I hate working out. Sure, I understand all the various benefits of exercise, and I want to experience those benefits in my life: health, energy, big muscles, etc. My problem, and I’m sure I’m not alone, is that I am not a fan of running, lifting weights, or other such activities that produce health benefits. When I was younger exercise was never an issue. I played soccer, tennis, participated in martial arts and other cardio-type activities and exercises all the time. As I’ve gotten older, and my life has gotten more hectic, I discover that I have a whole backpack full of excuses readily available to help me avoid strenuous cardio-related activity. Eventually, as I can begin to see my waist-line expand, as my physical self-image begins to deteriorate, and as my clothes begin to reach their comfortable capacity, I force myself to address my less than desirable physical status. Just like my love-hate relationship with physical activity/exercise, each of us has our own situational breaking point where the consequences of our personal neglect becomes unbearable, and change becomes mandatory.
Unfortunately, many of our behaviors and beliefs, on the practical level, begin with and evolve from our reaction to a negative state of affairs. While many of us listen to sermons and podcasts, and read scriptures, blogs, and self-help material, how much of what we read is eventually integrated into our lives in the form of intentional behavior? Part of the problem, on both the personal level and within the Christian community at large, is the lack of emphasis on spiritual disciplines. In the words of David Hume, eighteenth-century writer and thinker:
“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues – are rejected by men of sense because they serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment ” (David Hume, “Inquiry into Morals,” 270)
And this was written two hundred years ago. The prejudice against spiritual disciplines is worse today. What could possibly be the point of such discipline, if not to earn merit or forgiveness through self-denial and suffering? We are confident in the fundamental principle of the Protestant movement. Salvation is gained by justification through faith and not dead works. Granted, I am stating the situation in extreme terms, but the truth is that the average Christian just doesn’t see the value of the spiritual disciplines, and for a variety of reasons. A lot can be said with regard to this topic, and a lot has been said. I recommend Dallas Willard‘s “The Spirit of the Disciplines,” and Richard Foster’s Classic “Celebration of Discipline” for those who want to pursue it in greater depth.
Relating to the topic of spiritual disciplines, an obvious issue within the modern protestant community is a reaction against the excesses, real or perceived, of the historical monastic movement. As individuals and groups we shiver and cringe as we bring to mind movies and stories that illustrate behavior we either outright disagree with or cannot relate to. Additionally, and as an example, fasting and the rituals of worship, are among the practices most commonly attacked by the Hebrew prophets as useless, or even harmful (Isa. 58, 59; Mat. 23). We read these accounts, and other stories of legalistic abuse in the New Testament, and stir in the sour sauce of twisted monastic practices to produce painful and faith-crippling prejudice. Somehow we seem to overlook the fact that the scriptural attacks are not against the behaviors, but rather their abuse. Jesus’ life, in its externals, was more of a “normal” existence, but it did include long and regular periods of solitude, fasting, and prayer, as well as voluntary homelessness, poverty and chastity. The aim and substance of spiritual life, to be sure, is not fasting, prayer, hymn singing, frugal living, and so forth. Rather, it is the effective and full enjoyment of actively loving God and humankind in all the areas of normal existence where we are placed.
Another problem Christian communities struggle with is the balance between being in the world, but not of the world. Again, this is a historical struggle. At first glance, the commingling of Christian faith and culture may not seem to relate directly to the practice of spiritual disciplines. As a matter of fact, more often than not, the desire to more actively pursue spiritual disciplines has led to separate communities, or at the very least, mindsets of exclusivity and superiority. Without grounding oneself within spiritual disciplines, it is easy to fall prey to excess, poor theology, and fear. Jesus did not create a separatist community. He did seek solitude. He did spend time alone. Yet, he did not separate himself from those who needed his ministry. Furthermore, He did not foster a sense of separatism.
Today one can easily find examples of ultra conservative Christian organizations fostering attitudes of exclusivity and separatism similar to ancient Christian sects and monastic orders. The danger that such organizations face in the midst of modern culture is the same danger that such movements struggled with in times past. And it is not a strictly Christian problem. Many faith-based groups start with an excellent goal and purity of desire, yet over time become corrupted by a lack of spiritual and intellectual integrity, greed, power, arrogance, and other common failings that beset those who did not adequately prepare for growth and evolution. In many cases, the lack of humility, oversight, accountability, and spiritual discipline has led to, and continues to lead to, manipulation, abuse, control, and internal power struggles that have nothing to do with Christ. Christian organizations are similar to secular organizations and companies in the sense that they are all filled with humans. All humans, no matter what faith or worldview they subscribe to, struggle with temptations of power, influence, and position when money and people factor into the equation. History is filled with a plethora of examples across every sector of society, spiritual and secular. The Bible is filled with examples of failure in both the Old Testament, and the New Testament.
This is not a sign of the hopeless state of humanity. It is simply evidence of the fallen state of humanity. We all struggle with temptation. This simply makes my point. The Christian community needs spiritual disciplines.
“One of the greatest deceptions in the practice of the Christian religion is the idea that all that really matters is our internal feelings, ideas, beliefs, and intentions. It is this mistake about the psychology of the human being that more than anything else divorces salvation from life, leaving us a headful of vital truths about God and a body unable to fend off sin.” (Dallas Willard, “The Spirit of the Disciplines,” 152.)
Of course, another factor effecting the modern Christian community’s exploration and growth in the area of spiritual disciplines is the simple spiritual/physical law of inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Just as I don’t prefer to engage in exercise for the sake of enjoyment, it doesn’t mean that my laziness with regard to exercising spiritual disciplines should not be overcome for the good of my spiritual waist-line.
What do you think? I welcome your comments…