Misusing Your Spiritual Disciplines

by Michael Kelley July 18, 2017

Once upon a time I ran a marathon. For years I had heard experienced runners talk about this sense of euphoria that happens during a long race – they called it a “runner’s high.” It’s that moment when the pain disappears and, like magic, your legs are filled with energy. It’s when, even though you should be exhausted, your internal discipline kicks in. You have disciplined your body to be able to run these 26.2 miles, and you have the sudden realization that you are actually going to make it.

That’s a lie. I know this because the only thing I felt when I ran the marathon was the paralyzing fear that my internal organs were shutting down.

I can, however, relate to the discipline it takes to complete a distance run like that. Despite the wrenching pain in every part of my body, there was an internal satisfaction of setting a goal, disciplining yourself to achieve it, then seeing it come to pass. But, if Paul is to be believed, this kind of bodily training has a limited amount of benefit:

But have nothing to do with pointless and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness. For the training of the body has limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1 Tim. 4:7-8)

So, Paul says, train yourself not only in body, but in spirit. Train yourself in godliness. How do we do this? We do this through what we commonly call the spiritual disciplines. These are things like reading the Bible, memorizing Scripture, sustained period of prayer, intentional fasting, and so on. This is how we train ourselves in godliness.

So, why do we call these disciplines? It’s because none of these things are natural for us. That’s why we must be disciplined to do them – it’s because, in every instance, we are choosing to fight against the inclinations of our flesh that cries out for laziness, apathy, selfishness, or whatever. We have to discipline ourselves and choose something contrary to what we might feel or desire in the moment.

And yet there is a caution, because there is a way that we, in our sinfulness, might indeed “use” the disciplines improperly. That is, we might think of these spiritual disciplines as a means of coercing God to do what we want Him to do. Maybe a few examples will help:

  • Let’s say you’re a student, and you have a big test coming up. You know you aren’t ready for it, but the test is tomorrow, and you figure there’s not much else you can do. You do, however, set your alarm clock for a few minutes early the net day so you can have an extra long quiet time, thinking God will help you remember what you need to know if you do so.
  • Or let’s say you have a job opportunity before you. You know that this new job will result in much longer hours – that you will have to sacrifice time with your family and serving in the church in order to do it. But you also know that the money is good – really, really good. You want the job so you fast and “ask” God what you should do. In reality, you’re trying to demonstrate your loyalty to Him so He will agree with your own decision regarding your future.

This is one way we might “use” spiritual disciplines – we might use them in an attempt to coerce God into action, thinking we can back Him into a corner with our feeble and failing attempts at these practices.

The truly ironic thing is that the spiritual disciplines actually release our grip on things like this. Rather than backing God into a corner, the spiritual disciplines position us into a kneeling position. It’s through these disciplines that our hands are pried open and we release our grip on the things of this world. We are laid open before God, completely subject to Him.

So train yourself, Christian. But train yourself for the work of surrender. Guard against the pride of achievement that convinces you that God owes you something for what you have done.