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I am a big believer in spiritual disciplines. I believe that they play a vital role in our spiritual growth and relationship with God.
The two most basic spiritual disciplines are reading the Bible and spending time alone with God in prayer. These are foundational practices that every Christian should engage in. Others include fasting, giving, and gathering with other believers.
The word discipline implies sacrifice, consistency, and effort. It means that you do something even when you don’t necessarily feel like it.
Is it Legalism?
Some Christians see any type of spiritual disciplines—such as daily prayer and Bible study—as legalism. While spiritual exercises can turn into legalism, this does not have to be the case.
Spiritual disciplines become legalism when they are done as empty rituals without heart, or they are done in an attempt to gain God’s love and salvation. But coupled with pure motives, spiritual disciplines are a catalyst for growing in the Lord.
Jesus, who is our perfect example, modeled this for us:
“Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed.”
“So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.”
I have heard some imply that since we are in union with God there is no need to have spiritual disciplines. The thought is that we don’t need to set aside time to be with God because we are always with God and He is always with us.
I disagree with this thinking for two reasons:
1. The example of Jesus- As seen above, Jesus left us an example of spiritual discipline. If anyone was in union with God it was Jesus. Yet He made it a priority to get alone with the Father consistently.
2. The way relationships work- Relationships demand quality time. In order to truly know someone you need to have focused time with them. Talking with God throughout the day is great, but nothing can take the place of concentrated time with Him.
The Purpose of Spiritual Disciplines
Spiritual disciplines serve a greater purpose than themselves. They are not an end but a means.
For example, it takes discipline to have a consistent prayer life; you may have to wake up earlier, block out the time, or forgo other activities to spend time with God. But discipline is not the goal; it is the means to an intimate relationship with God.
Discipline provides the context for relationship to occur. Because I want to know God, I discipline myself to spend time in His word and seeking Him in prayer. Spiritual disciplines should be the result of our desire for relationship with God.
The same is true in human relationships. If you want to get to know someone and build a relationship with them, you have to be intentional about spending time with them and staying connected. Spiritual disciplines are about being intentional in our walk with God.
Marriage is a great example of how this works. My wife and I have certain things, such as date nights and praying together, which we do on a regular basis. We have learned that as our lives get busier we have to become more intentional and disciplined in order to continue these practices. But again, discipline is not the goal but a means to intimacy.
I encourage you to spend quality time with God every day in prayer and reading His Word, not out of a legalistic performance but out of a desire for God Himself. We should engage in spiritual disciplines not to become accepted by Him but because we have already been accepted by Him.
Remember this: God is a “rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6).
What are some of your spiritual disciplines? How do you maintain a spiritually disciplined lifestyle without getting into legalism?