Engaging The Disciplines
The other day, I watched a portion of “Fear Factor.” Several people were willing to do a bunch of scary things in order to win $1 million. They did some manoeuvres high in the sky, ate leeches, swam in fish guts and drove a 4 wheeler off a 200 foot cliff. Only the one who did all of these things best won the $1 million.
What do you want? Is it a million dollars? I think that people really don’t want $1 million, they want what it can buy which ultimately is peace, joy, love, meaning, hope. What you do to receive these things? If a guy is willing to do a bunch of disgusting and scary things for a mere $mil what would we be willing to do for what will really satisfy?
Over the past few weeks, we have examined the idea that spiritual disciplines are exercises that train us in godliness. They help us grow towards participation in the divine nature and towards escape from the corruption of the world. Last week, we looked particularly at the disciplines of abstinence - things we avoid in order to train ourselves. Today we will look at the disciplines of engagement - things we do in order to train ourselves.
I realize that some of these ideas have been quite heavy, perhaps a little new for some of us. I hope that today we can wrap it up to something helpful and encouraging.
I am especially glad to be talking about these things today as we anticipate the baptism of two young men. When we baptize someone, we make a commitment to them, as they do to us. We become responsible for their spiritual maturity and care. So to share with you, Christopher and Daniel, thoughts about the spiritual disciplines is an appropriate thing to do because it is through these that you will be able to grow strong in the faith life to which you are publicly committing yourself today.
I. Disciplines Of Engagement
What are the disciplines of engagement?
David Watson wrote, “God’s word to us, especially his word spoken by his Spirit through the Bible, is the very ingredient that feeds our faith. If we feed our souls regularly on God’s word, several times each day, we should become robust spiritually just as we feed on ordinary food several times each day, and become robust physically. Nothing is more important than hearing and obeying the word of God.”
You know the value of the Word of God and so I want to encourage you once again to daily Bible reading, meditation and study. I also want to encourage participation in two opportunities for Bible study. In a few weeks we will begin Sunday School again. I encourage all - adults included - to partake of this opportunity. I also want to encourage participation in Bible Studies. In fact, I want you to know that I will be phoning around to encourage you to participate.
If the only Bible you take in is on Sunday morning, it is like eating only one meal a week. Physically that isn’t enough. Neither is it spiritually. If the only Bible you take in during the week is reading the Daily Bread, it is like existing on snacks. I want to invite you to a feast. A feast takes preparation, you don’t just pop a feast into the microwave and eat it in front of the TV. Let us take every opportunity to enjoy the great feast God has for us in His Word.
II Timothy 3:16,17 tells us the tremendous value of the study of God’s Word. It says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In other words, the Word of God is valuable for the whole range of needs leading towards spiritual maturity.
The second discipline of engagement is worship. Willard says, “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.” Psalm 95:6,7 invites us, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”
As we see God in His Word, as we see God in nature, as we see how God is at work in our life and in the world, and as we direct our thoughts to Him in response, we worship. We have the privilege to worship alone, but also in community.
Worship is an important spiritual discipline because as we worship, “the good we adore enters our minds and hearts to increase our faith and strengthen us to be as he is.”
Celebration is a wonderful discipline, which allows us to rejoice in the world which God has made. “We engage in celebration when we enjoy ourselves, our life, our world, in conjunction with our faith and confidence in God’s greatness, beauty, and goodness.”
Sometimes it is hard for us to think of celebration as a discipline that will lead us to God. We have gotten used to seeing pleasure as separate from our life in God. Many people in our world depend on pleasure or live for pleasure, but God has called us to enjoy pleasure in His presence as a part of our relationship to Him.
The Bible encourages celebration. Deuteronomy 14:26 says, “Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice.”
We experience many celebrations as a normal part of life. We do them joyfully and frequently, but sometimes wondering what they have to do with our spiritual life. Celebrations become a spiritual discipline when we do them, as Deuteronomy says, “in the presence of Lord.” What will our birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, thanksgiving meals and Christmas parties look if we do them “in the presence of the Lord?” When we celebrate with an attitude of heart that recognizes God in the midst of it all and when we celebrate with a pure joy then we will have engaged the discipline of celebration.
