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