(This article is Part 2 in a 3-part series on Spiritual Awakening and the classical Spiritual Disciplines. The first article can be found here).
In the first article in this series, I introduced the concept of practicing the classical Spiritual Disciplines in order to fling open the windows of your soul and invite the healing, transformational work of God into your life.I have gleaned a great deal of wisdom on this topic from the important writings of Richard J. Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. I encourage you to look into these things in more detail in order to gain a fuller understanding and to apply what is introduced here to your daily habits.
Changes of Heart and Habit
So far, we have explored the disciplines of Meditation, Prayer, and Fasting. In this article, I want to briefly introduce the disciplines of Study and Simplicity. These are inward disciplines with outward expressions. When practicing these things, it is vitally important that you not fall into the trap of neglecting inward, heart-level renovation in favor of external activities.
Jesus harshly reprimanded the scribes and Pharisees of his day, who were experts at the outward expressions of the disciplines, calling them “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).
In the Old Testament, God teaches the prophet Samuel that “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). This means that you can practice the disciplines outwardly and still miss the point: the turning of your heart toward God.
On the other hand, be careful of the opposite and equally dangerous mistake of neglecting to put into practice what is occurring in your heart. Christ clearly called people to a faith that leads to action. After washing his disciples’ feet in the upper room, Jesus tells them, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).
Even the act of foot-washing itself was an outward expression of an inward heart of servant leadership. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed that “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).
If you want to be truly blessed and truly wise, the inner changes that occur through the Spiritual Disciplines must lead to outward activity. In other words, to really practice the disciplines is to change both your heart and your habits. Foster writes, “The purpose of the Spiritual Disciplines is the total transformation of the person.”
You might recoil at the idea of study. To some, the word itself is intimidating. “I simply don’t have time to study,” many people protest. Perhaps you think of study as a pursuit reserved only for a select few “intellectuals”, or as a discipline only practiced at universities.
The word might conjure up memories of late nights spent “cramming” for an exam the next day by drilling information into your brain over and over in hopes that it would stick just long enough to pass the exam. This type of thinking presents a problem, because to truly study is to learn, and we are called to be learners as Christians. The word “disciple” comes from the Latin term discipulus, which means “learner.”Study can be defined as the devotion of time and attention to investigating a subject. God is such a wonderfully vast and inexhaustible subject that our study of Him will continue into eternity! Don’t let this intimidate you. The more you examine God, the more joyful the investigation will become.
But you have to start somewhere. This will certainly involve reading (Scripture as well as commentaries and devotional literature), but it won’t end there. You will need to be able to interpret what you read correctly, to spend time contemplating it, and eventually to absorb it deep into the core of your being. Foster explains that study involves four main steps: Repetition, Concentration, Comprehension, and Reflection.
People come up with all sorts of excuses not to engage in the investigation of God. I want to warn you about the danger of such thinking! Without study, you have no way to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16a). Unless you study, you will have no content on which to “meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2).
If you don’t study, you will not be “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (as Paul admonishes in Romans 12:2). You must apply to your mind the things that will transform it. God has not designed you to simply “download” all you need to know the moment you become a follower of Christ. He yearns for you to contemplate, examine, and know Him through study.
As with every aspect of the will of God, the injunction to study is for your own good and flourishing. “Though it cost you all you have, get understanding”, writes Solomon in Proverbs 4:7b. Think about that. “Though it cost all you have…” What an astonishing value statement!
I often encourage my clients to examine their core values and build their lives around the things they value the most. In this passage, Solomon is saying that it would impossible to underestimate the value of wisdom, so that no matter how much it costs (time, energy, etc.), it is worth it.
One of the greatest benefits of study is that it empowers your free will. You may not have the freedom to choose your circumstances, but you do not have to accept your identity as a helpless victim. You have the freedom to choose what you put into your mind to nourish your inner life.
The Bible teaches the priority of the inner life over the outward. What this means is that if you have an inner life characterized by peace, joy, and strength, you will be able to weather painful external circumstances and gain victory over them. Study is one of the best ways to nurture the inner life.
Foster writes, “The mind will always take on an order conforming to the order upon which it concentrates.” Modern scientific research has confirmed this fact. Therapists and self-help seminars train people to focus and concentrate on positive ideas, and neuroscience demonstrates how the physical structure of the brain is changed over time through a repeated focus on a particular message. There is no more joyous, hopeful message on which to dwell than the Gospel of Christ.
