Christian Living

Spiritual Life

What if the Traditional Spiritual Disciplines Aren’t Working for You?

If you've ever felt like a spiritual loser because you’ve consistently failed to maintain or master the traditional spiritual disciples, you're not alone. Lots of Jesus followers feel the same way. And that's unfortunate, because in most cases Jesus is not as concerned with our spiritual disciplines as we are. He’s concerned with our obedience.

Jesus said if we love him we will obey him. He declared the goal of the Great Commission to be teaching those who become baptized disciples to obey everything he taught us. And according to the apostle John, the ultimate proof that we genuinely know Jesus is found in our obedience to the things he commanded.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not denigrating the spiritual disciplines. I’m just pointing out that discipleship and spiritual disciplines are not the same thing. Discipleship is a non-negotiable. It’s measured by our growing obedience. Spiritual disciplines are merely a tool to help us get there. 

Sadly, many of us have confused the two. If we meet someone with a disciplined prayer life, who regularly practices solitude, reads through the Bible and journals, we assume Jesus is rather pleased with them. If they have a good handle on theology, think well on their feet, and systematically pursue evangelistic relationships, we move them up a notch. We assume they’re a great disciple.

The fact is, it’s hard to talk about discipleship without the discussion quickly turning toward the spiritual disciplines. So much so that for many of us, discipleship and the spiritual disciplines have become nearly synonymous.

But therein lies a significant problem. Confusing the two has caused many genuine disciples to feel like losers when Jesus is actually quite pleased with them. And it’s caused more than a few highly structured and disciplined personalities to think that Jesus likes them best because of the way they are naturally wired.

But those of us who judge the quality of a disciple by his or her commitment to the spiritual disciplines are like someone who judges a farmer by his watering schedule instead of by the fruit he produces. 

We’ve all known highly-disciplined believers who mastered the spiritual disciplines but never gained control of their pride, anger, or fleshly desires. And we all know some folks who seem to be an awful lot like Jesus despite their inability to maintain a disciplined study and prayer life. For those who equate discipleship with the traditional spiritual disciplines, this can be rather confusing. But for those who understand the difference, it’s no surprise.

Discipleship isn’t the search for a more disciplined life. It’s the quest for a more obedient life. 

If you own sixteen journals, none of which have more than three pages with anything written on them; if every time you’ve tried to read through the Bible you’ve stalled out in Leviticus or First Corinthians; if you’ve tried spending a few days alone with God only to go stir crazy after a few hours, it might not mean that you are a terrible disciple. It might simply mean that you’re a tad bit ADD, not much of a reader, or an extrovert.

The only way to know for sure is to check the fruit. 

And conversely, if you have piles of journals packed with prayers, observations, and reactions; if you read through the Bible twice a year; if you love solitude and getting up early in the morning to talk to God it might not mean that you’re a great disciple. It might simply mean that you’re an introverted, Type-A personality who loves to read and learn.

The only way to know for sure is to check the fruit. 

Let’s be honest, sometimes the fruit of a disciplined life is not so positive. In some cases, it produces a Pharisaical pride and arrogance that looks down on those who aren’t as “committed” in their pursuit of God as we are. In other cases, it can become a self-deceptive counterbalance to a hidden or besetting sin, as if God will somehow overlook our continuing disobedience in an area as long as we keep jumping through the right hoops.

And that’s why I always tell those who’ve found that the traditional spiritual disciplines don’t seem to work so well for them to step back and check the fruit before they worry too much about their watering schedule. 

After all, that’s what Jesus checks.

A Jesus-pleasing spirituality isn’t the sole prerogative of those who are disciplined enough to maintain and master the traditional spiritual disciplines. It’s the prerogative of anyone who continues to grow in obedience no matter how driven, disciplined, or intellectually oriented we might be.

So, if you’re walking in obedience and the fruit of the Spirit is increasingly present, stop worrying about how well you’ve mastered the disciplines. Pursue and practice those that help you become more like Jesus. Ignore the rest. They’re tools not rules.

But if you find that the fruit of the Spirit is shriveled and sparse, if stubborn pockets of disobedience keep holding you back, it’s time to change the watering schedule. Give the disciplines another try. Figure out the ones that make a difference and stick to them. It’s what they are there for.

Copyright © 2018 Larry Osborne, Pastor & Author, North Coast Church. Larry Osborne's book, A Contrarian's Guide to Knowing God, offers more on this topic.

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