Spiritual Disciplines - Running the Race

Spiritual journeys include a variety of experiences that span these same feelings. We gain immense encouragement knowing that others have traveled these same paths. We find sustenance through the rich legacy of men and women who have left us a treasure trove of spiritual practices rooted in Scripture to encourage us along the way.

Running the Race

Our bodies were designed to move. We experience greater health when we’re active. Similarly, our souls are the immaterial, eternal aspect of our humanity made in the image of God. We experience greater spiritual wellness—wholeness—as we engage with the One who created us.

Challenges of the Spiritual Journey

Our spiritual journeys hold periods of struggle similar to that of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who ran in fear after his life was threatened following a great victory over the prophets of Baal. Exhausted, the prophet who’d seen fire come down from heaven and consume a drenched altar (1 kings 18:16–39) collapsed and cried out, “I have had enough, Lord” (1 kings 19:4). The apostle Paul wrote of being “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 corinthians 4:8–9). Paul also wrote, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death” (1:8–9).

Spiritual journeys include a variety of experiences that span these same feelings. We gain immense encouragement knowing that others have traveled these same paths. We find sustenance through the rich legacy of men and women who have left us a treasure trove of spiritual practices rooted in Scripture to encourage us along the way.

Gift of Spiritual Disciplines

Although spiritual disciplines must be practiced intentionally, they are not laws or rules, which would turn them into legalistic requirements. Seeing spiritual disciplines as a set of rules would also make them feel burdensome and draining—the opposite of God’s purpose for them in our lives. Instead, the disciplines are purposeful exercises designed to help us engage with God so His Spirit can work in us. 

Regardless of where you are on your spiritual journey, may this booklet encourage you to grow in your awareness of the biblical foundation for the spiritual disciplines. As you explore these disciplines, allow God’s Spirit’s to help you creatively customize any suggestions to allow for your unique season of life and circumstances. 

The Purpose of the Spiritual Disciplines

Once we have accepted the gift of salvation, the amazing promise of God is that we will reach the final destination: eternity with Him. Unlike a physical race where some people never make it across the finish line, there is nothing that will keep us from finishing this journey. Paul comforts us with the reassurance that God “who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (philippians 1:6).

A potential tension arises, however. While we are confident that God has a secure future for us, the Bible also makes clear that there is an important role for us to play. We participate in our experience of salvation through spiritual practices (which we call “spiritual disciplines”).

Consider spiritual disciplines as the training exercises we do to live self-controlled, upright, and God-honoring lives. Spiritual disciplines can help keep us focused on Jesus, who provides us with strength when we are weary, offers guidance from God’s Spirit for the decisions of life, and pours out His grace to enable us to persevere. 

What Are the Spiritual Disciplines?

It may be helpful to think about them in three categories: Core, Personal, and Relational. As we explore these disciplines, it will be possible to highlight only a few specific ones in each category. There are many more disciplines worth exploring, and more ways to implement the disciplines than we will have space to discuss. Permit these ideas to serve as springboards into engaging with the spiritual disciplines.

We categorize as “core spiritual disciplines” those practices mentioned in Scripture that function as the center from which the other spiritual disciplines radiate. Core spiritual disciplines include Scripture reading, prayer, and corporate worship. Personal spiritual disciplines include exercises focused on the transforming work of the Spirit on the individual. Solitude and fasting are two such helpful personal practices. Relational spiritual disciplines are practices that recognize our spiritual journeys involve others who are traveling alongside us. Service and hospitality are relational disciplines because they are done in and for our communities.

Core Spiritual Disciplines

Engaging with Scripture

The Bible repeatedly calls us to engage with Scripture. God instructed Joshua, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it” (joshua 1:8). The psalmist, who had a more limited canon of Scripture referred to as the “Law,” declared blessing for the person “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night” (psalm 1:2). 

Reading plans help guide us through the entire Bible in a set period of time, typically three, six, or twelve months, and assist us in spending time in the entire word of God.

Prayer

Perhaps no spiritual practice for God’s people is as modeled in Scripture as prayer. Christ Himself consistently incorporated prayer into the rhythm of His life and ministry (consider matthew 14:23; mark 1:35; 6:46; 14:32–42; luke 6:12; 9:16, 11:1–4; 22:32; 23:46). 

God is present with His people when they pray. Moses told the Israelites, “The Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him” (deuteronomy 4:7). “The Lord is near to all who call on him,” affirms Psalm 145:18.

As God’s Spirit encourages growth in the spiritual discipline of prayer, consider these suggestions—but please don’t feel limited or restricted by this short list of specific practices! 

Creating a simple prayer calendar provides structure for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the number of people or situations to bring before the Lord.  Dividing our regular prayer concerns into separate days gives us to peace to know we are regularly bringing those requests to the Lord. 

