How Spiritual Disciplines Produce Real Joy
Perhaps you’re not a big fan of the term “spiritual disciplines.” If so, I’m with you, and we’re in good company.
“Means of grace,” according to D. A. Carson, is “a lovely expression less susceptible to misinterpretation than spiritual disciplines,” (“Spiritual Disciplines,” in Themelios, 36, no. 3 [November 2011]). I find the term “means of grace” coheres more consistently with the theology of the Bible about such practices and helps to keep the key emphases in their proper places. “Spiritual disciplines” has become such a popular term in recent decades that it may do little good to give much effort to unseating it. However, we will do well, for ourselves and for others, to carefully think through what ongoing avenues of grace God offers to us, and how we build rhythms, or habits, for regular access to God’s appointed means.
His Voice, His Ear, His Body
In this article, we will consider how the spiritual disciplines — or better, means of grace — produce God-honoring joy. But first let’s summarize these means of grace.
Over the years, I have found long lists of disciplines (whether twelve or fifteen or twenty or more) to be more discouraging than helpful. What I needed was to press in through the particular practices and find the God-given principles at work. One way I’ve found to capture the matrix of God’s grace for the Christian life is threefold: (1) hear God’s voice (in his word), (2) have his ear (in prayer), and (3) belong to his body (in the fellowship of the church). All Scripturally-directed “spiritual disciplines” cluster to one or more of these three loci: word, prayer, and fellowship. Our various “habits of grace,” then, are the practices we develop (both individually and corporately) for daily and weekly access to God’s ongoing, soul-sustaining grace.
Joy in God Glorifies Him
The question before us is how do such habits — corporate worship, Bible meditation, private and collective prayer, among them — produce joy that honors God? There’s a massive assumption there, that shouldn’t go unexplained. Joy honors its object. When a husband delights in his wife, he honors her. Raw duty does not honor its object, whether God or country, so much as eagerness, delight, satisfaction, and joy.
Therefore, as John Piper has given his life to teaching and explaining, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Our question as to how spiritual disciplines, or habits of grace, produce joy that honors God, is no mere curiosity. It is a serious and colossal question, relating to the great purpose of God in the universe (his glory) and the deep, undeniable longing of the human soul (to be happy). The call for us as Christians to glorify God in our lives (1 Corinthians 10:31) could be summed up in the words of Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” The reality of our joy in God, and the way in which our habits of grace feed that joy, is no insignificant query. Loads more, no doubt, remain to be said than we can in the remaining space, but let’s capture three ways, among others, that our habits of grace produce joy that honors God.
1. Habits shape us to be more like Jesus someday.
First, I mention a long-term way. What we do day after day, and week after week, has a profound forming effect in our lives. We are not static creatures but deeply dynamic. We are ever becoming what we will be, even as our ongoing development is typically more incremental than can be discerned daily and weekly. However, over months and years, our trajectory becomes clear.
For the Christian, this long-term aim is clear: “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Romans 8:29). Daily access to (and rehearsing of) God’s revealed word, regular rhythms of prayer, and weekly practices of fellowship with God’s people shape us into the kind of people God made us, and redeemed us, to be (like his Son) and prepare us to recognize and experience the right joys, the real joys, the ones for which we were made.
2. Habits serve as avenues to know and enjoy him now.
Second, then, is a short-term (even immediate) way, and this is, in an important sense, the final and greatest way our habits of grace produce God-honoring joy: by being the very channels in the moment through which we enjoy God himself in Christ. The great end of the means of grace is knowing and enjoying God. “The surpassing worth,” Paul says, is “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). According to Jesus himself, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
As we open God’s word, approach him in prayer, and gather together with his people, we do not mainly aim to become the kinds of people who one day will enjoy him. No, we want to know and enjoy him right then and there, in the moment. In fact, if we don’t pursue God himself (but some other goal) through his word, prayer, and fellowship, we will be shaped, in the end, for the worse, not the better. The pursuit of God himself is vital in the means of grace. The central and main way that our habits of grace produce joy in him is by being the very avenues through which we know and enjoy him.
3. Habits supply the strength to be his means to others.
Finally, for now, a third and final way our habits of grace produce God-honoring joy is through enabling us to serve as a means of grace in others’ lives. God uses his people as essential means of his grace in each other’s lives. Through teaching and preaching and reminding each other of his word. Through praying together. Through exhorting one another daily (Hebrews 3:12–13) and stirring one another up to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24–25). Supplied with his word, given access in Christ to his ear through prayer, and planted with partners in the context of the church, we experience a distinct and precious joy when God makes us a means of his grace to others.
The apostle Paul described these peculiar joys in several places, whether it was his converts and disciples being his “glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20) or “joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1), or mentioning “all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God” (1 Thessalonians 3:9). The apostle John went so far as to say, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). Perhaps Philippians 2:17 captures it most starkly: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.”
To be “poured out as a drink offering” would mean death for Paul (2 Timothy 4:6). And he says to the Philippians that even if his imprisonment for the sake of the gospel results in his execution, he rejoices. “I am glad and rejoice with you all.” He has given his life as a sacrifice — to be a means of grace — for the sake of the faith of others. This faith both is, in a sense, and produces Christian joy (“for your progress and joy in the faith,” Philippians 1:25). In other words, Paul’s habits of availing himself of God’s grace not only served his own short-term and long-term joy but also filled and fed him to pour himself out for others, which became a particular and distinct form of joy. He tasted joys he would not have had he not sacrificed his own private and selfish desires to expend himself for the sake of others and their joy in the faith. Joy in God produces (through self-sacrifice) joy in others, which in turn produces added joys in the one who was self-sacrificial.
The pursuit of such joy in God is not icing on the cake of Christianity. This is at the very heart — because our joy in God glorifies him and fulfills the very purpose for which he made us and redeemed us. Don’t be afraid to pursue your joy — in God —as you come to his word, prayer, and church. In fact, seeking your joy in him is not optional. It’s essential.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.