“In his classic book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster reminds us that the spiritual disciplines are uniquely designed by God to allow us to receive his grace by allowing ‘us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us…We must always remember that the path does not produce the change; it only puts us in the place where the change can occur.’” The Leader’s Journey, p. 136
I’m trying to recall when in my life I’ve felt most spiritually disciplined. It hasn’t been often. My first thought goes back to my sophomore year of college, when I embraced (via The Navigators) the concept of Scripture memory and the Quiet Time (or “Q.T.,” as we affectionately called it then). I would rise every morning at 6 a.m. (after a 9:30 p.m. bedtime – unheard of for dorm life), make my way down the hall to the student lounge (which was always empty that early in the morning), and read, pray, write, memorize, and review verses for an hour. Over the next couple of years of doing this, I read through the Bible a few times, memorized (and retained) 2-3 verses a week, and filled 6 journals with my thoughts. I learned and grew a lot those three years, which was good. I was hungry to do so.
My second memory consists of a collage of my first three summers at Eagle Lake – first as a counselor responsible for the physical and spiritual care of a tee-pee of seven teenage kids each week, then as one of four program directors responsible for the whole camp (about 2,000 souls each summer). The sense of responsibility I felt was enormous, and my prayer life reflected it through multiple prayer walks (often in the same day) around the lake, across camp, and on a particular flat rock in the path leading to the A-frame. I prayed a lot those first three summers – sometimes out of gratitude, but mostly out of desperation – as the challenges felt immense and my ability to meet them seemed so small. These were hugely developmental times in terms of spiritual growth and leadership, and much of this had to do with those times spent in prayer, voicing my dependence to God.
If spiritual hunger and voicing my dependence to God are criteria for engaging in the spiritual disciplines, one might think there would be plenty more examples of having done so in my life. After all, since my days in college and at camp, I’ve gotten married, had four children, bought three different houses, written a book, traveled and spoken many times, experienced significant ministry transition, graduated from seminary, and now teach 100 high schoolers a day in my New Testament and Biblical Ethics classes. It would seem I have/have had reasons to exercise my dependence on God through spiritual disciplines.
Unfortunately, I haven’t felt spiritually disciplined for a long time, for in addition to the spiritual disciplines producing fruit in me in the past, they have also made me more competent at handling life and ministry in the here and now. Maturity, of course, is by God’s design, but competence is not meant to be an end in itself but a means to the end of continuing spiritual transformation and formation. This is what Foster means when he writes, “the path does not produce the change; it only puts us in the place where the change can occur.” Thus, when I have been most desperate, it has been when I have been most spiritually disciplined – not because I had to be, but because I needed to be.
In considering all this (and I do often), I think of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:2-5:
“For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”
Sadly, I recognize myself too much in these verses – not in every way mentioned, but in more ways than I care to admit. The appearance of godliness – so often mistaken as competence – too easily hides my desperation for God. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency – values affirmed in our culture – too often numb my felt need to practice the spiritual disciplines as they numb my real need to experience God. Spiritual disciplines can help me realize what’s going on in my life, but only God has power to transform my heart.