The value of such a discipline is that it integrates our whole life into God. It helps us realize that “Holy delight and joy is the great antidote to despair and is a wellspring of genuine gratitude…”
I won’t spend much time with the next discipline because it is one we do well. I just need to mention: MDS, camp, Heritage, Lodge, Union Gospel, Sunday School, Awana and so many other areas. I rejoiced when I found out that some of the young people used their vacation time to work at VBS and Camp. The discipline of service is alive in our church. To this, I say AMEN! When we serve, we follow the example of Jesus. In Matthew 20:28 it says, “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Service is valuable because “In service we engage our goods and our strength in the active promotion of the good of others and the causes of God in our world.” Although service can be done as duty or to give the appearance of righteousness, we know that true service must be done in the Spirit of Jesus and with a love for those we serve.
The value of service is, as Willard says, “…to train myself away from arrogance, possessiveness, envy, resentment, or covetousness.” Let us keep on with this discipline.
Another discipline we are familiar with, but could also learn more about is the discipline of prayer.
Earlier we examined the prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. His disciples were with him and as he prayed about his upcoming arrest and death when he returned, he found the disciples sleeping. In Matthew 26:41, Jesus identified the problem of people in the area of spiritual growth and maturity when he said, “the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” His solution to the weakness of the flesh was to tell the disciples to “watch and pray.”
Daily, regular prayer will have a powerful effect on our whole life. Willard says, “the effect of conversing with God cannot fail to have a pervasive and spiritually strengthening effect on all aspects of our personality.”
The value of regular prayer is that “The more we pray, the more we think to pray, and as we see the results of prayer - the responses of our Father to our requests - our confidence in God’s power spills over into other areas of our life.”
I have already alluded to the importance of community. Bible reading and worship, as well as many of these other disciplines are to be done in the context of community. Those of you who read the Daily Bread read the illustration the other day of what happens when we fail to connect with a body of believers. Like a coal apart from the fire soon loses its warmth, so a life separated from the body of believers does not glow with spiritual warmth. Hebrews 10:25 encourages us, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Although the discipline of fellowship can be a cause of frustration and sometimes even temptation, it has tremendous value in spiritual growth. Others challenge us, encourage us, keep us accountable and these things surely help in our spiritual growth. This is the reason to keep coming to church and it is also the reason why it is important to become involved in a small group.
We know the importance of this and have looked at it before, but for this fellowship to be really a spiritually growing experience, there are two other disciplines that must be practiced in the context of fellowship.
The Bible calls us to confess our sins to one another. James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
Many of our relationships in the church are judgemental. We do not learn God’s grace when while hiding our own sins we point at the sins of others. How backwards from what God intends. He intends us to confess our sins and hide the sins of others. When we do that, we will live with each other with grace and humility.
So many of our relationships in the church are superficial. There is no depth to them because if we are afraid that it would reveal that we are sinful people. Willard says, “Confession alone makes deep fellowship possible, and the lack of it explains much of the superficial quality so commonly found in our church associations.’
So much of the time, we live with burdens because we know what we are. We have to hide from ourselves and from others and Satan has guilt as a weapon against us. Confession frees us from that guilt and from the burden of hiding.
The importance of confession is that it cuts deeply across the most difficult sin we have and that is the sin of pride. In confession, we are able to humble ourselves and receive mercy and as we have received mercy, we will also have opportunity to extend it to others. How hard confession is, yet how important for true spiritual maturity.
Another of the more difficult disciplines of engagement is the discipline of submission. Ephesians 5:21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” I Peter 5:5 says, “Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
When we accept someone else’s idea even though we don’t quite see it that way, when we agree to serve even though we had other plans, when we accept someone else’s correction or when we are silent when we feel like criticizing we are expressing the discipline of submission. When we realize how much the Bible talks about humility, we will realize how important submission is for our spiritual maturity.
II. Engaging The Disciplines
We have taken a lot of time to discover what the disciplines are - the disciplines of abstinence - solitude, silence, fasting, chastity and simplicity; the disciplines of engagement - study, prayer, service, worship, celebration, fellowship, submission and confession. But how do we engage the disciplines in our life?
Many of you enjoy volleyball. When you are on a volleyball team, the coach will guide you to prepare to play as well as possible. There are two primary areas of preparation. On the one hand, there will be certain things done simply for the sake of overall conditioning. You may run, do weights, and some exercises to increase mobility. I was told once that sit-ups are good for volleyball because strengthening stomach muscles helps you have a better vertical. On the other hand, there will be some things you do to increase specific skills. You will have serving practice, so that you can serve better. The setter will practice setting. Power and middle will practice spiking drills. As the season wears on, the coach may prescribe certain drills more to strengthen what he notices as a weakness in a certain area.
