The Most Important Word in Christianity: Part 3, How Spiritual Disciplines Miss the Mark

It's a truism in the spiritual formation literature that if you want to form Christ-like character you have to involve yourself in spiritual disciplines.

I disagree. I think the general understanding of spiritual disciplines in Christian circles has profoundly missed the mark and kept a lot of Christians stuck.

To be clear, I think the spiritual disciplines can and often are a vital part of spiritual formation. I'm a practitioner of the disciplines. My criticism here is simply this: Jesus and Paul never recommend the spiritual disciplines as means of spiritual formation, if by that we mean contemplative retreats, visits to a spiritual director, a course in various prayer techniques, and so on. What Jesus and Paul do recommend, over and over again, is intentionality.

Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount. Having set out his vision of God's kingdom rule in our lives, Jesus doesn't conclude with the suggestion that we should practice prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and silence so that the Sermon can be formed in our lives. No, Jesus ends by saying this: "The one who hears these words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock."

 Intentionality.

Consider also Jesus' directive after he washed the disciples' feet: "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."

Intentionality.

Jesus' vision of spiritual formation is simple: Put these things into practice. Don't wander off to do other sorts of things. Intentionally do these things. Intentionally put these things into practice. Yes, prayer and fasting are mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, but intentionality in practicing prayer and fasting is primary.

Consider Paul's many recommendations for spiritual formation and transformation. Like Jesus, Paul rarely mentions spiritual disciplines in this regard. Over and over again, Paul simply points to intentionality.

For example, in Romans 6 Paul says:
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 
The path toward spiritual transformation is driven by intentionality. Count yourself as dead to sin and stop offering yourself as an instrument of wickedness.

This from Romans 12:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.   
Again, there's no appeal to spiritual disciplines here, just a straightforward appeal for intentionality: Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice. Do not conform, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

What might that mean, "the renewing of our mind"? Elsewhere in Paul (Phil. 4) we get another appeal for intentionality:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 
Again, there is no call for spiritual disciplines here. Just a simple directive for intentionality: Think on these things.

To be clear, practices like prayer, silence, fasting and Sabbath are wonderful techniques to help us "think on such things." My point, however, is that Paul isn't aiming at technique, he's aiming at intentionality.

I don't think Paul cares all that much how you get yourself to "think on such things." Maybe you rise in the middle of the night to light candles and pray the Psalms like a monk. Maybe you crank the Hillsong praise music. Maybe you write in a journal. Maybe you carry prayer beads in your pocket. Maybe you put sticky notes filled with Scripture on your bathroom mirror. Maybe you avoid social media, cable news and the workplace water cooler. You can skin this cat a million different ways. But the thing that makes any of it happen and work is intentionality.

My opinion is that the conversation about spiritual disciplines has missed the mark because we've gotten too focused upon particular techniques, falsely imbuing them with some sort of spiritual potency. We've missed the point about what makes the spiritual disciplines work--intentionality. Whatever prayer might be, it's intentional. Whatever fasting might be, it's intentional. Whatever silence might be, it's intentional. Whatever Sabbath-keeping might be, it's intentional. Whatever Bible study might be, it's intentional.

It's the degree of intentionality in our spiritual lives that is formative and transformative. What is spiritually formative and transformative is waking up with a spiritual focus and keeping that focus throughout the day.

If you lack that focus, nothing happens. You just drift.

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