An Invitation to Spiritual Disciplines

Sean Mortenson / January 12, 2018
spiritual disciplines, spiritual formation

We don’t need self-improvement; we need to come home.


It’s easy to mock the cycle we collectively go through each January. The crowded treadmills at the gym, the salads our coworkers now bring for lunch, the new planner or app that we’re convinced will help us finally be organized.

But our impulse toward resolutions isn’t inherently bad. Humankind naturally operates in cycles and seasons. We need starts and stops, closing chapters and new beginnings, the rhythm of dusk and dawn. And if we live with any intentionality at all, it’s natural to assess during the moments of transition. The Christian tradition of the Daily Examen is an example of this. Asking our kids about their highs and lows of the day while at the dinner table is another. So is looking at our schedule for the day each morning or our goals for the year each January.

As we assess and plan, the impulse we have toward improvement and forward progress is not altogether misguided. It is 100% in line with a Christian worldview to believe things are not as they should be and that, subsequently, WE are not as we should be. In other words, things can be better. But, here is the key question: what exactly do we mean by better?

Another way to frame the question is to ask what we are striving for. And to answer that question accurately and honestly, we need to do some heart work and go beyond the surface. For example, we might say, “I just want to be healthier in 2018.” But that could really mean any number of things. It could mean a holistic assessment of priorities, practices, and relationships that lead to a re-ordering of your life. Or it could mean that you want to change your physical appearance in order to be more attractive to others. Those are two entirely different pursuits aimed at two different visions for peace and fulfillment.

During the past few months, we (as a church) have been collectively focused on the pursuit of self-knowledge, believing what Teresa of Avila pointed out: “Almost all problems in the spiritual life stem from lack of self-knowledge.” We started there are a pre-cursor to the “change” conversation, because if we don’t understand what’s going on internally we can never accurately answer the question of what we’re REALLY striving for. And the truth is, we can keep striving for empty pursuits while couching our efforts in pious and spiritual language. We obviously don’t want that. So, among other things, our small groups are reading Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and we facilitated a class on The Enneagram. These were meant to help us drive toward the heart-level work of knowing what we’re really striving for (along with the wiring, the wounds, and the questions that drive those pursuits).

Armed with self-knowledge, our goal is to recognize where our striving is not aligned with the biblical picture of “better”. What is that? Very simply, a deeper and deeper communion with Jesus that leads to becoming more and more like him. There are many fine goals to pursue that will lead to a more functional life. But it is only in surrendered communion with Jesus that we are made new in a holistic, inside-out way. The change we find in him is not aimed at a more successful or slightly less miserable life. It is nothing less than a full restoration of our humanity and a reconciled relationship with our creator. It is therefore the only place we will ever truly find the peace and fulfillment we’re after.

So we affirm the impulse toward change in the new year. But we share the sentiment of Mike Cosper in his book Recapturing the Wonder where he says, “Any approach to the Christian life that seeks self-improvement as the end goal will fail … A life of prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines can easily be a life of empty religious effort if the goal isn’t communion with God. We don’t need self-improvement; we need to come home.”

And the counter-intuitive nature of it all is that this change, this growth, this healing and restoration, is not something we accomplish ourselves. We can’t get outside our own minds enough to objectively diagnose the issues. And we can’t  override our own corrupted wills enough to employ pure, disciplined efforts. We remain effected by our emotions, our bodies, and our relationships, all of which need to be transformed. This is simply to say, we can’t fix ourselves. We need outside help. Namely, we need God to change us.

But the fact that only God can truly change us does not mean we are passive. It does not mean we stop striving. Rather, it means we reconsider which things in our lives put us in a place for God to work in us. We prioritize the things that help us find communion with him. It means that just as we would make a commitment to a gym membership aimed at our self-improvement goals, we would orient our lives around the practices aimed at our Spiritual Transformation in Christ. Typically, these practices are referred to as Spiritual Disciplines. They are the embodied practices utilized by the faithful from the beginning to draw close to God and put themselves in a place for him to heal them and fill them up.

In his classic book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster puts it this way:

“When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a grace that is given.

The moment we grasp this breathtaking insight we are in danger of an error in the opposite direction. We are tempted to believe there is nothing we can do … is it not logical to conclude that we must wait for God to come and transform us? Strangely enough, the answer is no. The analysis is correct— human striving is insufficient and righteousness is a gift from God— but the conclusion is faulty. Happily there is something we can do … God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us … By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.”

Notice the tension here. It is not that we are trusting our willpower or the practices themselves to change us. But we are making willful choices to implement these practices SO THAT GOD can change us.

We are going to the places where we see God. We are making room for the experiences where God speaks. These are practices like prayer, scripture reading and memorization, silence and solitude, sabbath rest, hospitality, service of others, fasting and feasting … These tend to be the “thin places” where the veil between us and him seems to break down and we encounter him. In practicing Spiritual Disciplines, and even orienting our lives around them, we are acknowledging that these times of communion with God are as necessary as a nourishing meal and more formative than any workout. They are the bread, the manna, that sustains us and the place we find we are being truly changed.

Over the next year we will be pressing into a deeper understanding of the Spiritual Disciplines as they are historically understood. We will utilize them, along with the global and historic body of Christ, to pursue communion with God. We will find that many of them run counter to the culture we live in, but there-in lies their effectiveness. They will touch on our heart-level motives, our fears, and our idols. They will challenge us to make willful choices and establish new patterns.

We are aware the subject of Spiritual Disciplines does not light everyone’s fire. But I’ll leave you with the words of Richard Foster, affirming that there is no richer, deeper pursuit in all of life than the one the Spiritual Disciplines are meant to facilitate:

“[We should not] think of the Spiritual Disciplines as some dull drudgery aimed at exterminating laughter from the face of the earth. Joy is the keynote of all the Disciplines. The purpose of the Disciplines is liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear. When the inner spirit is liberated from all that weighs it down, it can hardly be described as dull drudgery.”

Lastly, it should be said that many Spiritual Disciplines are intensely personal. But many are communal and all of them impact how we relate to one another. So this is something we will be doing together. Join us.