Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Spiritual Disciplines: Some Thoughts

article by Marcia Montenegro (CANA/Christian Answers for the New Age)

For the past several years, the popularity of what are called the “spiritual disciplines” has grown at a breathless rate. This is not an in-depth response but rather some general remarks on a few points. I address specifics about the problems with the meditation usually advocated by those promoting the spiritual disciplines in several articles on my website.

 A Passage in First Timothy 

One of the issues I have with the spiritual disciplines advocacy is the widely held assumption that 1 Tim. 4:7 refers to practicing specific"disciplines," and the presumption that the Spiritual Disciplines advocates can decree what these disciplines are.  Not only do they enumerate these disciplines,but they assert or strongly imply that one must do these in order to grow as a Christian. Here is one disturbing statement: "I will maintain that the only road to Christian maturity and Godliness passes through the practice of the Spiritual Disciplines" (from Donald Whitney in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, pp. 16-17).

It might be helpful to look at 1 Tim. 4:6-8 to view the context:
“In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
The passage above is emphasizing “godliness,” defined also as religion and piety;that is, godly living based on reverence toward God (piety). This godly living results from sound doctrine in contrast to behavior produced by meaningless asceticism from unsound (false) teachings, which are likened to “worldly fables.” The NET Bible states that the fables “refer to legendary tales characteristic of the false teachers in Ephesus and Crete,” also referred to in 1 Tim. 1:4, 2 Tim. 4:4, and Titus 1:14 (online source).

The word “doctrine” appears six times in First Timothy, and the word “teaching” four times (“teach” is not being counted as “teaching”).  Paul is clearly concerned with false teachings in the church (see 1:19, 20; 4:1-3; 6:3-6, 20-21), some of which appear to be advocating asceticism, and he is exhorting Timothy to continue in sound doctrine.

A bit further, in verse 11, Paul advises Timothy, “Prescribe and teach these things,” and his closing words in chapter 6 plead with Timothy to “guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ --- which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith.”  

Thus, Paul ends the letter on the note of warning against these false teachings referred to in the passage under discussion. Paul is writing to Timothy to encourage him (in these passages) to continue sound teaching and reject false teachings and fables disguised as knowledge. Godliness can only result from teachings based on sound doctrine; there is no profit or growth from ascetic practices or other practices based on false teachings.

 Disciplines or Rules? 

I also take issue with the concept of “spiritual disciplines,” a term from Roman Catholic monasticism which indicated a salvation by works. And I question the idea that certain Christians can define disciplines for other Christians.  Since the Bible does not specify any specific practice as a “discipline,” then I think it is up to each Christian to discover from God’s living word which area he or she may need to focus on and at which point in their lives.

I do not see biblical validity for "silence and solitude" as disciplines.There is nothing wrong with silence and solitude, and I think they are of value at times, especially if one is praying or reflecting on God’s word. But I don't think the Bible supports doing these as disciplines. Moreover, “silence” is often a code word for “going within” in order to hear from God.

Other named disciplines include journaling, fasting, and stewardship. There is no prescriptive basis in the Bible for journaling or fasting as “disciplines” for Christians. There are biblical principles for stewardship of time and money, but is this a discipline? Christians are under grace; the Lord wants us to desire to serve Him, not live by imposed rules, or disciplines as defined by others.

If someone feels that they should fast, seek solitude, or journal, and they believe this will help their Christian growth, then that is their choice. However, I don't think anyone has a basis for telling me or others that we must do these things as disciplines or we won't grow in Christ.

The advocates of spiritual disciplines who tell Christians that we must be practicing these disciplines often use narrative as prescriptive, give worldly examples that are not analogous to biblical examples, and read their own meanings into the biblical text.

 Sanctification By the Spirit 

One thought continually bombards my mind in response to this epidemic of “spiritual disciplines” in the church:
“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”Gal. 3:3
A Christian should yield to the Holy Spirit, who is transforming us into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18;Col. 3:10), but the growth of each Christian varies according to the pace and design of the Lord’s purposes through God’s grace. This is the process of sanctification.

If a Christian tries to do any spiritual growing by their own effort or out of their own strength, it is wasted because the Lord makes it clear that we can do nothing fruitful outside of abiding in Christ (John 15:4; 1 John 2:27, 4:13), which means doing it by the Spirit (Rom.8:4; Gal. 5:25). It is only by dependence on Christ, the grace of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit that any Christian matures in the faith.
"Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” John 15:4
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”Gal. 5:25
photo credit: lars hammar via photopin cc

 CANA Articles on Contemplative Prayer and Meditation 

Psalm 46:10 and Meditation

The Be Still DVD

Contemplative Prayer

Eastern Meditation

 Additional Resources 

What is Spiritual Formation?

A Book Review: Donald Whitney's "Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life"

The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer