The term “spiritual disciplines” is not in the Bible. Most of the times we read the word “discipline” in the Bible it is in conjunction with reproof or correction using the Hebrew word “muwcar” (Prov. 13:24; 22:15; 23:13-15) or the Greek word “paideia” which basically means instructing in the way one should go. It is used of training or disciplining children (Eph. 6:4; Heb. 12:9-10) and of God’s discipline of us, His children (Heb. 12:5-11). This is not the type of discipline people generally refer to with the term “spiritual disciplines.”
Biblically Defining “Spiritual Disciplines”
The closest use of the word “discipline” in the Bible to how “spiritual disciplines” is generally used in Christian circles can be found in 1 Timothy 4:7 where the Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy, “train yourself to be godly.” The New American Standard Bible words it, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” It uses the Greek word “gymnazo” from which we get the English word “gymnastic.” Hence, this kind of discipline is more training, practicing, or exercising to become fit.
Paul goes on to say that “physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7-8). Physical training for athletes involves making choices to exercise, intentionally, with a sense of devotion to make it an on-going and regular part of their lives. They often have to sacrifice other activities to spend sufficient time working out to become and stay fit. If we can be so devoted to that which produces physical fitness, why wouldn’t we have that same kind of devotion, yet even more, to that which leads to godliness, making us spiritually fit?
In accordance with this usage of the word “discipline”, we could then say that spiritual disciplines are those practices that we impose on ourselves to make us spiritually fit or healthy. We are putting structure into our lives so as to be intentional in our quest to grow spiritually, to get to know God better through the various means described in Scripture that can lead to such growth.
Such devotion puts us in a place that is conducive to God’s working in our lives. At some point in church history, someone lumped all these types of activities together and called them “spiritual disciplines.”
More Scripture Supporting the Concept of “Spiritual Disciplines”
The term itself might not be found in the Bible but the idea of denying ourselves in order to follow Christ is biblical. Jesus said,
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Lk. 9:23)
To deny ourselves we need to rid ourselves of self-entitlement, not doing life in Christ on our own terms. If we want to be fully devoted followers of Jesus, then we need to be willing to do that which it takes even if it isn’t convenient or comfortable. We will sometimes have to put our own interests aside to pursue His.
To take up our cross signifies that we must be ready for some sacrifice in our lives in order to follow Him. Just as Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8) so we too must make the choice to pursue Him even if it means suffering in some way.
To “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7) does indeed require such denial and sacrifice as seen in the Greek word “gymnazo” used for discipline in this verse. It comes from the root word “gumnos” which means naked. To exercise naked suggests we rid ourselves of that which could hold us back or slow us down. — “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Heb. 12:1-2a)
Be sure to take note of the word “daily” in Luke 9:23. We must take up our cross daily. This suggests a pursuit of Him that is regular and on-going, not haphazard or short-lived. That takes discipline.
- If it means you have to get up early to spend time in God’s Word and prayer, will you?
- If it means you have to shut the TV off in order to be still with God, will you?
- If it means turning off your cellphone in order to meditate on God’s Word without interruptions, will you?
Fill in the blank with that which will tune out what most distracts you from giving God undivided attention:
If it means I have to __________________________ to devote myself to God, will I?