What Are Spiritual Disciplines?
Spiritual disciplines are activities that capture Paul’s language “exercises unto godliness.” Consistent “exercising” of the spiritual disciplines when walked out over time cultivate spiritual formation, a transformation of your mind, heart, and hands into Christlikeness.
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.
But you can’t begin with an extensive spiritual disciplines list. That is like drinking from a fire hose.
What’s the key to success in beginning the spiritual disciplines?
Start small, start with the basics. But just start.
The Most Important Spiritual Disciplines?
As you will see below, these seven disciplines are mentioned in each of the top spiritual disciplines books:
Are they the most important?
By looking at a few other sources, we can further reduce even this fairly short list of spiritual disciplines and discover a straightforward starting place.
How to Start the 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 creaturely activity. We are to become still even though everything around us feels dark.” Richard Foster
How do you become still and quiet your own creaturely activity? This aim requires committing to primarily two spiritual disciplines, solitude and silence.
What are the important ones according to Willard?
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 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.
In order to “know God better” disciplines of study and worship are necessary.
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. [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.
“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.”
[Note: Unless otherwise indicated, 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]
Why is solitude critical?
One of the largest habits 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.
“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?
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 Study Misconception
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 fastest 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.
“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 in our corporate experiences and—as a discipline in our closets.
“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”.
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?
When you attempt to engage in silence and solitude, primarily doing nothing for an hour or three, how steady is your mind on you and God?
When it gravitates to “others”—you still need silence and solitude.
When you attempt to fast, do you need to cave to let your body have its own way? Or are you soft and sweet even when you don’t get what you want?
Can you know why you say “Hallowed be thy name” and convince others of those reasons? If not, you still need study.
The aim is not to become a competitor in the spiritual discipline Olympics though, 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.
At the conclusion of Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines book he says these helpful words:
“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.”
His list is below, not above like in the book 🙂
The Enduring Spiritual Disciplines List
Dallas Willard, Donald Whitney and Richard Foster have written some of the most extensive spiritual disciplines books,
Foster and Willard 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.
Richard Foster in “Celebration of Discipline,” the ultimate Spiritual Disciplines handbook, has his spiritual disciplines list separated into three sections:
- The Inward Disciplines,
- The Outward Disciplines,
- and The Corporate Disciplines.
Richard Foster’s Spiritual Disciplines
Here are the 12 spiritual disciplines Richard Foster discusses in Celebration of Discipline.
- Solitude (includes silence)
Inward – Disciplines, 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 help this to occur, “enjoy other people and to like them and finally you will grow to love them deeply.”
Dallas Willard places the spiritual disciplines into two categories:
- Disciplines of Abstinence,
- and Disciplines of Engagement.
“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 Spiritual Disciplines
In addition to mentioning the keeping of a journal, vigils, and even grocery shopping as a spiritual discipline, here are the main spiritual disciplines for life Dallas Willard discusses in The Spirit of the Disciplines.
Disciplines of Abstinence
Disciplines of Engagement
“Those disciplines alone can become for average Christians ‘the conditions upon which the spiritual life is made indubitably real’ (the seeming unreality of the spiritual life) and if this point could be made as convincingly as its truth and its importance deserve, the Practical effects will be stunning.
There will be a life-giving revolution in our personal lives and in our world.” a quote from The Spirit of the Disciplines with emphasis added.
The Ultimate List of Spiritual Disciplines?
This seemed fun so I did it.
Pulling the spiritual disciplines from three of the most impactful spiritual disciplines books of our time, Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines, Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, and Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life, this spiritual disciplines list then emerges:
- 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
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.
I hope that you feel compelled to commit to experiment with the first four spiritual disciplines mentioned this week, and quit reading.
Research, planning, investigation, are all ideas about an unknown future, not exercises nor action or work.
“The [spiritual] disciplines are activities of mind and body purposely undertaken…
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
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 explore, analyze, and adapt in the most important disciplines of solitude, silence, study, and worship.