From discipline to practice to rhythm

Several years ago Richard Foster wrote a book titled Celebration of Discipline. It’s really a classic when it comes to Christian discipleship and I’ve often used it as a resource not only for my own growth, but when teaching and training others. But a few years ago I became aware of resistance to that word “discipline” as I work with younger generations. The word feels stern and slightly oppressive in this milieu, more like punishment than something desirable or helpful, and definitely not cause for celebration!

While it has seemingly developed a negative connotation for many, discipline really is not bad word. In fact, scripture has much good to say about the necessity of discipline for our healthy growth and development. Discipline doled out in excessively punitive measure is a reason for the word’s bad rep and, as we are often inclined to do, the good is thrown out with the bad as we delete the word from our vocabulary!

Spiritual disciplines, however, are not intended to be punitive. They are, and always will be, necessary for the Christian who desires spiritual maturity. Daily Bible reading, prayer, fasting, service, worship, and so on are essential nutrients for growing up into Christlikeness, which is God’s ultimate purpose for us (Romans 8:29). In the beginning of our faith journey, however, it can require a fair amount of effort to engage in these activities–hence the reference to “disciplines.” We must discipline ourselves to adopt these essential rituals.

After some time of consistent effort, however, we find that the disciplines have become practices. The word “practices” doesn’t carry the weight that “disciplines” does, and so we probably don’t think of these acts as quite so laborious.. While they may no longer require as self-discipline as they originally did, intentionality is still key to taking them to the next level: sacred rhythms.

Rhythm: a strong, regular, repeated pattern. What began as a discipline requiring much effort and intentionality eventually becomes a practice in which we more easily engage, then ultimately it becomes a rhythm that is so strong in our life of faith that is sacred–time and attention set apart regularly and repeatedly for the service and worship of God. We know its become a sacred rhythm when we can’t imagine going a day, week, month, or year without it…when we make sure it’s on our calendar (e.g., a day of silence and solitude or an annual retreat) or when it marks the time of day for us (e.g., praying the hours).

Can you identify disciplines in which you have engaged that no longer require heroic effort? Do they feel more like practices than disciplines? And are there practices that have become so essential to your spiritual maturation that you can’t imagine life without them? Those sacred rhythms are definitely worthy of celebration!

If you want to learn more about spiritual disciplines, practices, and/or sacred rhythms, here are three excellent resources

 

Clarification

Yesterday I posted an update here. A good friend and trusted colleague contacted me after reading that update to share a concern that my thoughts as expressed there might be misconstrued as heresy–Pelagianism, specifically. Knowing that I am not a heretic, it was gently suggested that I take the post down. Because I didn’t have time yesterday to address the misunderstanding, I agreed that this was the appropriate action to take. That call, however, came a few hours after the update posted and, therefore, was read by some. Consequently, I want to clear up any misunderstanding as to my meaning.

Particularly in American culture, it is common to begin the new year with a focus on self-discipline, especially when it comes to limiting food intake and sedentary inclinations. With that in mind, I began that post by repeating a comment made by someone else that suggested God limited himself by giving us free will, and how that concept of self-limitation had been rattling around in my mind.

First potential misunderstanding: By “limit” I was not suggesting that God compromised his purpose or his divinity in any way. What I meant was that God chose to create humans with the capacity to decide whether or not we would love him. He could have hard-wired humans to love him, but that would negate the very concept of love. So God limited–restrained, controlled–himself in that he made a choice about what qualities he would give to his creation. And one of those qualities had the potential to grieve the heart of God.

I went on to reflect on my own experience of being parented and parenting…

I grew up in a well-controlled environment. That control was often exercised through manipulation, so that’s what I learned to do. “Limiting myself” was not an option I considered when it came to my will! I was well into adulthood and my children were mostly grown before I came to understand my own manipulative behavior in trying to get them to do what I wanted them to do. It was certainly easier in some ways to employ manipulation, bending their will to what I thought was best for them, rather than watch them make poor decisions. But once I understood the lack of love in that kind of manipulation, I had to learn to limit myself. And more than once since then I’ve felt my heart would break as I watched one of my kids live out the negative consequences of their willful choices.

Giving us free will was risky. God was taking the chance that his beloved humans would choose not to love him. And that’s exactly what we did. What’s more, God knew that we would. It seems to me that it would have been so much easier on God to just create us subject to his will, rather than allowing us to choose whether or not we would be. But making someone love him was not truly love, as there is no sacrifice in it. Perfect love always requires sacrificing manipulation in favor of freedom.

My point here is that my instinct is to satisfy my own will, regardless of the means. But God offers me a better way. God invites me to love by limiting myself, those natural tendencies and instincts that do not reflect his perfect love. Again, God doesn’t make me do that. I get to choose: God’s way or my way?

Now, to deal with the second potential misunderstanding: Pelagianism. As I understand it (I am not a theologian), at the heart of the Pelagian heresy is the belief that humans can exercise their gift of free will by initially choosing God. So if you read my post and thought that I was suggesting that, I apologize for my lack of clarity. Scripture says–and I believe–that no one comes to God apart from Jesus (John 14:6), and no one comes to Jesus unless God calls them (John 6:44). Furthermore, Paul says quite clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

So, let me be clear…I believe that I could not have come to the knowledge of Christ nor attained salvation through His atoning death on the cross apart from the grace of God. It is by the grace and calling of God that I considered Christ, not through any initiative of my own. God in his grace and mercy sought me out, but it was up to me to respond, to accept and receive the gift of salvation offered in Christ. God didn’t make me do that. I was given a free will to choose to believe in Christ or to reject God’s gift. That is the story of every single Christian I know. Christ was not forced upon us. Christ was revealed to us by the grace of God. And we are able to decide whether or not to accept Christ because when God created human beings, he lovingly gave us free will. God didn’t have to do that. He did not have to exercise his creative power in that way. But he did. Thanks be to God!

So, how do we respond to such an extravagant gift? When I consider THE GOD of all that is, seen and unseen, choosing to give me this precious gift of free will, offered with perfect love, I am overwhelmed. And so I choose to exercise that beautiful gift by bowing daily before God in prayer, asking for the strength to limit myself…to discipline myself…to submit my will to his. Amen and amen.

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