This Spiritual Disciplines List features some main disciplines for life in Christ with concise definitions for each.* As Dallas Willard teaches, we call these “spiritual disciplines,” but the activities are physical, not spiritual. So a more accurate term is “disciplines for a spiritual life in Christ.” (See Rom. 12:1-2)
To excel in anything in life discipline is required. This is true for athletes, musicians, plumbers, accountants, and disciples of Jesus. Effective discipline is not drudgery, it is delightful! Of course, training has difficult aspects, but the hard work pays off to facilitate ease and joy of living. Just watch a master pianist and you’ll see that he or she is not straining to do well, but enjoying the music. Hence the title of Richard Foster’s classic book for disciples of Jesus, The Celebration of Discipline.
Two Keys to Success: Indirection and Habit
Discipline works by indirection. A discipline is something we can do that enables us to do what we haven’t yet been able to do by our own direct effort. Trying is not enough. (“Don’t try — train!” is a way to paraphrase 1 Tim. 4:7.) Our training is connecting us with a power much greater than our own — the Spirit of God that raised Jesus Christ from the dead!
So if you can’t break the power of an addiction to alcohol or pornography one step to get free (in addition to obvious measures like 12 Step Recovery and psychotherapy) might be to fast from food. With practice you can experience the reality that fasting is feasting: even though you’re not eating you’re sustained in the joy and peace of God by meditating on Scripture and praying. If you can get past headaches and grumpiness when fasting and learn to be sweet and strong without getting the food you need then you can apply this to resisting your compulsive behavior.
The other way discipline works is because we’re developing new and healthy habits. You can’t be good at golf without developing a number of specific habits in your body — there are seemingly a hundred aspects to a good golf swing! We can’t even drive our cars safely without habits. Without thinking about it we notice conditions on the road and break when needed.
The spiritual life works the same way. We need bodily habits that engage our mind and heart with God. We want to get into a position in our daily lives where we find ourselves meditating on Scripture, praying, or blessing the one who curses us without even having intended to do so. Using an intelligently designed course of disciplines over time will do that.
Grow in Grace with Jesus
Jesus himself practiced this Spiritual Disciplines List. Studying Jesus’ Rhythm of Life is one of the most important things we can do. Jesus grew in grace (Luke 2:40, 52) and Peter urges us that we must do the same (2 Peter 3:18). Disciplines don’t set aside our need for grace nor do they earn us anything — they simply are means to help us be with Jesus to become like him. As Jesus abided in the Father’s love so we abide in him and then he and the Father abide in us! (John 15:9-10)
To grow in the grace of Christ we need to practice some tried and true disciplines from both major categories of disciplines: abstinence (self-denial) and engagement (connecting relationally with God and others). Using one side without the other will not lead to much growth. Abstinence makes space for deeper engagement with God and others and engagement gives strength to endure the challenges of abstinence.
The Spiritual Disciplines List
What activities belong on a Spiritual Disciplines List? There is no complete list! Any activity that helps you to grow in the grace of Christ might make your spiritual disciplines list. For instance, Kristi has used floating on a raft as a spiritual discipline! Here are some main disciplines of abstinence and engagement that have been helpful to Christ-followers over the centuries. (Click on the link for “More…” after each discipline’s description to learn more about it, including related disciplines along with ideas and prayers to get you started.)
Disciplines of Abstinence
These are ways of denying ourselves something we want or need in order to make space to focus on and connect with God.
Solitude: Refraining from interacting with other people in order to be alone with God and be found by him. (Solitude is completed by silence.) More…
Silence: Not speaking in a quiet place in order to quiet our minds and whole self and attend to God’s presence. Also, not speaking so that we can listen to others and bless them. More…
Fasting: Going without food (or something else) for a period of intense prayer — the fast may be complete or partial. More…
Sabbath: Doing no work to rest in God’s person and provision; praying and playing with God and others. More…
Secrecy: Not making our good deeds or qualities known to let God or others receive attention and to find our sufficiency in God alone.
Submission: Not asserting ourselves in order to come under the authority, wisdom, and power of Jesus Christ as our Lord, King, and Master. (If you think of this as submitting to a person as unto Christ then it’s a discipline of engagement.) More…
Disciplines of Engagement
These are ways of connecting with God and other people, conversing honestly with them in order to love and be loved.
Bible Reading: Trusting the Holy Spirit-inspired words of Scripture as our guide, wisdom, and strength for life. More…
Worship: Praising God’s greatness, goodness, and beauty in words, music, ritual, or silence.
Prayer: Conversing with God about what we’re experiencing and doing together. More…
Soul Friendship: Engaging fellow disciples of Jesus in prayerful conversation or other spiritual practices.
Personal Reflection: Paying attention to our inner self in order to grow in love for God, others, and self.
Service: Humbly serving God by overflowing with his love and compassion to others, especially those in need.
* The ideas on this Spiritual Disciplines List have been greatly influenced by Dallas Willard, especially his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. He discusses the all-important vision and motivation behind the disciplines for the spiritual life in Christ, as well as teaching on individual practices.