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The Problem With “Spiritual Disciplines”


Several months ago I briefly looked at the terms “means of grace” and “spiritual disciplines,” mainly to understand the definition of the expression “means of grace.”  Now for a follow-up and more detailed look at the trendy idea of “spiritual disciplines” and what it’s really about.
A friend recently sent a link to a “Bible meditation” plan, asking what I thought of it.  The plan referenced “spiritual disciplines” and suggested specific ways to meditate on God’s word, including “relax your body” and “use your imagination to picture the truth when appropriate.”  (I explained what I thought of this, and the friend noted that I had confirmed the doubts she had about it.)
Bob DeWaay’s “Critical Issues Commentary” has been helpful for further research, as with these two articles:

The proponents of “spiritual disciplines,” such as Don Whitney, go beyond what the Bible itself defines.  Bob DeWaay said it well, that the “Means of grace are defined by the Bible and attached to God’s promises.  If we come to God in faith according to the means He has defined, He has promised to graciously meet us.”

However, the “spiritual disciplines” add many specific things to “do” in a subtle type of works-religion:

To summarize the directives in the chapters of Whitney’s book: spend more time reading the Bible, memorize more scripture, have a Bible reading plan, obey the Bible more, apply the Bible more, pray more, do more evangelism, make more plans for evangelism, serve more, use your gifts more, work harder at serving, use more time for spiritual things and less for wasteful things like entertainment, give more, fast often and regularly, spend time daily in silence and solitude, learn to hear the inward voice of God and then obey that inward voice, keep a journal, discipline yourself to write in a journal daily, study more, persevere more, and so forth. In fact, one could summarize, “think of whatever appears to be spiritual and godly and then do more and try harder.”

Many of these things are harmless in themselves, but with the teaching of “spiritual disciplines” they have become associated with the idea of becoming holy through disciplining oneself, as though by doing these things we could become more spiritual, more like Jesus.  For instance, “keeping a journal” is based on an idea only loosely connected to scripture, that since David penned the Psalms (inspired writings), our journal-keeping of thoughts and feelings is on the same level.  But back to the definition of “means of grace,” such a “blessing” for keeping a journal is not something that God promises — and inevitably sets us up for disappointment when such measures fail to give that extra blessing.

Bob DeWaay’s remarks about keeping a journal reminded me of something I remember reading years ago from C.S. Lewis, that keeping a journal was something he quit doing after becoming a Christian:  journal keeping was too self-focused, a very selfish activity that detracts from making us useful for God.  If by journal keeping we mean, keep notes about new things we discover in God’s word, fine — and I do that in fair measure, notes from certain Bible verses I read, or notes from various sermon series with commentary opinions.  But the “spiritual discipline” of journal keeping is the very thing C.S. Lewis also rejected, as too much self-centeredness.

But back to the idea of the grace that God gives to us as we partake of His means:  can I actually observe the blessings/benefits I receive from the “means of grace?”  Being honest with myself, I must admit, frequently I’m unaware of such — the process is gradual, and too often even when I engage in regular activity such as Bible reading, my mind is easily distracted or otherwise dulled and not as attentive as it should be.  Yet God has even told us that the reading of His word is a “blessing”  (Revelation 1:3), and that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”  (2 Timothy 3:16).  Often enough, I find at least daily encouragement to continue living the Christian life — as in recent readings in Hebrews, Psalm 119, and other parts of God’s word.

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  1. Sonja
    March 21, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Very well said Lynda. All those disciplines do sound benign and would be edifying but at the expense of all other things? Choose the “good part”.

    Sigh, so many extra-biblical ways to “connect” with the Lord that would indeed lead to a wrecked faith when one realizes they don’t work.

    Excellent post!

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