The word “discipline” doesn’t normally evoke positive feelings. It can drum up childhood memories of punishment for bad behavior or lifelong struggles with training ourselves in good behaviors, like exercise or healthy eating, neither of which is very fun.
We tend to take this attitude with spiritual disciplines as well. We know we should practice prayer, Bible study, fasting, tithing, etc. But each one requires work that’s often done begrudgingly.
Scripture’s view of discipline, however, is not so negative, offering instruction in spiritual disciplines along with many examples. For instance, Scripture depicts Jesus frequently going off to pray alone. He fasted. In several of his letters, Paul wrote that he “did not cease” to pray for the churches to whom he was writing.
“Spiritual disciplines are more than just training ourselves in right behavior. Our motivation is both God’s glory and our spiritual growth.”
The psalmist wrote that he had hidden God’s word in his heart so that he might not sin against the Lord (Ps. 119:11). Believers in Acts gathered together for worship and fellowship. They gave their money and possessions. They evangelized and made disciples. And all of those practices required, well, practice.
We call them “spiritual disciplines” for a reason—they require discipline to produce. They are practices we don’t always participate in, even if we desire to do so. Because of the work required, they’re easy to neglect. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:11, “No one seeks God.”
And we can all relate to him in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (ESV). Our sinful natures cause distraction and laziness. We are not inclined to dwell on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable (Phil. 4). So, discipline is required to replace poor behaviors with good ones.
For God’s Glory and Our Sanctification
Of course, spiritual disciplines are more than just training ourselves in right behavior. Without the right motivation, that view quickly turns either legalistic or antinomian. But our motivation is both God’s glory and our spiritual growth. We train ourselves because of our hope in Christ, for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4). Scripture tells us that we are being transformed, becoming more like Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. But we’re not just passive receivers of sanctification. We actively participate through the practice of spiritual disciplines.
Not only that, as we grow in godliness through these spiritual disciplines, we learn more about the Creator of the universe, the source of our salvation, the One from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things (Rom. 11:36). Being disciplined is not just about our own growth in godliness. It is for God’s glory. As those made in God’s image, we bear witness to the saving grace he has given us. We practice disciplines as an act of obedience to his command to both love him with all of our being and to make disciples of all nations.
The disciplines work together. As we study the Bible and pray, we become more burdened for the lost, leading us to evangelize. As we fast, we recognize our utter dependence on Christ, leading us to worship. As we gather for corporate worship and fellowship, we are encouraged to give of our money and time to advance God’s mission through the local church. In all of these things, we bring glory to God and grow in our love for him.
We also incorporate disciplines into our disciple making. When someone responds in faith to the proclamation of the gospel, we teach them to study the Bible, pray, memorize Scripture, and fast. We show them the importance and necessity of church membership, which includes corporate worship, fellowship, and tithing.
Disciplines across Cultures
Practicing spiritual disciplines is important for all believers. Spiritual disciplines remind us of the One who is constant in the midst of life’s chaos. Christ is the Rock on which we stand, a truth easily forgotten in daily struggles unless we work to build practices and rhythms that help us dwell in that truth.
“Spiritual disciplines remind us of the One who is constant in the midst of life’s chaos.”
Missionaries are certainly no stranger to the chaos of life. They face many of the same daily tasks the rest of us do—raising a family, paying bills, grocery shopping, etc. However, they do these things with the added weight of an unfamiliar culture and a foreign language. Spiritual disciplines are absolutely vital to their spiritual well-being.
Of course, our culture and worldview affect how we practice spiritual disciplines. As missionaries make disciples cross-culturally, they must discern the best way to teach disciplines to those who do not have the same Western framework. In the coming months, we will publish a series of articles on how missionaries practice spiritual disciplines, what they’ve learned about missions through these practices, and how different cultural contexts affect their practice. We will address disciplines such as Bible study, Scripture memorization, fasting, prayer, worship, fellowship, stewardship, and others.
Through this series, we pray that you’ll be encouraged to grow in spiritual disciplines yourself, teach others to practice them, and pray for believers making disciples in all nations for the glory of God.
Meredith Cook is a content editor for the International Mission Board. She has an MDiv in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She lives with her husband in Houston, Texas. Find her on Twitter @MeredithCook716.