The End of Spiritual Disciplines

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Somewhere in the world there’s a company that manufactures prayer journals. And they’re probably working overtime right now.

With the arrival of the new year comes an opportunity for improvement. And as Christians, there is perhaps no area we see more need for improvement than our practice of the spiritual disciplines. So with the arrival of a new year, we resolve to do better, looking for anything that will give us a boost or an edge. Like Bible reading plans. Or Scripture memory apps. Or really fancy, leather-bound, decorative prayer journals with inspirational verses on each page.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with Bible reading plans. Or Scripture memory apps. Or decorative prayer journals—no matter how fancy they are. In fact, I think all of these items can be wonderful gifts from God to cultivate a life of discipline. But my question is this: Why is it so easy for our reading plans to fizzle out after two weeks? Why do we end up deleting the unused Scripture memory app to make room for a new music download? Why does our prayer journal get dusty on the shelf—with 99 percent of its pages still blank?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that too often we’re prone to look at the spiritual disciplines all wrong.

Tim Morey, in his book Embodying Our Faith, writes: “Am I engaged in the spiritual disciplines? is an important question to ask, but an even more telling question is, Am I growing in love with God and people?” (p. 114). Morey goes on to say, “We must avoid the temptation to measure our spiritual maturity merely by the practice of the disciplines themselves rather than by the fruit that they produce in our lives” (p. 115).

It dawns on me that every year I get discouraged by my lack of discipline, and then I get even more discouraged when my plans for improvement fall apart. But perhaps I’ve been caught up in a self-defeating cycle of trying to succeed in the spiritual disciplines, simply so I can have succeeded in the spiritual disciplines. In other words, I’ve isolated these practices from the rest of my life, keeping them in their own self-contained little bubble.

But the truth is that my reading and my praying and my meditating all have an end (or a goal) that is outside of reading and praying and meditating. And that end is love. Tangible, visible love for God and others. Love that actually makes a difference in the world.

Eugene Peterson writes:

Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son. (Eat This Book, p.  18).

Perhaps that’s what we’ve been missing. We’ve desired to do better, but we’ve not really understood why we need to be better. We’ve not seen that a quiet moment of prayer or meditation isn’t for the purpose of achieving a private, isolated sense of personal piety (and thus merely generating more moments of prayer and meditation). Rather, these quiet moments are shaping us to be able to engage a lost and hurting world in need of grounded, mature, disciplined ambassadors of Jesus. We’ve failed to see that spiritual disciplines are only worthwhile insofar as they produce fruit.

So if you want to join me in cultivating a lifestyle of spiritual discipline this year, then don’t make it your goal to read the Bible or to pray more. Make it your goal to grow in loving God and others. Only then will you understand what’s really at stake, allowing your spiritual disciplines to truly flourish. Perhaps together we can become people whose lives are marked by a rich spirituality, not just people who keep the prayer journal manufacturers in business.

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