Spiritual disciplines: Gotta develop the Christian lifestyle.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 April 2021

If we’re gonna become better Christians, we have to get religious.

I know; it’s popular among conservative Evangelicals circles to insist, “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” For much the same reason pagans insist they’re spiritual, not religious: They have no interest in getting methodical, disciplined, or systematic about God. They want their heavenly Father to be a Disneyland dad, with all the fun and none of the obedience. They wanna do as they please, take advantage of God’s grace, and get into God’s kingdom despite being wholly unfit for it.

True Christians can’t sit back on our salvation: We follow Jesus. We do stuff. We act saved. We stop behaving like we can’t help our sinful behavior; we know the Holy Spirit’s empowered us so we totally can. We stop acting like pagans do, as if we’re not a holy people, and behave as if we really are filled with the Holy Spirit. We stop being jerks and start producing fruit.

I know; it’s way easier said than done. But acting Christian doesn’t happen overnight; doesn’t happen as if by magic. Wouldn’t that be nice.

I realize certain Christians’ testimonies make it sound like that’s precisely what happened to them: They didn’t wanna sin anymore, so they just didn’t. Bluntly, they’re exaggerating, if not straight-up lying. If they made a quick break of sin, it’s because they weren’t all that into those particular sins anyway. Real easy to quit drinking when you’re only doing it to fit in. But real alcoholics are tempted the rest of their lives—and learn to resist. And they really did have to learn to resist. It took time and effort.

Most habits take a while to break, and happen as the result of practice. Effort. Disciplined behavior. Patient consistency. Sticking to it religiously—yep, there’s that word again.

Some Christians insist there are no shortcuts to self-control: You just gotta give it time, and slowly you’ll bear fruit. Well, I beg to differ, and I’m pretty sure the scriptures back me up. There are many shortcuts. Christians discovered ’em throughout the centuries. They’re called spiritual disciplines. They’re techniques we use to become like Jesus—faster.

But of course, irreligious Christians look at these disciplines and balk. They don’t wanna do any of that. They’re still hoping growth will happen by magic. Or wanna know if there are any shortcuts to the shortcuts! You know how our culture is with instant gratification. Spiritual disciplines take a bit of work, and people would prefer no work at all.

Or they falsely believe since God does the entire work of saving us, he’ll also do the entire work of making us become like Jesus. So what’s the point of self-discipline? All they gotta do is wish really hard, and God’ll transform them. And after this doesn’t happen, they’ll pretend it did happen, so as not to look like fools. They’ll reinterpret all their bad behavior as if they’re redeemed behaviors, and claim their actions are fruitful when they’re totally not. They’ll turn into hypocrites.

Let’s not follow them. Let’s follow Jesus.

The disciplines.

No, this isn’t a comprehensive list. Nor a mandatory list: The only thing on it we absolutely must do, is pray. Can’t follow God if we don’t talk with him! The rest of the disciplines are optional… but you’ll notice a life which slacks on them is invariably gonna suck.

BIBLE STUDY. It’s not enough to just read our bibles, although we certainly gotta do that too, and learn what’s in ’em. We gotta study them. We gotta really understand what Jesus, his prophets, and his apostles taught, and apply them to our lives in practical ways.

Too many Christians treat the bible like a giant list of inspiring quotes, easily tweetable. The scriptures are meant to do far more than tickle our emotions, and make us feel righteous. One of the purposes of the bible is to train us to be righteous. 2Ti 3.16 Ain’t gonna happen without study.

CHASTITY. Contrary to popular belief, chastity doesn’t mean we give up sexual activity. It’s simply self-control, applied to sexuality. Instead of letting our sex drives control us, we control them. They happen when we choose, not when our urges dictate.

Since humans are creatures of extremes, we have of course substituted either total abstinence, or anything goes so long as there’s consent, or marriage, or whatever artificial boundaries we set up. Hence a lot of Christian men pressure their wives into more sex, and freakier sex, than the wives want, ’cause don’t wives have to submit to their husbands?—and their urges? Nope, this mindset isn’t Christlike in the slightest. Love doesn’t demand its own way.

CONFESSION. Though we’re trying not to, we sin the same as everyone. Confession is nothing more than admitting to one another we sin. We live in God’s grace instead of a facade of self-righteousness. We stay humble—and it keeps our secret sins from controlling us, for we have no secret sins. Can’t be blackmailed when our worst deeds are public knowledge!

DISCRETION. Jesus taught us our prayers and good deeds aren’t for display and show. They’re meant to worship God, not get public acclaim, nor tax breaks. (Yep, that’s right: Not tax breaks. You didn’t realize you were nullifying all your good deeds by declaring them on your taxes, didja?)

So we need to resist the temptation to actively seek recognition for our goodness, or to get any other rewards or benefits from them. Frankly, if we do good deeds regularly enough, word’s gonna leak out about what kind of people we are. But there’s a vast difference between letting our light shine on its own, and showing off. Are we doing it for God or self-promotion?

