Excerpt from Life with God Spiritual Formation Bible

The with-God life that we see in the Bible is the very life to which we are called. It is, in fact, exact­ly the life Jesus is refer­ring to when he declares, I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abun­dant­ly” (John 10:10, KJV). It is a life of unhur­ried peace and pow­er. It is sol­id, serene, sim­ple, radi­ant. It takes no time, though it per­me­ates all of our time.

But such a life does not sim­ply fall into our hands. Frankly, it is no more auto­mat­ic for us than it was for those lumi­nar­ies who walk across the pages of our Bible. There is a God-ordained means to becom­ing the kind of per­sons and the kind of com­mu­ni­ties that can ful­ly and joy­ful­ly enter into such abun­dant liv­ing. And these means” involve us in a process of inten­tion­al­ly ” train [ing]… in god­li­ness” (1 Tim 4:7). This is the pur­pose of the dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life. Indeed, the very pur­pose of this study Bible is to make Scrip­ture itself a pri­ma­ry means for the dis­cov­ery, instruc­tion, and prac­tice of the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines, which bring us all the more ful­ly into the with-God life.

The Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines, then, are the God-ordained means by which each of us is enabled to place the lit­tle, indi­vid­u­al­ized pow­er pack we all pos­sess — the human body — before God as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice” (Rom 12:1). It is the way we go about train­ing in the spir­i­tu­al life. By means of this process we become, through time and expe­ri­ence, the kind of per­sons who nat­u­ral­ly and freely express love, joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, gen­eros­i­ty, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness, and self-con­trol” (Gal 5:22 – 23). 

Many and Varied 

What are the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines? They are many and var­ied: fast­ing and prayer, study and ser­vice, sub­mis­sion and soli­tude, con­fes­sion and wor­ship, med­i­ta­tion and silence, sim­plic­i­ty, fru­gal­i­ty, secre­cy, sac­ri­fice, cel­e­bra­tion, and the like. We see such Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines crop­ping up repeat­ed­ly in the Bible as the way God’s peo­ple trained toward god­li­ness. And not only in the Bible; the saints down through his­to­ry, even spilling over into our own time, have all prac­ticed these ways of grow­ing in grace (2 Pet 3:18).

Bib­li­cal exam­ples abound of indi­vid­ual list­ings and com­mon group­ings of Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines, which may be com­pared to ath­letes’ basic reg­i­men of train­ing for par­tic­u­lar sports. And this makes per­fect sense, since bib­li­cal per­son­ages were (and we are) ath­le­tae dei, ath­letes of God.” As ath­letes of God they trained (and we train) to par­tic­i­pate ful­ly and freely in the with-God life. The Psalms vir­tu­al­ly sing of the med­i­ta­tions of the Peo­ple of God: My eyes are awake before each watch of the night, that I may med­i­tate on your promise” (Ps 119:148). The psalm that intro­duces the entire Psalter calls us to emu­late those whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they med­i­tate day and night” (Ps 1:2). Daniel turned to the Lord God” with prayer, sup­pli­ca­tion, fast­ing, and con­fes­sion (9:3). Jesus, in the morn­ing, while it was still very dark,… got up and went out to a desert­ed place” (Mark 1:35). The Chris­tians at Anti­och were wor­ship­ing the Lord and fast­ing” when they received divine guid­ance to com­mis­sion Paul and Barn­abas for their mis­sion­ary task (Acts 13:1 – 3).

We can see this process not only in the Bible, but also in the sto­ries of God’s peo­ple through­out the ages. Per­haps you have read or heard of The Spir­i­tu­al Exer­cis­es of Ignatius of Loy­ola or Tere­sa of Avi­la’s Inte­ri­or Cas­tle or Jere­my Tay­lor’s Holy Liv­ing and Holy Dying or William Law’s A Seri­ous Call to a Devout and Holy Life. These writ­ings, and many oth­ers like them, all dis­cuss dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life for train­ing in righteousness.

So group­ings and pat­terns of Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines abound. But we should nev­er look for some exhaus­tive list of the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines or for any for­mu­la for blessed­ness.” No, this inter­ac­tive life with God is far too dynam­ic for that. 

Now, through all this we need not fear. We are not left to our own devices. God is with us. Christ is our ever-liv­ing Teacher. The Spir­it will guide and direct. Wise Chris­t­ian coun­sel abounds both in Scrip­ture and among lov­ing and mature friends. We will be taught which response is right and when, and which dis­ci­plines are need­ful and when. Our only tasks are to lis­ten and obey. 

The Prin­ci­ple of Indirection 

When we engage in the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines we are seek­ing the right­eous­ness of the king­dom of God through indi­rec­tion.” You see, we can­not by direct effort make our­selves into the kind of peo­ple who can live ful­ly alive to God. Only God can accom­plish this in us. Only God can incline our heart toward him. Only God can repro­gram the deeply ingrained habits and pat­terns of sin that con­stant­ly pre­dis­pose us toward evil and trans­form them into even more deeply ingrained pat­terns of right­eous­ness and peace and joy in the Holy Spir­it” (Rom 14:17). And God freely and gra­cious­ly invites us to par­tic­i­pate in this trans­form­ing process. But not on our own. 