One of my favorite quotations on this topic is from psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This does not mean that we have the power to change ourselves in our own strength. Just like the other disciplines, study is a way of inviting the truth, understanding, and wisdom of God into our hearts to do its work there. As Foster writes:
“Many Christians remain in bondage to fears and anxieties simply because they do not avail themselves of the Discipline of study. They may be faithful in church attendance and earnest in fulfilling their religious duties, and still, they are not changed…They may sing with gusto, pray in the Spirit, live as obediently as they know, even receive divine visions and revelations, and yet the tenor of their lives remains unchanged. Why? Because they have never taken up one of the central ways God uses to change us: study.”
Study opens the door for God’s truth to penetrate and change our hearts. God is a gentleman, and will not force his way in. Through study, you can open the door to welcome the transforming power of truth into your mind. Foster continues:
“Jesus made it unmistakably clear that the knowledge of the truth will set us free. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Good feeling will not free us. Ecstatic experiences will not free us. Getting ‘high on Jesus’ will not free us. Without a knowledge of the truth, we will not be free.”
The call to simplicity is the call to freedom. When you feel pulled in a thousand different directions, your mind is ruled by anxiety, distress, and shame. You might be a slave to the expectations of others. You might be a slave to the tasks on your to-do list. You might be a slave to your own aspirations.
These problems are endemic in our world and have been for some time. People overextend themselves in a frantic grasping after fulfillment, hindering the very peace they long for. As the great British journalist G.K. Chesterton wrote: “People rush for complexity but they yearn for simplicity.”
The Christian ideal of simplicity is captured by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the title of his book, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. As Jesus told a weary and frustrated woman named Martha, “you are worried and upset about many things. But only one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:41-42a). What is the “one thing” that is necessary? Jesus reveals the answer: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
Christian simplicity is focusing first and foremost on the kingdom of God. This means elevating God to His rightful place, the highest priority in your life. As Foster writes, “The person who does not seek the kingdom first does not seek it at all. Worthy as all other concerns may be, the moment they become the focus of our efforts they become idolatry.”
C.S. Lewis writes that whenever you or I mistake good things for the ultimate thing, “they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers.” If you have ever experienced the pain of being betrayed or disappointed by something or someone you expected to bring satisfaction, you know this truth on a personal level.Let’s take a moment to engage in a quick thought experiment to consider the supremacy of God. The following is taken from the late Dallas Willard’s book Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23.
“Take a moment right now and think of the most wonderful thing you could say about anyone. Consider what characteristics someone might have that would deserve your highest blessing and praise.
Whatever you thought of, God’s true blessedness is far above that. God’s glory and power and goodness are deserving of infinitely more praise. No matter how magnificent in power or kindness or patience or any other attribute you want to assign to someone, God far exceeds that. So, as you ‘count your blessings,’ no matter how many and how wonderful they are, God’s name will be beyond them all. And even when you give God your highest praise, he will always be deserving of more.”
This is why God is the only One who can safely occupy the throne of your heart. Mary’s heart-felt prayer was “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). The Lord is the only One you can safely “magnify” without any risk of being disappointed.
Once you simplify your life by placing God at the center of it, this should show itself in outward action. I would encourage you to think about the excess “clutter” in your life that could be pruned away, whether material possessions, commitments, obligations, desires, vices, addictions, or relationships. The more you can disentangle yourself from the fleeting, unimportant things that the world chases after, the more liberated your soul will become.
The words that best capture the concept of inward and outward simplicity are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Take a moment to reflect on how profound and beautiful they are:
“Wear the world as a loose garment, which touches us in a few places and there lightly” – St. Francis of Assisi
All Things New
I’ll end this article with a note of encouragement. If you struggle with feelings of failure in these or other areas in your past, take heart in the knowledge that God is in the business of renewal and re-creation. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church long ago “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” – 2 Corinthians 5:17
If you are ready to pursue these and other Spiritual Disciplines, you do not have to do it alone. Take the first step and reach out to me or another Christian counselor to walk with you on this blessed path.
(This series will be continued in one additional article to come.)
References:Foster, R. J. (1988). Celebration of discipline: The path to spiritual growth. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Willard, D. (2018). Life without lack: Living in the fullness of psalm 23. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
“Cathedral”, Courtesy of Alexander Watts, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Praye4r”, Courtesy of Naassom Azevedo, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Cold Lake”, Courtesy of Dominik Dombrowski, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Heavy Arches”, Courtesy of Hartmut Tobies, Unsplash.com, CC0 License