Venture into a specialty running store and you’ll find more gadgets, supplies, and varieties of running gear than you ever imagined existed. You can acquire a lot of equipment, but it would be pointless to own all the expensive gear if you never actually used them during training or a race. The gadgets are designed to be a means to reaching the goal, not the focus or goal themselves.
So it is with the spiritual life. A common objection to practicing the spiritual disciplines is the concern that these exercises can become the focus or goal of our spiritual journeys or seen as a means to receive salvation. And that’s a helpful reminder. Like the aids utilized by runners, spiritual disciplines are useful on our spiritual journeys, but they do not qualify us for eternal life or provide entry to a relationship with Jesus. The Bible assures us it is “by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (ephesians 2:8–9). There are no activities or exercises that can earn salvation. It is entirely God’s gracious gift.
Once we have accepted the gift of salvation, the amazing promise of God is that we will reach the final destination: eternity with Him. Unlike a physical race where some people never make it across the finish line, there is nothing that will keep us from finishing this journey. Paul comforts us with the reassurance that God “who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (philippians 1:6).
A potential tension arises, however. While we are confident that God has a secure future for us, the Bible also makes clear that there is an important role for us to play. We participate in our experience of salvation through spiritual practices (which we call “spiritual disciplines”).
We see both realities in Paul’s many comparisons between the spiritual journey and a race (see also galatians 2:2; philippians 2:16; and 2 timothy 4:7). Paul observed the need for training as he urged the Corinthian believers to “run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 corinthians 9:24–25). Paul recognized the same grace that gives us salvation and guarantees our future is also available to help us run our spiritual races well.
Consider spiritual disciplines as the training exercises we do to live self-controlled, upright, and God-honoring lives. Spiritual disciplines can help keep us focused on Jesus, who provides us with strength when we are weary, offers guidance from God’s Spirit for the decisions of life, and pours out His grace to enable us to persevere.
What Are the Spiritual Disciplines?
Even though spiritual disciplines have been helpful to Christians on their spiritual journeys throughout church history, there is no established or universally agreed upon list. However, there are common practices rooted in scriptural principles that many believers have found beneficial for reorienting themselves to God’s presence in their lives.
It may be helpful to think about them in three categories: Core, Personal, and Relational. As we explore these disciplines, it will be possible to highlight only a few specific ones in each category. There are many more disciplines worth exploring, and more ways to implement the disciplines than we will have space to discuss. Permit these ideas to serve as springboards into engaging with the spiritual disciplines.
Core spiritual disciplines include Scripture reading, prayer, and corporate worship.
Personal spiritual disciplines include exercises focused on the transforming work of the Spirit on the individual. Solitude and fasting are two such helpful personal practices.
Finally, relational spiritual disciplines are practices that recognize our spiritual journeys involve others who are traveling alongside us. Service and hospitality are relational disciplines because they are done in and for our communities.
As we look in the following chapters at how each spiritual discipline is modeled in Scripture, it’s helpful to implement practical ways to incorporate these practices into our journeys. You may need to modify them for your current situation. Our hope is that you will be excited to try a new exercise that you had not considered before, or feel equipped to explore a previously unfamiliar spiritual discipline for the first time.
Study Question: In 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, Paul writes about his intentionality in training for his spiritual journey. What are some of the comparisons Paul makes about training for a physical race and a spiritual race?
Reflection Questions: What has been your experience practicing the spiritual disciplines? What disciplines do you find easier to implement, and which ones are more challenging? Why?
Application: How does the reminder that spiritual disciplines are the work of God provide freedom and grace to explore these practices?