We do not, for exam­ple, become hum­ble mere­ly by try­ing to become hum­ble. Action on our own would make us all the more proud of our humil­i­ty. No, we instead train with Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines appro­pri­ate to our need. In this par­tic­u­lar exam­ple that would most sure­ly involve learn­ing numer­ous acts of ser­vice for oth­ers, which would incline us toward the good of all peo­ple. This indi­rect action will place us — body, mind, and spir­it — before God as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice. God then takes this lit­tle offer­ing of our­selves and in his time and in his way pro­duces in us things far greater than we could ever ask for or think of — in this case a life grow­ing in and over­flow­ing with the grace of humil­i­ty. It is, to repeat, the right­eous­ness of the king­dom of God by indirection. 

What Is a Spir­i­tu­al Discipline? 

Now, to move for­ward in this life we must under­stand clear­ly what a Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­pline is. A Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­pline is an inten­tion­al­ly direct­ed action by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the abil­i­ty (or pow­er) to do what we can­not do by direct effort. It is not in us, for exam­ple, to love our ene­mies. If we go out and try very hard to love our ene­mies, we will fail mis­er­ably. Always. This strength, this pow­er to love our ene­mies — that is, to gen­uine­ly and uncon­di­tion­al­ly love those who curse us and spite­ful­ly use us — is sim­ply not with­in our nat­ur­al abil­i­ties. We can­not do it by our­selves. Ever. 

But this fact of life does not mean that we do noth­ing. Far from it! Instead, by an act of the will we choose to take up dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life that we can do. These dis­ci­plines are all actions of body, mind, and spir­it that are with­in our pow­er to do. Not always and not per­fect­ly, to be sure, but they are things we can do — by choice. For exam­ple, by choos­ing actions of fast­ing we can learn expe­ri­en­tial­ly that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that pro­ceeds from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3, Luke 4:4). By choos­ing actions of study we can learn how the mind takes on an order con­form­ing to the order upon which it con­cen­trates, which is pre­cise­ly why we seek to turn our mind toward all things true, hon­or­able, just, pure, pleas­ing, com­mend­able, excel­lent, and wor­thy of praise (Phil 4:8). By choos­ing actions of soli­tude we can become inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with the many things that con­trol us, so that we can be set free from them by the pow­er of God (Mark 6:31).

The Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines in and of them­selves have no mer­it what­so­ev­er. They pos­sess no right­eous­ness, con­tain no rec­ti­tude. Their pur­pose — their only pur­pose — is to place us before God. After that they have come to the end of their use­ful­ness. But it is enough. Then the grace of God steps in, takes this sim­ple offer­ing of our­selves, and cre­ates out of it the kind of per­son who embod­ies the good­ness of God — indeed, a per­son who can come to the place of tru­ly lov­ing even enemies. 

Again, Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines involve doing what we can to receive from God the pow­er to do what we can­not. And God gra­cious­ly uses this process to make us the kind of per­son who auto­mat­i­cal­ly will do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. 

The abil­i­ty to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done is the true free­dom in life. Free­dom comes not from the absence of restraint, but from the pres­ence of dis­ci­pline. Only the dis­ci­plined gym­nast is free to score a per­fect ten on the par­al­lel bars. Only the dis­ci­plined vio­lin­ist is free to play Paganini’s Caprices. This, of course, is true in all of life, but it is nev­er more true than in the spir­i­tu­al life. When we are on the spot, when we find our­selves in the midst of a cri­sis, it is too late. 

Train­ing in the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines is the God-ordained means for form­ing and trans­form­ing the human per­son­al­i­ty, so that when we are in the cri­sis we can be response-able” — able to respond appropriately. 

Grace, Grace, and More Grace 

It is vital­ly impor­tant for us to see spir­i­tu­al train­ing in the con­text of the work and action of God’s grace. As the apos­tle Paul reminds us, It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good plea­sure” (Phil 2:13). This is no works right­eous­ness,” as it is some­times called. Even our desir­ing the with-God life is an action of grace; it is pre­ve­nient grace,” say the the­olo­gians. You see, we are not just saved by grace, we live by grace. And we pray by grace and fast by grace and study by grace and serve by grace and wor­ship by grace. All the dis­ci­plines are per­me­at­ed by the enabling grace of God.

But do not mis­un­der­stand, there are things for us to do. Dai­ly. Grace nev­er means inac­tion or total pas­siv­i­ty. In ordi­nary life we will encounter mul­ti­ple moments of deci­sion in which we must engage the will, say­ing yes to God’s will and to God’s way, as the Peo­ple of God have been chal­lenged through­out history. 

The oppo­site of grace is works, but not effort. Works” have to do with earn­ing, and there sim­ply is noth­ing any of us can do to earn God’s love or accep­tance. And, of course, we don’t have to. God already loves us utter­ly and per­fect­ly, and our com­plete accep­tance is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. In God’s amaz­ing grace we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But if we ever hope to grow in grace,” we will find our­selves engag­ing in effort of the most stren­u­ous kind. As Jesus says, we are to strive to enter through the nar­row door” (Luke 13:24, empha­sis added). And Peter urges us to make every effort to sup­port [our] faith with good­ness, and good­ness with knowl­edge, and knowl­edge with self-con­trol, and self-con­trol with endurance, and endurance with god­li­ness, and god­li­ness with mutu­al affec­tion, and mutu­al affec­tion with love” (2 Pet 1:5 – 7, empha­sis added).

You can also find this and oth­er sup­ple­men­tary resources from the Life with God Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion Bible on our web­site: Life with God Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion Bible 

Text First Published January 2005 · Last Featured on Renovare.org August 2021

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

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