Just as every athlete must train to win, every Christian must make their faith strong through spiritual disciplines. Nobody can sit on the couch eating Cheetos for months and hope to compete.
The best athletes are intensely disciplined. They follow strict diet and exercise regiments to beat their body into peak physical condition, so when the game is on the line, they are ready.
We know this is true for our physical condition, but there’s a disconnect with how we think about our spiritual condition.
The sad reality is that many Christians are unfit because they are undisciplined.
Nobody drifts into discipline. Just as the undisciplined body becomes sluggish and fat, the undisciplined spirit becomes weak.
This is why Paul coaches Timothy: “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim 4:7-8).
This verse is the cornerstone of the spiritual disciplines because it spells out their purpose—training for godliness.
WHAT ARE THE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES?
There is no consensus list of spiritual disciplines. The Bible does not include a set list. So different authors list different disciplines—some more biblical than others.
I believe 12 primary spiritual activities were practiced by Jesus and prescribed for all believers in the Bible: study, prayer, fasting, confession, worship, fellowship, rest, celebration, service, generosity, chastity and disciple-making.
SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES #1. STUDY
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)
Of all the disciplines, none may be more important than the study of God’s Word.
Only through the instruction of the Bible can we understand the ways and the will of God. The theology and practice of every spiritual discipline is rooted in Scripture. Without the study of God’s Word, we cannot hope to grow spiritually.
Jesus knew Scripture better than anyone. As a boy, he amazed the teachers in the Jerusalem temple with his understanding (Luke 2:46-47). He quoted Scripture from memory when tempted in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). And he regularly quoted it in his teaching (e.g., Matthew 5:21; Mark 10:5-9). He even began his ministry with a public reading from the book of Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus embodies the Word (John 1:14).
Today the discipline of study may have many forms:
- We can read the Bible in a physical book, on a digital device or by listening to an audio Bible.
- We can listen to the Bible taught in our church on Sunday mornings, or online any time.
- We can also meditate. But we must make a crucial distinction here because meditation can be misunderstood. Eastern meditation focuses on emptying the mind; Christian meditation focuses on filling the mind with God’s Word. For example, Psalm 119:97 says, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.”
SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES #2. PRAYER
“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Prayer is how we talk to God. When we pray, God listens.
Jesus taught many things about prayer. He warned against the prayers of hypocrites who make a show of their prayer, and taught us to pray humbly (Matt 6:5-6). God is like a good father who delights in giving good gifts to his asking children (Luke 11:9-13). We should persevere in prayer until the Lord answers (Luke 18:1-8), but we must have faith for our prayers to be effective (Matt 21:22).
Today, like Jesus, we should withdraw regularly for time alone with God in prayer. And whenever we gather with fellow believers, we should pray for one another.
SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES #3. FASTING
Their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19).
Fasting is abstaining from eating food for spiritual reasons. It is a focused time of spiritual dependence on God to sustain you, almost always accompanied by prayer.
But in our self-indulgent culture lacking in self-control, fasting may be the most neglected discipline today.
When asked why his disciples were not fasting, Jesus said that they would not fast as long as he was with them, but “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” (Luke 5:35).
Those days are today as we await Christ’s return.
Since there is no direct command exactly how to fast in Scripture, we are free to fast as the Holy Spirit leads us. However, the normal practice in the Bible is abstaining from all food.
How long should we fast? Some people fasted for one day (Judges 20:26), one night (Daniel 6:18-24), three days (Acts 9:9), seven days (2 Sam 12:16-23), fourteen days (Acts 27:33-34), and forty days (Deuteronomy 9:9). So the length can vary.
Fasting gives greater power and emphasis to our prayers and confessions as we depend on God.
Fasting is feasting on God, hungering for him alone.
SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES #4. CONFESSION
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy (Proverbs 28:13).
Confession is an admission of sin followed by repentance.
Confession can be either private (between you and God), personal (between you and a trusted believer), or public (between you and everyone).
But while we are more open to private confession, many are terrified at the thought of personal or public confession.
Of all the spiritual disciplines, confession is the only one that Jesus did not practice. Since Jesus never sinned, he had no need to confess (Heb 4:15). However, Jesus is a critical part of confession, because without his atoning death and resurrection on the cross, we would not be able to receive God’s forgiveness.
Because of Jesus, the Bible says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Today, private confession is taught in most churches, but we rarely hear personal and public confession instructed.
While confessing our sins to God is of utmost importance, we may want to find a trusted believer to confess to for both support and accountability.