“Discipline yourself for godliness.”
— 1 Timothy 4:7 (NASB)–
Recently Donald Whitney, professor of biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky) answered a series of questions for Desiring God‘s podcast, Ask Pastor John. Dr. Whitney, who is arguably the foremost authority on evangelical spirituality, has been studying and teaching these materials for over twenty-five years. His book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life is a modern classic and an illuminating study for growing in grace.
If you are not familiar with the Bible’s prescribed disciplines for spiritual growth, or you are and have not read his enlightening book, I cannot commend it enough. In the meantime, if you would like a primer on the disciplines or a refresher for why they are so important, take 30 minutes (or 5 seven-minute segments) to listen to his answers to these five questions. (I’ve included a teaser quotation from each interview).
What are spiritual disciplines?
The spiritual disciplines are those practices found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth among believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are habits of devotion, habits of experiential Christianity that have been practiced by God’s people since biblical times.
Why do we need personal and congregational disciplines?
There are some people that love their personal spiritual disciplines. They love to be alone with God. They get so much out of that. Some might say: I get more out of that than I do down there with that ungodly half-committed bunch at the church. They only slow me down anyway.
And then there are other people, the people, perhaps, who are there just about every time the doors are open, and their error is to think: You know, if I am here pretty much every time the doors are open — and I am, and I profit from that, as I do — I am sure in the end that will compensate for the lack of a devotional life.
Well, no it won’t. We all have our temperament, our own inclination a little more towards the personal or the interpersonal. But we need both. The Bible teaches both. Jesus practiced both.
How do I know if I am doing the spiritual disciplines right?
We will not see the Lord because we pursue holiness; rather, those who know the Lord will pursue holiness. Because of their knowledge of God, they can’t help but pursue him. All those who are born again are given the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit brings his holy presence wherever he goes. . . .
So if you are not pursuing that, you won’t see the Lord. And the reason is: You don’t know the Lord. You are not pursuing the Lord if you are not pursuing holiness. Anyone who doesn’t want to be with Jesus has not met the man.
What spiritual disciplines are most important?
The answer to that is very clear. The two most important personal spiritual disciplines are the intake of the Word of God and prayer — and in that order. For it is much more important for us to hear from God through his Word than for God to hear from us in prayer.
So it is essential that those two have priority. Furthermore, all the other biblical, spiritual disciplines grow out of those — particularly out of the Word of God.
What is the most neglected spiritual discipline?
My personal observation and conversations with many people over the subject is that the most difficult discipline to practice consistently is fasting — and fasting is one of those disciplines that everybody knows about. It is actually mentioned in the Bible more often than something as important as baptism — about 77 times by my count. Compare that to about 75 times that baptism is mentioned in the Bible. . . .
[Fasting] should look something like this: When your stomach growls, when your head aches, you say: Man, I am hungry. Your next thought is going to be: Oh, that is right. I am hungry, but I am fasting today. Your next thought should be: And I am fasting for this purpose. Let’s say your purpose is to pray for your child’s salvation. Every time during the day that you get hungry, that should be a prompt to pray for your child’s salvation. The result is you are praying for your child’s salvation all day long. That is what you wanted to do. Therefore, your hunger serves you. Your hunger serves your greater purpose. Your greater purpose is not to endure hunger. Your greater purpose is to see your child saved.
As our church takes time this month to focus on personal and public spiritual disciplines these interviews with Donald Whitney supply a much needed complement of encouragement to plunge deeper into knowing the Lord through all means of grace. Even more, his book on the spiritual disciplines and his more recent book on Praying the Bible provide great assistance in personal holiness.
That said, personal holiness is not private holiness. And thus if you’ve read this far (without listening), let me encourage to begin listening to his second question: Why do we need personal and congregational disciplines?
May God grow you in grace and truth as you devote ourselves to him by the power of his Spirit and the instruction of his Word.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds