “simple”, we can vomit with our words to anyone at any time, and a simple prayer is the prayer place to start: the ultimate aim of a spiritual life is to pray without ceasing, to “train ourselves to invoke God’s presence in every action we perform.”
This is why prayer is intentionally listed after solitude, silence, worship, and study.
In order to accomplish “praying without ceasing”, one must know who they are praying to, why, how and what to pray, and be leading a disciplined life overall.
“prayer will not be established in our lives as it must be for us to flourish, unless we are practicing other disciplines such as solitude and fasting.”
An inward spiritual discipline and a discipline of abstinence.
“In fasting, we abstain in some significant way from food and possibly from drink as well. This discipline teaches a lot about ourselves very quickly.”
Want to know how dependent you are on food, soda, coffe, alcohol, board games, cigarettes, or sex? Fast from it.
No other experiment will reveal more to yourself about yourself, very quickly indeed!
If it’s easy, you don’t need to fast from it, if you want to die and the abstaining from the thing consumes all of your attention, press into it further up and further in, incrementally.
Revelation 2:17 has become one of my life verses,
“Everyone who is victorious shall eat of the hidden manna, the secret nourishment from heaven; and I will give to each a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one else knows except the one receiving it.”
This hidden manna, secret nourishment from heaven is what fasting reveals, “confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in Him a source of sustenance beyond food.”
An outward spiritual discipline and a discipline of engagement. “In service we engage our goods and strengthen the active promotion of the good of others and the causes of God in our world.”
A burdensome struggle in most relationships is this, if I do the laundry, dishes, bring them lunch, let them choose the sofa set, or something else I feel is important to them, then I will get a massage, the car I want, the money, sex or some other need I have that they can meet.
“Service is the high road to freedom from bondage to other people.”
You have a unique ability inside to bless, encourage, and meet the needs of others in the range of your effective will.
Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
Everyone you encounter has a least of these physically or emotionally, learn how to see and serve them because you are Jesus.
This is the fruit of a life committed to walking out the spiritual disciplines.
- “Meditation heightens our spiritual sensitivity which, in turn, leads us into prayer.
- Prayer involves fasting as an accompanying means.
- Study gives us discernment about ourselves and the world in which we live.
- Through simplicity we live with others in integrity
- Solitude allows us to be genuinely present to people when we are with them.
- Through Submission we live with others without manipulation and
- through service. We are a blessing to them.
- Confession frees us from ourselves and releases us to worship.
- Worship opens the door to guidance.
- All the disciplines freely exercised, bring forth the doxology of celebration.” Richard Foster Celebration of Discipline.