The same kind of logic pertains in our use of the spiritual disciplines. There are some things we need to do in order to develop an overall conditioning. All of us need to engage in Bible reading, prayer and fellowship. I think that solitude and silence are also important basic disciplines. These basic disciplines will help us grow strong in a general way. They build up our spiritual reserves. They help us develop an all around spiritual health.
Then there are other things we need to do according to our own individual needs. All of us are created differently, we have different backgrounds and different temptations. What is a real problem for one person may not even give a problem to another. One person has a terrible time holding their tongue, and another can keep secrets forever, but that person may have a problem with pride. So since we are all different, we will need to use the spiritual disciplines differently in order to grow where we need to grow.
So the question you need to ask is, “what is the sin or weakness that I need to overcome and which spiritual discipline will help me do it?” Willard says, “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.” For example, if you have a problem with gossip, the disciplines of silence and of service could be very helpful. Silence will teach us to hold our tongue. Service will help us see other people’s needs and become more sensitive to them. If your problem is gluttony, perhaps fasting and worship would be helpful. Fasting would allow you the practice to do without food and worship would help you learn that your needs are met in God. The sin of lust can be helped greatly by chastity. A covenant such as Job made not to look lustfully at a girl can be a helpful discipline. Fasting would also help teach that we need to obey God more than we need to have what our body desires. Pride can be overcome with the disciplines of solitude so that we learn to humble ourselves before God, service and confession so that we humble ourselves before others. If we struggle with fear worship can help us see how God is so amazing and will help us trust Him more. Bible reading will help us see how God helped Israel, Daniel, Paul and others. Solitude will help us experience God’s loving and caring presence.
So the beginning of engaging the disciplines is to look at our own life and see what we need. If we are not even engaged in the basic disciplines of general conditioning, that would be the place to start. As we see particular sins or weaknesses, we need to think about which exercises would be most helpful in helping us overcome them.
But let us be careful. There are dangers in the engagement of the disciplines. One danger is to begin to do spiritual disciplines for their own sake. Willard says, “The activities constituting the disciplines have no value in themselves. The aim and substance of the spiritual life is not fasting, prayer, hymn singing, frugal living, and so forth. Rather, it is the effective and full enjoyment of active love of God and humankind in all the daily rounds of normal existence where we are placed.”
Another danger of the disciplines is to begin to think ourselves better than others because we pray more or fast more or read more. Such an attitude is counterproductive and must be carefully avoided.
Another danger is to think that the disciplines involve a quick fix. What we do, we must do regularly, not just once. What we do, we must also be prepared to change. In silence and prayer, God will keep revealing who we are and as we become strong in one area, we may discover that another area is weak and needs work. Then adjustment and a new plan is needed.
III. Enjoying The Disciplines
If the place in our blood designed to carry oxygen is occupied by carbon monoxide, we die. Willard says, “If the places in our souls that are to be indwelt by God and his service are occupied by food, sex and society, we die or languish for lack of God and right relationship to his creatures.”
God doesn’t want that for us. John 10:10 expresses God’s will for us. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” When our lives are filled with anything other than God and His service - that is the thief coming to steal, kill and destroy. The disciplines are not burdensome in the sense of destroying joy and making it hard. They are intended for life.
Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The yoke is the disciplines, but it is an easy yoke, a yoke that will give rest to our souls. Willard says, “The cross-shaped yoke of Christ is after all an instrument of liberation and power to those who live in it with him and learn the meekness and lowliness of heart that brings rest to the soul.”
What we will discover when we engage the disciplines is life. If we do not walk as disciples, we will find a great cost to our life and our relationship with God. We will miss out on peace, on a life filled with God’s love, on faith that sees God in the midst of everything, a confidence that God is sovereign, hope in the most discouraging circumstances and the power to do what is right. In other words, the spiritual disciplines will truly help us discover life to the full.
This is for everyone. I read recently that “The disciple of Jesus is not the deluxe or heavy-duty model of the Christian - especially padded, textured, streamlined, and empowered for the fast lane on the straight and narrow way. He stands on the pages of the New Testament as the first level of basic transportation in the Kingdom of God.”
But are we really interested in being disciples? I read a cartoon about someone calling the church office to ask if he could audit the discipleship course on “Total Commitment.” Paul says with deep conviction, “For me to live is Christ” - no auditing, rather living. Is that true for us? G. K. Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” Oh that this will not be the case for us. Discipleship is about life. The reward is great, but it must be acted on. Willard challenges us when he says, “This will come down to what you do on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.”
We are so deeply loved by the one who has promised us life. May we rejoice in the love we have received and engage the disciplines so that we can experience the abundant life to which we have been called.