The problem with spiritual disciplines

Written by Tyler Edwards

Growing up, whenever my parents were trying to get me to do something I didn’t want to do they would tell me, “It builds character.” Cleaning my room, making my bed, going to my sister’s dance recital, eating my vegetables, they all built character. The unfortunate and unintended consequence of this was that I grew up thinking character is something you didn’t want. Character was a bad thing because it only consisted of doing things you didn’t want to do.

As a church kid, I grew up hearing about spiritual disciplines, which are the church’s version of character. Spiritual disciplines are practices found in Scripture that create spiritual growth among believers as we seek to follow Jesus. They are things every believer should practise, grow, and make a part of their lives.

Would it surprise you to know that the phrase spiritual discipline never occurs in Scripture? It’s true. These practices are not listed in the Bible as disciplines. We need to address the very real problem of the Spiritual disciplines. Heresy! How could you say something like that? How will Christians grow and mature without these disciplines? 

Before you disregard this as some hyper-liberal take on biblical practices, let me be clear: I am in no way saying we should de-emphasize the practices. As I mentioned above, they are tools that help us grow in our relationship with Jesus. There is no way to overemphasize the importance of that.

The problem with the disciplines isn’t the practice—it’s the packaging.

They were always presented in roughly the same way: this is what it means to be a good Christian. Here’s what you are supposed to do, how you are supposed to live. This became the dominant way the church taught spiritual transformation. It isn’t about heart change. It isn’t about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It’s a list of do’s and don’ts so we could modify our behaviour.

This has some value. It helps us see what is expected and to understand that the Christian life is intrinsically different from the world around us. The problem isn’t that we teach spiritual disciples. It’s that we only teach spiritual disciples. We teach them to students, adults, new Christians, old Christians. It’s a list of things we are pressured into doing if we really love Jesus.

We need to stop pushing spiritual disciplines. Here’s why: the unintentional consequences of doing so can hinder the development of Christian character.

Discipline is important. It is helpful for forming habits, especially when you don’t want to do something. Eating right, getting in shape, breaking a habit, starting a habit, they all require discipline.

Think about this: you don’t have to discipline yourself to eat cake, watch a movie, or take a nap. Why? You naturally desire those things. A discipline is by nature something you force yourself to do. You don’t feel it. You don’t desire it. You just do it. If you desired it, it wouldn’t be a discipline.

Disciplines are duties. They are obligations. They are things you should/must do. There is no love in disciplines. No passion. No heart. Just behaviour modification which at best is empty of true purpose and at worse a meaningless religious practice that leads us towards legalism and self-righteousness.

In 1 Corinthians 16:14 Paul tells us, “Let all that you do be done in love.”

The nature of love is that it’s driven not by duty but by desire. If I do something for my wife because I’m supposed to, she tends to be underwhelmed by it. When I do something for her out of a desire to show her my love for her, it’s much more meaningful.

When love matures, disciplines cannot satisfy as a motivation for behaviour. We need more. To truly follow Jesus, to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we need more than dutiful lifestyle modification.

In Psalm 37:4 David says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

I’m not saying we should never call these things disciplines. They are practices that we should train ourselves in. What I am saying is: disciplines have certain negative connotations. When we exclusively refer to things of God as disciplines, we create a subconscious belief that these things are undesirable and/or unpleasant.

Just as my parents use of character made me feel like character is a bad thing, when we only call these practices disciplines, we are communicating that they are work, sacrifices, things we have to do out of our duty to God. This robs these very practices of the joy they were meant to give us.

The Bible doesn’t call these things disciplines for a reason. I think God wants us to be motivated by our love for and our delight in Him.

Growing up in church I always felt the Christian life was a duty. All these disciplines were practices I needed to do, need to make time for if I wanted to go to heaven. Nothing is further from the truth. These practices are designed to help me know Jesus, grow in Jesus, and experience the greatest joy in life: an intimate transforming relationship with my Creator and King.

Here’s my point: the practices that should characterize the Christian life should be driven not by duty, but by delight. We shouldn’t be motivated by obligation, but by love. We need love. Love genuinely wants to please the one it loves. Love desires delight. If we love God, then our desire should be to do and to live in a way that brings God delight.

The problem is we are starting with the behaviour in hopes it will change the heart. It won’t. We start with the heart. Love Jesus. Know Jesus. Out of that love, these practices are things that help us grow in that love.

As churches and Christians, across the board, we need to stop focusing on the behavior and start addressing the heart. When we start with loving Jesus, we don’t need spiritual disciplines because we have spiritual delights. The practices remain the same, but our attitudes and motivation will be totally different.