The other part of discretion is becoming the sort of Christians who can be trusted to keep confidences, and not gossip about the sins we’ve seen. (Particularly necessary if we’re gonna hear people’s confessions.)

FASTING AND DIET. Like chastity, this is self-control applied to food: We refuse to let our taste buds, or even hunger pains, control or direct our lives.

When we fast, we go without food and focus on God as our source of life, not food. It’s hardcore self-discipline, and Christians have found it grows us way faster than most other spiritual disciplines. (But don’t overdo it! You don’t wanna wreck your health or kill yourself, as many overzealous Christians have.)

When we diet, we give up certain foods or food groups because God takes priority over all our pleasures. Some Christians follow the kosher rules in the scriptures, or become vegetarian or vegan; sometimes for a time, and sometimes for life. Some Christians abstain from alcohol, not just because we might have a drinking problem, but because God takes priority over that too. We will not be ruled by our stomachs.

FELLOWSHIP. Jesus commands his followers to love one another, Jn 13.34 which we can’t obey unless we interact with one another. So we do: We go to church. We make a point of seeing one another regularly and intentionally.

And no, we don’t keep things light and superficial, and only talk about weather and baseball. We share our burdens with one another. We offer, and receive, help and encouragement. We share what God’s done in our lives, and rejoice with what he’s done for others. We pray for one another. We grow in Christ with one another.

FRUGALITY. This is self-control applied to luxury: We deliberately refuse a life which focuses on personal comfort. We resist the desire to acquire status, keep up with the neighbors, fit in, or be glamorous—or pretentious. Instead, we stay modest and accessible. And our wealth is earmarked for charity and generosity.

GENEROSITY. Self-control applied to money: We recognize God, not money, provides for us. That much of the reason God gives us money is to help others. We resist the temptation to consider money our provider, and destroy Mammon’s power over us by giving it away, along with using our other resources to help others and grow God’s kingdom.

GOD’S PRESENCE. We stay constantly mindful how God is here. Not elsewhere. Not away for a little while. Here, with us, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, constantly. We carry in our minds the realization we have immediate, uninterrupted access to God—and he to us. He’s watching. And he’s here to help.

GOD’S WILL. We actively seek advice, guidance, and purpose from God regarding the events of our daily life. Yeah, God’s given us free will, and we can choose to make these decisions on our own. But we choose to submit our lives to God. We seek him, his kingdom, and his righteousness. First. Mt 6.33

JOY. Though there’s plenty of reason to be pessimistic or cynical, we embrace optimism and joy. We focus on what’s good, true, useful, encouraging, and uplifting. We enjoy what God’s blessed us with, rather than dismiss them for not meeting our ideals. We appreciate and are content with the people and things in our lives. With optimism, we look forward to better and greater.

MEDITATION. We make the time to prayerfully consider God’s revelations to us, whether they’re personal or scriptural.

MINISTRY. Not just religious ministry, but serving people in every way we can. We actively do for others as we’d have them do for us, Mt 7.12 and go the extra mile to do so. Mt 5.41

PRAYER. We interactively speak with God. We make our requests and questions known to him, and he answers us.

SACRIFICE. This is self-control applied to power: We deliberately refuse to satisfy our needs with our own resources. We trust God, not our connections, not our position, not our wealth, not any other resource, to provide for us.

SILENCE AND SOLITUDE. Even when we’re extroverts, we need to take some alone time, cut off everything in the world which might distract us, and pay attention to God. We temporarily step away from other people lest they make us self-conscious. We get alone with God, and get real with him.

SIMPLICITY. Self-control applied to time: We resist the temptation to become crazy-busy, just like everyone else in the world, and worry about so many things that we forget what’s most important. Lk 10.41-42 So we prioritize what we do with our time, and eliminate everything which would get in the way of God, and of loving others. This includes both the activities we do, and the stuff we own which take wasteful amounts of time to maintain. Basically we get rid of clutter in all its forms.

SUBMISSION. God takes priority over everything. So we submit our plans and actions to him for his approval. His opinion counts above all others. His advice is our greatest treasure. His kingdom comes first. And we practice submitting to God by submitting to fellow Christians—not by blindly obeying them, but by refusing to ignore their considerations when we make our plans.

TITHING. We contribute both money and time to our churches and their ministries. Not necessarily by giving a legalistic 10 percent of our net income (though it’s a good start), but by contributing what we can—a significant amount, not a token amount. We submit to what the church and its leadership are doing, instead of insisting things be done our way, or independently.

WORSHIP. We express how great God is, in everything we do. Might be art or music or poetry. Might be ritual or action or service. Anything we do for God can be worship. We make worship our lifestyle.

Like I said, it’s not a mandatory list. If it sounds like a lot to tackle, don’t try to achieve all of them at once! Focus on one area at a time, or two or three areas; whatever you think needs to take priority. Knock out the easier disciplines first. But if we wanna be more Christian—if we wanna live like God’s kids, instead of living like pagans in Christian T-shirts—this is how we get there. Let’s get serious.