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The Practical Importance of the Spiritual Disciplines

Your body is central to your spiritual life. In fact, to say it’s the locus of your spiritual transformation is not an understatement.

Lately, I’ve noticed an odd disconnect, though. A growing emphasis on healthy lifestyles is leading to a fitness revolution, especially among young people in North America. Take a look around. People are in better shape than they’ve ever been. Chiseled bodies used to belong mainly to bodybuilders and famous actors. Now it’s your neighbor jogging down the street. Recall Dallas Willard’s “VIM” acronym: With the vision, intention, and means, it’s possible to transform your body, inculcate healthier habits, and an overall healthier lifestyle.

And yet we’re more psychologically fragile than we’ve ever been. Today, our tacit assumption is that any kind of emotional distress is deeply harmful. Life, of course, is filled with emotional distress, some of it bad, some of it helpful and necessary. For instance, developing the mental fortitude to countenance foreign viewpoints and ideas is often deeply painful, but also richly rewarding. In fact, learning any new skill, from carpentry to calligraphy, is going to require overcoming various levels of resistance. This is good, necessary pain. Building a shoddy birdhouse or having a political disagreement with your in-laws should not be an occasion for despair; it should be an opportunity for growth.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas once quipped that the great enemy of the North American church is not secularism, but sentimentalism. How else to explain our total shock when things go drastically wrong. Have we forgotten that this is in fact a fallen world? Do we really think our households will somehow be the glowing exceptions—that we alone will make it through unscathed to perish quietly in our sleep? If pain is inevitable, any approach that tries to deny it or conquer it is a fool’s errand. Hear me carefully: I’m recommending neither a path of stoicism nor masochism. Instead, I’m suggesting we begin with a realistic mindset about the human condition and prepare accordingly. If suffering and death are inevitable—a question not of if but when—we need to prepare to respond with righteousness when that day arrives.

The odd disconnect I’m highlighting involves the failure to recognize that our hearts and minds exhibit the same plasticity as our bodies. True, the burgeoning field of neuroscience now pays a great deal of attention to this phenomenon, but most of the general public have yet to internalize its findings. The reason is simple: We don’t take our spiritual lives seriously.

But I’m here to remind you that your spirit is every bit as transformable as your physical body. I’m also going to make the case that this endeavor can’t begin anywhere other than your body. As Willard points out, your body is your little “power pack” for navigating this world. It’s the basis of all your activities and interactions. So, if you want to make Christlikeness your goal (vision), you need to make obedience to his commands central (intention).

As you may have noticed, simply trying to imitate Christ’s actions in the moment of crisis is every bit as pointless as trying to replicate the success of a famous athlete by aping their actions on the field or court. Behind major feats of athleticism lies an intense regimen of discipline and practice. The same holds true for Christlike behavior. Hear me carefully as I draw once again from Willard: If our aim is simply to imitate Jesus’s actions, we’ll either end up as legalists or give up in deep frustration. Rather, our aim needs to be to become the kind of person who follows Jesus’s commands, especially in times of crisis. In order to do that, we have the spiritual disciplines (means). These wonderful strategies for inculcating Christlikeness have the potential to transform your spirit every bit as much as a gym can serve as a means of transforming your physical body.

Let me leave you with what are arguably three of the most important of the spiritual disciplines, namely, solitude, Scripture reading, and prayer. Practiced with consistency, these three alone can revolutionize your attitude and behavior. Solitude will be painful at first, forcing you to confront everything you’re drowning out with the incessant noise of our culture. (In my experience, it’s usually more than you think.) Once you’ve faced the reality of your actual inward condition, you’ll be in a much better position to hear from God, which is where Scripture comes in. The central place that our Lord has chosen to speak to us is in his word. The problem is often that noise and overfamiliarity make it hard for us to hear. We’re simply too distracted. Once you’ve “cleared your ears,” so to speak, God’s word will reach you in new and penetrating ways (Hebrews 4:12-13). Finally, prayer ought to be the central activity of our days. Not only does it give us the chance to hallow the name of our Lord, confess our sins, ask for what we need, and surrender our wills to him. It helps us to cultivate a constant awareness of God’s presence. This is part of what Paul is getting at when he instructs us to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17).

If you’re not doing so already, give these disciplines a try for the next week and see what happens. I think you’ll be blown away.

The Practical Importance of the Spiritual Disciplines

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