The Purpose of Spiritual Disciplines
Spiritual disciplines is a buzzword among Christians. We hear from a variety of sources that we need to practice the spiritual disciplines. We need to pray, read the scriptures, engage in corporate worship, fast, give to the poor, do ministry. We are told that practicing these disciplines is what Christians do; these disciplines are the means of surrendering ourselves to Christ. And all who tell us this are correct.
Unfortunately, I get the feeling that too often we see the disciplines as an end in themselves. We pray because it’s good for us. We fast because it helps us to discipline our bodies. We read the scriptures because we need to learn all that we can about God. We give to the poor because it keeps us humble and teaches us generosity. We worship together because we need each other and we need to be reminded that the church is bigger than we are. All of this is true…but I am convinced that we are missing the point.
In his book, Worshiping with the Church Fathers, Christopher Hall writes about the practices of the desert fathers. One section is devoted to a man named Antony who seems to be the first believer to use the desert as a place of spiritual maturation. Antony spends 35 years in the desert preparing and training for his public ministry to the church. When he moves out of the desert and into the church, witnesses speak of him as replicating the spirit and presence of Christ. Antony’s desert experiences have transformed him into Christ’s image, and Christ’s works result. “Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; other he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace in speech.” The ultimate result of Antony’s schooling in the desert? The blossoming of Christ’s love within Antony, a love which quickly manifests itself in his words and actions toward the wider world. When I read those words, I was struck once again that the primary, central godly response to living a disciplined holy life is love—the sacrificial, self-emptying love of Christ.
The spiritual disciplines are intended for one purpose—to help us be more like Christ who is love. If we practice the spiritual disciplines and love doesn’t ooze out of us, then something is wrong with our practice of the disciplines. If we pray two hours a day but don’t live with greater compassion for others, something is wrong with our practice of the disciplines. If we fast two days a week then treat others disrespectfully, something is disconnected with our spiritual disciplines.
Jesus says, “They will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” Spiritual disciplines are intended to lead us to love.