When I talk with other Christians about spiritual disciplines, one question keeps coming up. But we’re saved by grace aren’t we? Isn’t this all a bit legalistic, isn’t it just an effort to earn God’s love? If God loves me whatever I do, why do I need to do any of this? But this sort of question is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Let me explain.
I became a Christian at a time when the UK church was beginning to rediscover that the Holy Spirit, and gifts like tongues and prophecy, were not confined to the pages of scripture but were for today. I was saved into a house church where we put into practice what we read about in the early church: meeting in homes, no clergy/laity divide, and authentic relationships that went beyond the Sunday meeting. We sang new songs, we evangelised on buses and we rejected everything that smacked of dead religion and cold legalism. I have very few regrets about this but one baby that we threw out with the bathwater was spiritual disciplines.
We obviously didn’t need what older Christians called quiet times. We were so excited about God that we just prayed whenever we wanted. Reading your Bible everyday? That sounded so legalistic. We could read it whenever we felt led to. And of course when we were excited about God, for instance at a big church conference, we prayed, praised and read our bibles like there was no tomorrow. But on Monday, back in school or back in work, we somehow didn’t feel so excited. And when we were tired, bored or busy our focus on God took a hit. Our highs were high, but our lows were subterranean. We were a little like on/off dieters, a good sermon would keep us praying and thinking about God for days, rejecting all temptation, but gradually the impetus wore off and all our free time was spent in front of the TV with our minds switched off.
“Seek God when you feel like it…and when you don’t.”
But the Holy Spirit is a patient teacher. Over a period of years I began to rediscover what Christians from other times and other cultures could have told me. Seek God when you feel like it…and when you don’t. Deliberately build practices like bible reading, prayer and worship into your life or other things will always fill up your time. This doesn’t conflict with spontaneous, in-the-moment God thoughts. It’s not an either/or issue. In reality it makes it more likely that we will hear God and know what to do when he speaks.
Do spiritual disciplines conflict with grace?
We didn’t, can’t and won’t ever earn or deserve what Jesus did for us by his death and resurrection. God’s sending of Jesus was motivated by love, not duty or debt. In just the same way that the Israelites did not earn their release from slavery in Egypt, we did not earn the rescue from sin and death that Jesus achieved for us. Paul reminds us that it was while we were sinners and rebels that Jesus died for us. It was pure, undeserved grace from a God who is love. We receive this gift through faith, not by good behaviour, and it stays that way. The most spiritually gifted, mature, holiest Christian is as dependent on grace as the murderer who has just cried out to God. We can approach a holy God. We have been freely forgiven!
But to borrow an image from Wesley, if salvation is a house, why would we stay in the porch? There is always more love, more grace, more revelation to receive. This is where we can enjoy the benefits of spiritual disciplines. Their purpose is not to try and make God love or forgive us, he already loves us and has already forgiven us, their purpose is to enable us to better enjoy his grace and his love. Whether or not we practice spiritual disciplines we are still saved and God still loves us. The difference, as one writer puts it, is our ability to believe it, to sense it and enjoy it. Putting it another way, all the gifts God gives are freely available to us. Cultivating spiritual disciplines just puts us in a good place to receive them. It’s obvious when you think about it. If I’m regularly setting aside time that is focused only on God, I’m more likely to hear what he’s saying than if my time is taken up by a dozen other things.
“Their purpose is not to try and make God love or forgive us, he already loves us and has already forgiven us, their purpose is to enable us to better enjoy his grace and his love.”
Habits of holiness
Humans are creatures of habit. We all have them, and there’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about habits, except that good habits are good, and bad habits are bad. If we build regular prayer, worship, scripture reading or other disciplines into our lives, we create habits that will increase our knowledge and enjoyment of God. If we don’t, it won’t leave a vacuum, other less helpful habits will take their place. Over the centuries, Christians have found it helpful to develop a regular rhythm of prayer and worship that is woven in with working and eating and resting. Instead of leaving it to chance, or how we are feeling, we can regularly put ourselves in a place where we can hear and encounter God. Do this often enough and voila! you’ve created a good habit.
The paradox of disciplining ourselves to be free; free to hear, know and love God more is like the paradox that underlies progress in any skill. To become free and fluent in almost any art or craft, you have to commit to discipline. Listen to that musician playing with such expression and such abandon. She practices every single day. Watch that dancer who moves with such fluidity and freedom. Behind him are hours and hours of strenuous exercise, as he brings his body under control. See the artist who, with a few swift pencil lines, suggests a face or a landscape. Only painstaking observation of people and objects over years has made this possible. Any of us may desire that kind of freedom, but desire by itself is not enough. Freedom is not the absence of discipline, but the ability to use it like the rungs of a ladder to reach higher and higher. The same is true with spiritual disciplines. Do I want to be able to hear God easily? If so, I need to practice listening. Do I want to be able to worship freely? I need to practice worship. Do I want to hear God speak through scripture? I need to read the bible regularly.
Making a start
Rather than being a way of twisting God’s arm or earning his goodwill, spiritual disciplines enable us to explore and enjoy what he offers us freely. God created us with free will, and it’s up to us where we invest our time and energy. But we reap what we sow. If you want to know and experience more of God, spiritual disciplines are a great way forward. Start simply, with something that you can build into your daily or weekly rhythm. Commit to spending a set time in prayer each day, and maybe reading a Psalm or a chapter of the gospels. Breaking bread daily, because it naturally fits with a meal, is a simple habit to develop. It means that we will regularly remember the sacrifice Jesus made and the resurrection victory he won. Whatever practices you choose to build in to your life, the main thing is to make a start. And if you forget, don’t feel guilty. Remember that God’s love does not depend on you meeting certain standards. Just start again, and begin to enjoy the fruit of spiritual disciplines.
 John 3:16
 Romans 5:8
 Ephesians 2:8-9