A Case for Spiritual Disciplines

A Case for Spiritual Disciplines

In 1976, the general assembly of the Church of the Nazarene amended its Tenth Article of Faith describing the distinguishing doctrine of the denomination, entire sanctification:

"We believe that there is a marked distinction between a pure heart and a mature character. The former is obtained in an instant, the result of entire sanctification; the latter is the result of growth in grace" (Manual 2005-2009, 35).

The words were included because many Nazarenes regarded the experience of entire sanctification as a point of arrival rather than the beginning of a life of full surrender to God.

The words remind us that becoming like Christ does not occur in a moment but requires interior development expressed in exterior ways.

If we gain maturity through growth in grace, how does this growth occur? Is growth the result of something God does to a believer over time? Or, do individuals partner with the Holy Spirit, enabling them to become like Christ? I have come to believe that spiritual disciplines are crucial for moving us through various stages of growth in Christlikeness. Simply defined, spiritual disciplines are personal and corporate habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that promote spiritual growth.

The disciplines are vital for helping new converts understand their new life in Christ. Changes in lifestyle are not always dramatic. Only through time does a person change from godlessness to godly thinking and living. If we look at the disciplines through a negative lens, we note that they address attitudes and actions that do not reflect the spirit of Christ.

In a positive sense, we see that the disciplines deal with developing habits of Christlikeness. Historical evidence reveals that new converts who are instructed in the use of disciplines experience more stable growth and development than those who are left to make spiritual discoveries on their own. The disciplines are also crucial to help a sanctified believer progress from having a pure heart to living with a mature character.

These habits teach believers to be comfortable with God and to desire a deeper understanding of His will and participation in His kingdom.

Spiritual disciplines are tools God uses to shape His people, renewing their minds and conforming them to His character.

Disciplines help sanctified believers stay on guard and be submissive to the Holy Spirit's authority.

Strange as it may seem, Christians don't always embrace spiritual disciplines, particularly Protestant believers. The whole idea of "discipline" sounds like a contradiction to grace. Critics who attack the use of disciplines may claim that we cannot earn salvation and that spiritual disciplines will not save a person. They are correct, but do not have a proper understanding of spiritual disciplines. What the disciplines will do, according to Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline, is to get people to a place where they can experience God's changes in their lives.

The disciplines do not give a person special favor with God in the sense of reward for right behavior, but they will enhance the relationship with God that is built on faith in His grace. Some people criticize disciplines that have been adopted by other religions and philosophies, such as meditation. Meditation, frequently addressed in the Psalms, is thoroughly Biblical, and is often referred to in ways that leave no doubt that practicing it is a normal part of relationship with God.

Non-Christian forms of meditation encourage a person to empty the mind and become detached from the world, but Christian meditation advocates emptying the mind in order to fill it with thoughts of God.

Learning to think and act like a follower of Jesus is much like acquiring a physical skill. For example, no one becomes a good golfer by just playing one round of golf. Proficiency comes on the practice range after hitting thousands of golf balls with different clubs. The same is true of one who wants to play a musical instrument. A person must spend hours practicing scales and basic techniques before he or she can play even the simplest songs.

I professed my faith in Jesus when I was only five years old. I grew up in a Nazarene parsonage and in Nazarene churches. All my life I was taught to read my Bible and pray every day. But not until about 12 years ago did I begin to understand the importance of practicing a range of disciplines that resulted in my experiencing a deeper relationship with God. Even the basics - prayer and Bible reading - began to have new meaning.

I began keeping a journal after reading Gordon MacDonald's book Ordering Your Private World. I did not even realize it was a spiritual discipline. One day as I looked back over a few years' worth of journal entries, I made a surprising discovery. In one of the entries I acknowledged my realization that I needed certain habits in my life for maximum growth in grace.

I made a list of those and admitted that I did not have satisfaction in my walk with God without regular, consistent times of solitude and silence. Nor was I in tune with Him without prayer, journaling, devotional reading, and Scripture reading, study, and memorization. When I read these words, I discovered that I had been using spiritual disciplines without realizing it! God had led me into these practices before I had seriously studied the disciplines.

In that moment my heart was filled with joy, as I understood God's graceful overture to me that deepened our relationship. God's saints have practiced spiritual disciplines for centuries. Twenty-first century Nazarenes have the opportunity to pick up the mantle left behind by spiritual giants of the past, forging a world-changing future.

David P. Wilson is general secretary for the Church of the Nazarene.

Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2008

Please note: This article was originally published in 2008. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.