Will you be attending the pastors’ retreat?” my conference president at that time, Bill Miller, inquired. “I didn’t know I had a choice,” I answered. I was new to full-time pastoring, and was still learning the expectations not only of a three-church district but also of the conference.
“This is not like regular pastors’ meetings,” he said. “This event is optional. It’s a spiritual retreat for pastors.”
Since I was so new that my schedule was not yet packed sardine-can style, and I wanted to make a good impression, I decided to attend the optional retreat. I did not realize how my spiritual life was about to change.
I drove the two hours to the retreat camp and was surprised to see only a few cars. And no more showed up that evening. I wondered if I had the wrong date. But no, attendance was just low; maybe half a dozen of us out of nearly 40 potential participants. This, I soon learned, was not unusual.
When the time came to begin, the president laid out the program. The evening would include a short worship consisting of about 45 minutes of quiet music and silence among us. At one point, someone would read the selected passage of scripture on which we would be focusing throughout the retreat. Then another person would read it again followed by more silence.
We would continue in silence through the night and until noon the following day. In the morning, we would meet for breakfast and eat together in silence, then have worship like the evening before. After that, we could spend the rest of the morning doing whatever we wanted to do; sleeping, reading, walking, praying—anything so long as we were silent. Email and texting in this situation was not considered silence.
At lunch we would break the silence, spend part of the afternoon doing whatever we wanted to do, then at mid-afternoon we would meet to discuss the Bible passage on which we were concentrating. After supper, we had the same kind of worship with the same Bible passage and then silence. The schedule repeated the next day, and again the next, ending with Communion at noon.
I had heard the words spiritual discipline before. To some degree I could have even explained the concept. But I had never before understood spiritual discipline. That first retreat forever changed my spiritual life, though I did not comprehend that for some time. Nothing occurred during the retreat that I would have identified as profound, yet something profound happened. Since then I have become increasingly committed to spiritual disciplines. Thank you, Bill Miller.
Making an effort toward relationship
Even though I am still only an entry-level participant, I can categorically state that nothing has done more for my ministry and life, overall, than spiritual disciplines. The reason is simple: spiritual discipline is the way we actively pursue a closer relationship with God.
I sometimes think the old argument between faith and works might be solved even among the spiritually immature, if just one important concept would be understood. In the words of Dallas Willard, “Grace is not opposed to effort. It’s opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”1
In a broken relationship, one side may initiate the process of reconciliation, as Jesus has, but eventually the other must respond with their own efforts toward rebuilding the relationship. One who hopes to grow closer to Christ must make efforts toward relationship building. And this must never be confused with efforts toward earning our salvation. Unfortunately, the very idea of “building a relationship with Jesus Christ” has become shallow Christian jargon to which everyone assents but few have even the remotest idea how to accomplish it.
The way we build our relationship with Jesus is through spiritual discipline. Here are some specific ideas.
Spiritual discipline, as a term, cannot be narrowly defined because it is varied and often unique to each individual. But one thing is not varied or unique about it: spiritual discipline, whatever its form, requires that we put forth some kind of effort toward being with Jesus in a way that He will be able to speak with us, and we will be able to listen.
An athlete, by practicing discipline, learns to perform better. Even so the Christian, by practicing spiritual discipline, learns to live with God better. The level of intimacy we will find with God is directly proportional to the level of effort we put into spiritual discipline. Assuming balance, the more effort—the more reward.
“Intelligent action,” says Dallas Willard, “is the secret to spiritual growth”2
It seems to me, in my admittedly limited perspective, that only in the past few decades has spiritual discipline been rediscovered as the path that leads to the with-God life. Richard Foster, founder of the spiritual formation movement Renovaré, says that intentional spiritual formation is only now beginning to make its way into the seminaries responsible for training pastors.
I’m currently enrolled in a distance learning master’s program for pastoral ministry in which a single optional spiritual formation class is offered. Why is that, when spiritual formation itself is not optional? Everyone is constantly being spiritually formed one way or another. If, in fact, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is ground zero for success in pastoral ministry, why are we not more intentional about training pastors in spiritual formation?
Richard Foster writes,
The apostle Paul says, “he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:8). Paul’s analogy is instructive. A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the spiritual disciplines—they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where He can work within us and transform us. By themselves the spiritual disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace.3
Thanks to a small, optional retreat of silence, which introduced me to one form of spiritual discipline, now I am intent on training myself, however I can find to do it. And I have been finding a growing wealth of information available for those seeking such training.
Spiritual discipline, I am discovering, is like any other education: the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. In the past I might as well have attempted to read a book on quantum physics as to read John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. I would have given up almost immediately out of sheer inability to comprehend the concepts. But, as we become more familiar with the concepts of spiritual discipline through personal experience, we will find more and more that we can read and comprehend and profit, not just from contemporary re-discoverers of spiritual discipline but also from those so ancient that some even had the apostles of Jesus as their teachers.
At least for me, learning how to participate in spiritual discipline from the instruction of some of these ancient and modern writers has translated to a much deeper experience every time I open the Scriptures.
