THE CENTRAL PURPOSE OF THE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES
Spiritual disciplines are activities that fuel our relationship with the Lord and require consistency and perseverance. Examples of these disciplines include prayer, studying the Scriptures, fasting, giving and worship. The word discipline can be defined as, “to train or develop by instruction and exercise especially in self-control.” We refer to these practices as disciplines due to the fact that none of them come easily or naturally. In fact, all of them involve a measure of dying to the flesh in some form. In other words, in the natural, a person would have no desire or appetite to engage in the spiritual disciplines.
When it comes to growing in these disciplines, it is important that we keep their central purpose in mind. I liken the spiritual disciplines to a GPS system. When I need to travel to an unfamiliar location, I enter the destination address into the GPS, which then provides me with a list of possible routes to get to that location. Sometimes, there may be multiple routes available to travel, all of them leading to the same destination. Each of the spiritual disciplines is like one of those routes. God has given us these practices and encourages us to partake in them. But we need to understand that they all should lead to the same destination: intimacy with God.Knowing the Lord and growing in our relationship with Him is by far the most important outcome of our spiritual lives. Click To Tweet
Knowing the Lord and growing in our relationship with Him is by far the most important outcome of our spiritual lives. This is not to imply that there are not other reasons for praying, fasting and studying the Scriptures. In fact, all of the spiritual disciplines come packed with a variety of blessings and benefits, not only for ourselves, but also for the world around us. But these are all secondary to the primary purpose of communion with the Lord. When we get these priorities mixed up, it can cause us to miss the main reason the Lord gave them to us in the first place.
The reality is that a person can partake in all of the spiritual disciplines even without a true relationship with the Lord. People who are not born again may still participate in these practices, but their motives are much different from those of true believers. So, the actual doing of these things does not necessarily produce spiritual life or make us right with God.
When you participate in spiritual practices outside of relationship with the Lord, you end up with dead religious works. This describes the spiritual life of many of the Pharisees during Jesus’ time on the earth. They were outwardly doing many of the right things, such as praying, giving, and reading Scripture. And yet, Jesus sharply rebuked them on many occasions.
For example, in one discourse, Jesus pronounces eight woes (or criticisms) on the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. In Matthew 23, He says, “you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (vs. 23 NKJV) Here we see that the Pharisees were meticulous in their tithing practices. Jesus does not rebuke them for participating in the spiritual discipline of giving. Instead, He rebukes them because they were doing it with the wrong heart. They understood what it meant to obey outward principles, but they were missing the whole point. Tweet this- A true relationship with the Lord cannot be lived out with outward adherence to religious practices only, but is birthed and lived out in the heart.
While there is an obvious element of obedience involved in these areas, there is a much deeper purpose than just obeying orders. While all of these spiritual activities come filled with benefits, such as answers to prayer, peace and joy in worship, the blessing of the Lord in response to our giving, etc., we ought to be more mature than to simply do things for what we get out of it. This is why intimacy with God needs to be the central purpose to which we remain anchored when we approach the spiritual disciplines.
Jesus explained this beautifully in His Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6, He specifically brings attention to three spiritual disciplines. He speaks about giving, prayer and fasting. When He speaks about giving, He instructs us that it should be done, “in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” (vs. 4) Regarding prayer, He instructs, “pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (vs. 6) And He tells us to fast in a way that we are seen by the Lord, “who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (vs. 18)
We see in these verses that Jesus does not deny the fact that there are rewards for those who partake in the spiritual disciplines. In fact, Jesus openly declares that the Lord will reward us if we do it in the right way. But I love how Jesus continually brings us back to this concept of seeking the Lord in the “secret place.”
There is something very intimate about a secret. As a rule, my wife and I do not keep secrets from one another, especially with people of the opposite sex. The reason is that it would be a breach of trust. The very intimacy that is created when one shares a secret with another makes the practice unacceptable with anyone outside of our marriage. But there are many things about me that no one on earth knows about except for Brittany. And there are things about her that I keep secret from others. There is a connection between secrets and intimacy. And Jesus brings us back to this intimate place with the Lord when we practice the spiritual disciplines.The rewards that come from participating in the spiritual disciplines are important, but only with intimacy with the Lord as the foundation. Click To Tweet
The rewards that come from participating in the spiritual disciplines are important, and worth discussing, but only with intimacy with the Lord as the foundation. Keeping that central purpose in mind is like a guardrail that will keep us from falling into legalism or partaking in them with wrong motives. If communion with the Lord is the primary motive of our hearts, we will experience a richer, deeper life in Christ than we can ever have imagined. If, instead, we have our focus on being seen by others in a positive light or for what we can get out of it, we miss the whole point. Even if people admire us and see us as spiritual giants, we lose out on the blessing of seeking the Lord in the secret place.
Perhaps it would be of great benefit if we paused for a moment to examine our own motives in these areas, asking the following types of questions:
When I pray, am I primarily concerned about getting to know God better, or am I more interested in having my requests answered?
Am I reading the Bible in order to get to know the Author, or am I really just trying to check it off my spiritual ‘to-do list’?
When I worship, is my heart really crying out to the Lord to glorify Him, or am I just singing the songs because everyone in church is doing the same thing?
In answering these questions, if the Lord reveals that some of your motives have fallen short of intimacy with Him, do not despair. Rather, take a few moments and ask the Lord to help you to get back to the most important thing. As Jesus said to the church at Ephesus:
“Nevertheless, I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works…” (Revelation 2:4-5)
What are those first works? What are the things you used to do that really connected you with the Lord? Take some time to pray, not asking for anything, but to reconnect with Him and express your desire to grow in your intimacy with the Lord.
DUSTIN RENZ is the President of Make Way Ministries, a non-profit organization that exists to see the world changed one Christian at a time. He has a passion to see the Body of Christ find rich intimacy in their relationship with Jesus and step out in faith to share the Gospel with the world around them. He is the author of Pile of Masks: Exposing Christian Hypocrisy and Something Better. He resides in Dayton, Ohio with his wife and three daughters.