Corporate Worship

While corporate worship may seem like a newer development, the people of God have always assembled together. In the Old Testament, the Israelites gathered regularly for festivals and sacred assemblies to experience the presence of God as outlined in Leviticus 23. At the beginning of the church recorded in the New Testament book of Acts, the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (acts 2:42), creating an early catalog of communal activities found in the early church. While not an exhaustive list, it provides a picture of the recurring practices found among the first Christians as they gathered together. Knowing the importance of these corporate activities, the writer of Hebrews urged the church to continue to meet together in order to encourage each other and to draw near to God (hebrews 10:22–25).

Worshiping in a gathered community takes many forms around the world. In addition to dedicated church buildings, Christians worship in homes, schools, movie theaters, or wherever God provides space. We can thank God for the church where we participate in corporate worship.

Personal Spiritual Disciplines

While the spiritual disciplines all inform and interact with other disciplines, it’s helpful to separate the remaining disciplines into two groups: the personal spiritual disciplines that focus on each person’s individual relationship with God, and the relational spiritual disciplines often practiced in the communities of faith journeying alongside us. Here we highlight the disciplines of solitude and fasting.

Solitude

Most of us live in the new reality of instant communication, an abundance of easily accessible information and media, and the constant introduction of devices designed to help us accomplish tasks at home and work. While we are grateful for technological advances, a constant clatter of beeps, dings, alerts, and distractions can also easily overwhelm and distract us.

Into the noise of our lives, solitude is the intentional decision to spend time apart from the responsibilities and distractions of everyday life, whether just a few minutes or a longer period, in order to engage with God. Author Henri Nouwen wrote, “Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life,” reflecting not only his personal experience but the example set by Jesus. 

The Bible gives us many glimpses into Jesus’ pattern of prioritizing solitude despite facing pressing ministry opportunities. When we read Luke’s account that “news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses” (luke 5:15), we might expect Jesus to be constantly available to the people. How does Jesus actually respond? “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (v. 16).

Whenever we carve out time and space to hear God’s voice, we can experience the reality of our loving God’s constant presence and be reminded that He delights to meet with His children. 

Fasting

The spiritual discipline of fasting is designed to free us from the control of anything that competes with God for our trust and affections. Choosing to relinquish something we depend on is a small way of affirming and reminding ourselves that God is our only true provider and sustainer.

While fasting in the Bible often involved abstaining from food, British pastor Martyn-Lloyd Jones helpfully explains the definition can be expanded to include “abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.”  

If we are medically able to do so, a gentle way to begin the spiritual discipline of fasting from food might be to skip lunch and use that time to read the Bible or pray. Consider not eating breakfast and lunch on a day reserved for fasting, before moving to longer fasts. When fasting from food, it’s important to still drink plenty of fluids.

Non-food fasts might include fasting from social media one day per month and gradually increasing to one day per week. Some find it meaningful to fast from email or texting for several hours each evening. They might use that time to engage with family, read the Bible or an inspiring book, or even go to bed early! 

After the fast, as we again enjoy food or engage with technology, we are also reminded anew of the truth that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (james 1:17).

Relational Spiritual Disciplines

Relational spiritual disciplines is the designation we give to those practices that highlight the communal aspect of our spiritual journeys, the exercises we undertake as part of a community to help and support each other. Two relational spiritual disciplines we will explore in more detail are service and hospitality.

Service

Service embodies the greatest commandment taught by Jesus, which calls us to wholeheartedly love God and “love your neighbor as yourself” (matthew 22:39). Jesus provided a beautiful picture of this love in the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the Samaritan goes beyond the bare minimum expected of him when he encountered a man who had been beaten and left for dead. The Samaritan cared for the man until his health was restored (luke 10:25–37). Jesus’ elevated the act of service beyond simply completing a task to assisting people out of an attitude of love. He radically transformed our philosophy of serving.

To look for ways to practice this discipline, consider identifying a ministry in the community or church that offers opportunities to serve others. Perhaps it might be working with children in the church nursery or at an afterschool program. Consider donating accounting skills to a local food pantry or electrical expertise to a widow in a church’s senior adults ministry.

Ask the Lord to highlight a family member or neighbor who might have a particular need, such as caring for a lawn or babysitting children, and offer to serve them by meeting that need at no cost to them.

Hospitality

Although modern portrayals of hospitality often equate the practice with elaborate spreads of food or a beautifully decorated home all done with the appearance of ease, the spiritual discipline of hospitality is one of welcoming others into our lives. We can embrace this discipline as we come to understand the goal of hospitality is not merely entertaining but sharing God’s grace and love with others.

Choosing to practice hospitality requires vulnerability, often asking us to reach out to others when we might be tempted to keep to our current circle of friends. Yet, enabled by God’s Spirit and remembering God’s compassionate heart inviting us into relationship with Him (1 john 3:1), we can learn to share our lives with others and welcome them into our communities.

Welcoming others begins with noticing—for example, noticing those who are new or linger on the edges of established communities. As we notice new faces in our churches or workplaces, we gain the opportunity to share our lives.  

Adapted From: Going the Distance – Spiritual Disciplines.