Getting started: The discipline of silence and solitude
“In silence and in stillness a devout soul profiteth, and learneth the hidden things of the Scriptures.”4 Many who are experienced in the spiritual disciplines have learned that one of the most powerful introductions to the disciplines is silence and solitude. Actually silence and solitude can easily be separated into two different disciplines, but for space’s sake, I will mention them together.
For someone wanting to begin a new effort in deepening their relationship with Jesus, a retreat of silence in solitude is one of the best ways to embark. Such retreats should become a regularly scheduled way of life in the long run, but my experience and the experience of many others has been that a person’s first silence and solitude retreat is often the most profound—a perfect way to begin your search.
Oswald Chambers says, “There are whole tracts of stubbornness and ignorance to be revealed by the Holy Spirit in each one of us, and it can only be done when Jesus gets us alone.”5
The discipline of contemplation
In a Christian context, meditation is a thing far removed from the mind-emptying goal of Eastern religions. But, unfortunately, Eastern religions seem to have hijacked the term mediation; therefore, it may be better to use the word contemplation.
Contemplation, as a Christian discipline, has as its goal mind-filling instead of mind-emptying. Thus the discipline of contemplation is intent on occupying the mind with things of God, particularly Scripture, with the purpose of fixing them permanently for constant and instant application.
Contemplation is a great thing to do in tandem with other disciplines like silence, solitude, and fasting. However, it is something that has much broader application since contemplation is something that can be entered into in an instant. With practice, the discipline of contemplation can happen in traffic or waiting for a train to pass or sitting in an airplane.
The discipline of fasting
“Bridle thy gluttony and thou shalt the better bridle all the desires of the flesh.”6
Fasting is a spiritual discipline with which I am only now beginning to experiment lightly. Perhaps that is because somewhere deep within my subconscious, I know and am frightened by the truth of what Richard Foster states. “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.”7
I understand that after a lecture, someone asked Dallas Willard where to begin in the spiritual disciplines. He said that silence and solitude are the places to begin, and then he went on to say that when someone reaches a certain point in their spiritual formation, fasting should then begin. Fasting is the discipline of the more mature disciple. When other, more tame disciplines are in place, then fasting becomes a necessary next step, and it will have far reaching results for the spiritual life.
The discipline of service
The discipline of service is, in part, a rampage against our own pride. Of course, we cannot hope to gain humility by actively seeking it because the moment we believe we have succeeded, we become proud of our humility. Nevertheless, when we serve out of the joy to be found in service, the end result is humility. Why? Because in serving we cannot be in charge. Richard Foster, again: “the spiritual authority of Jesus is an authority not found in a position or a title, but in a towel.”8
The discipline of celebration
The discipline of celebration, I think, must be the cumulative effect of every other discipline. Minneapolis pastor and author John Piper calls Christians into what he calls “Christian hedonism,” in which he convincingly argues that seeking our own pleasure and reward in obedience to God is not only not selfish but is in fact God’s design.9
The discipline of celebration consciously cultivates happiness in God by seeking out His commands, being obedient to them, reflecting on how we have been blessed by God in being obedient, and then celebrating what we have learned of God and ourselves in that process.
These, of course, merely hint at the possible spiritual disciplines in which we can involve ourselves. But they are a place to start. And once we begin, new disciplines will open themselves up to us in a training program that God Himself will supervise and instruct.
Finding the time
Rarely will anyone deny the profit to be gained in spiritual discipline. Nearly always the problem is finding the time. A church elder in response to my question about the state of her devotional life said, “It is so hard to find the time.” Then after a pause, “I suppose I could give up watching the news.” Thomas à Kempis wrote, “If thou wilt withdraw thyself from speaking vainly, and from gadding idly, as also from hearkening after novelties and rumours, thou shalt find time enough and suitable for meditation on good things.”10
The problem is not really finding the time, the problem is straightening our priorities. Yet even in this, God’s grace is sufficient if we will but ask.
A word of caution, however; as we practice spiritual discipline we must be constantly aware of the temptation to see the disciplines as an end in themselves. After all, the Pharisees were masters of spiritual disciplines and they were convinced that Jesus and His disciples were anything but.
Participating without expectations
The primary reason to practice spiritual discipline is to give God opportunities to do the work of spiritually forming us. It is not possible for the discipline itself to grow us or deepen our relationship with Jesus. It is not possible for the discipline alone to do any sort of spiritual transformation at all. The only thing a discipline does is provide God with a specific opportunity for doing whatever He knows needs to be done in us.
Therefore, we don’t need to bring expectations of our own to a particular discipline. Surely, it is good and proper to bring an expectation to a discipline like fasting, along with prayer, in search of God’s will in a specific circumstance. But if our own expectations are the only reason we ever practice a spiritual discipline, we will miss out on the most profound possibilities available in the discipline; that being to give to God open time to form us according to His expectations, instead of our own.
1 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s
Essential Teachings on Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper,
2 Willard, Spiritual Renewal Conference, Bethel University, St.
Paul, Minnesota, October 9–11, 2008; emphasis added.
3 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual
Growth (San Francisco: Harper, 1978).
4 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (New York: Crosset
& Dunlap, n.d.).
5 Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (Grand
Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1935).
6 à Kempis.
9 John Piper, Desiring God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah
Publishers, Inc., 1986).
10 à Kempis.