Galatians 6:8 – Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit.
You are what you practice regularly.
If you want to get good at anything, you have to practice. I started training in martial arts when I was 11-years-old. I went to class two or three times a week until I graduated from high school. I took a few years off, but started back training again when I was 27. I’m almost forty-five-years-old now and I still try to train two or three times a week.
People sometimes ask me, “Can you teach me something about how to defend myself?” They often have this misconception there might be some secret karate move that will save them if they ever get attacked. Sometimes, I will show some trick I’ve learned. But always in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “You can’t learn one karate move and think it will keep you safe. You can’t even just take one class and expect to be prepared for a violent encounter. You have to practice and practice and practice until self-defense becomes second nature to you.”
Practice is essential in any sport. Professional football players run some of the same weekly drills they ran when they were just kids starting out. Singers and musicians know how important practice is too. Our church pianist, Sara Forester, comes out and practices almost every week in the sanctuary. You will often find her on a Saturday morning by herself in the sanctuary practicing the offertory or prelude music she will play on Sunday morning. Our church choir practices at least once a week, sometimes twice. Singing in the church choir is probably one of the best ways to really get better at singing, simply because of the regular practice you get. Your voice is a muscle that grows stronger and better the more you exercise it.
Can tell? I’m a strong believer in practice and training. And here’s why: what you practice regularly comes out when the pressure is on. If you know how to fight because you practice all the time, your fighting skill will come out naturally in that unexpected moment when you’re attacked and you need to fight. You won’t have to think about it.
The same is true of the Christian virtues in a person’s life. You are what you practice and it will come out when the pressure is on. You might be able to fake being Christian for a little while when everything is easy; but when the squeeze is on, the real juice on the inside is gonna come out. When you’re stressed out and under pressure, who you are on the inside is gonna come out—compassion, forgiveness, grace, and mercy or frustration, retaliation, unreasonable demands, and a mean spirit. When someone squeezes you, the juice that comes out will be from whatever fruits are in your spirit. What kind of person are you when the going gets tough?
The exercises Christians practice to help develop their spiritual muscles are called Spiritual Disciplines. Some of the most useful spiritual disciplines are: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Each of these disciplines have been used by Christians for thousands of years to nurture the growth of the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Over the next few months, I’m going to teach about each of these spiritual disciplines. We will try to understand each one better. What I really want, though, is for you to practice them. What good would it be to know all about prayer, but never pray? It would be as useless as a recipe for a pecan pie, but never cooking or eating one.
There are two dangers I need to point out from the very beginning in regards to spiritual disciplines. First off, there is a danger of using the spiritual disciplines for the wrong reasons. There are many—chief among these were the Pharisees in the New Testament—who misunderstand the purpose of the spiritual disciplines. They think that by their very strict and strenuous practice of prayer and fasting and study and worship, etc. they might work their way to God’s blessing and salvation. Remember the prideful prayer of the Pharisee from Luke 18:11-12? “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’”
You see, the Pharisee thought his religious devotion made him special and better than others. When spiritual disciplines are misused in this way, they actually lead you away from God and not toward Him. Pride is one of the deadliest sins in the human heart. Fasting and tithing are spiritual practices that, when used rightly, can help drive pride from your heart and remind you of your utter dependence on the merciful providence of God. However, if you use your fasting and tithing to convince yourself you are something special, you have increased your pride and defeated the purpose for fasting and tithing altogether.
Another common misuse is related and stems from using the spiritual disciplines to try to impress others. Again, the Pharisees in the New Testament were very diligent with their prayers, but they did it to impress people. A common practice—which Jesus condemned—was to go out on a busy street corner and blow trumpets to get everyone’s attention. Then a Pharisee would handout charity and pray so everyone could see them and be impressed (Matthew 6:1-6). Jesus said you should pray in private so no one sees it—except God. In Matthew 6:16, Jesus said, “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting.” Jesus taught we should fast in such a way that no one would even notice we are fasting, except God who knows what we do in private. So we have to be careful not to misuse the spiritual disciplines to try to impress people or God.
That brings me to a second danger in regards to spiritual disciplines. There is the danger that we neglect the spiritual disciplines, because we assume we can’t do anything at all to help transform our spirits. It is true that we are saved by grace and not by the good things we do. But that doesn’t mean we just sit back and let Jesus to do all the work without any help from us.
Notice what Jesus said in Matthew 6:16. He said, “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do…” He said “when” you fast. He assumed we would indeed fast (which is one of the spiritual disciplines). He just wanted to make sure we fast and pray for the right reasons. This applies to all the other spiritual disciplines as well. The reasons we practice them make all the difference.
Meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration open us up to the power of the Holy Spirit and nurture the growth of the spiritual fruits in our hearts. The spiritual disciplines are the means God gives us to receive His grace. They are the methods by which we place ourselves before God so that He can transform us.
The Spiritual Disciplines are for Everyone
Unfortunately, people these days often think spiritual disciplines are only for spiritual gurus or people who live in a monastery. That’s only because so many these days have forgotten about the disciplines. For centuries, most Christians practiced these disciplines on a regular basis. They were even incorporated into their communal life. People automatically knew it was time to pray when they heard the bells ring in the church steeple. People knew fasting and penance were the order of the day during the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter. Some of these practices survive today. Most have been forgotten by the masses. And we are weaker for it.
I want to revive these spiritual disciplines as a regular exercise within our church. And really, it shouldn’t be too difficult. These spiritual disciplines aren’t too difficult to understand or practice. It’s just we have to make them a priority in our busy lives. We have to exercise our spirit the way we exercise our body.
My hope then, as we go through this series, is to better understand each of the disciplines in order that we may practice them. But the key is in the practice. Understanding the spiritual disciplines is not as good as practicing them. Understanding and practicing them is the best of all. So I hope we will grow in both understanding and practice together over the next few months.