Seven Christian Disciplines of the Spiritual Life

by | Feb 5, 2021

Disciplines help you form your inner being

The title should give something away. It’s ‘seven disciplines,’ not ‘the seven disciplines,’ and not ‘seven suggestions;’ as this is neither a full list of disciplines nor are these merely options for the Christian. However, before we go any further down that road, let’s just look at our terms.

The word discipline comes from middle English and literally means to scourge one’s self. It is a penitential act in medieval Europe, which comes via the French language ‘deciple‘ from the Latin ‘discipulus,’ which literally means learner; but could be translated as student. We get the word discipline from the same root word. So, here we see that discipline and disciple are intrinsically linked. If one wishes to be a student of the Lord, he must apply rigour to his life – to tutor and temper his flesh.

A question may be raised at this point – what does tempering the flesh have to do with following Christ, and why are these things spiritual? The short answer is, that the ‘nephesh‘ (the soul) is embodied in flesh. Like two sides of the same coin, what you do on one side – affects the other. You are not what you think you are, but your thoughts guide your actions, and what happens to and with your body will affect your thinking.

Therefore, Christians should practice disciplines to strengthen themselves. In this, we see a clue as to their purpose. The disciplines we follow are not to win marks before a heavenly Father who loved us even whilst we were yet sinners. But they are to keep our Christian walk on track; to keep us moving forward, to touch base with the narrative that is supposed to be guiding our lives. It is truly an impoverished Christian soul that tries to walk the Christian walk without practising disciplines, that seeks to meander through the traps and pitfalls of this world, and hope to not be entangled in them; without disciplines. This will prove nearly impossible. The disciplines needed are the ones that speak into our being, our time, our finances, our emotional energy, our body, and our mind!

The point of these disciplines is that they help us to cultivate our Christian identity, our devotion to the Lord and, above all else, allow space for the Holy Spirit to minister to our being. They build up righteousness within us which we will need for the fires of purification from which we will receive our reward. They strengthen us and help us to remember, in a world that constantly is lulling us to sleep and to forget. Therefore, cultivate the disciplines of a Christian so that our spiritual life is made strong. Thus, being strengthened, we can walk in the good works – which were predestined for us to walk in before the world was.

So, which disciplines should be commended; what are these anchors that hold the ship amidst the storm?

A Regular Rhythm of Prayer: Whilst there is not one rhythm that fits everyone, and there are several models to choose from, the point of Christian spirituality is to always be praying. This, therefore, means cultivating a sensitive heart toward the presence and things of GOD; a prayer tripping of the tongue as we go through our day. I once saw a monk who lived on Athos, who never spoke a word without preceding it in prayer. However, to help with this, have pre-determined times of prayers; and of course, these can change over time. I use to pray every four hours, I am currently trying to teach myself to pray every hour in blocks of time. Monastics pray every three hours; in imitation of temple ‘watches,’ many Christian try to pray for an hour a day. Whatever you decide, the point is to be deliberate about it; intentional about your prayer life. I can think of no better words to use than the words of the Lord’s prayer, so say them often, structure your prayers around them, model your prayers on them.

A Regular Rhythm of Fasting: Like with ‘rhythms’ of prayer, there are many ways to fast: going vegan (yes, vegans, we got there first), abstaining from food and drink for short amounts of time, such as 24hours, and not eating and drinking (or just not eating) between set hours of the day (don’t be a wuss on that one). However, a regular practice of denying the flesh the comfort of food (and drink) teaches us to raise our will over our desires. Christians have developed traditional times of fasting such as 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter Sunday, and 40 days (not counting Sunday) before Christmas. Excluding the 40 days of non-fasting of the Christmas season and the similar 40 days of non-fasting for Easter, Christians also traditionally fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (a practice that can be traced to the late 1st, early 2nd century). Do what you feel you can and build upwards. There is also the great spiritual pilgrimage of the ‘Jesus fast,’ which is to go without food for 40 days. It has been done and can be done. However, before you do, discuss it with your doctor and remember, you WILL damage your body in doing it. Prayerfully consider what you can do, and what you feel GOD is calling you to do, and then do it.

Giving of Alms: It is an essential element of the Christian faith to use our resources for the benefit of others. To give to Christian charitable causes and organisations or to deliberately set aside money or time to give to others forces our hearts to open and changes our attitudes toward ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’. Time is our most precious resource, as we have a non-refundable amount given to us. Our wealth can be won and lost multiple times over the course of our life. Some give daily, some give weekly, some monthly. Whatever rhythm fits your life, being deliberate about giving to others is an essential discipline of the Christian life. Christians often use the marker of 10% as a measuring stick; however, some Christians are fortunately able to live on 10% and give away 90%. You have to judge what you can do, and then do the best you can. What is not an option is to give nothing.

Studying the Faith: I am not here saying just study the Bible, though that should be a regular source of study. I mean studying theology, values, history, customs, traditions, ethics, and the lives of previous saints and martyrs of the Christian faith. We can then weave this knowledge into our life by sharing it with others, addressing questions and doubts, and encouraging and building up others. Again, this needs to be a regular thing whether daily, weekly, or monthly. But do not be ignorant of your own identity; build up your knowledge and use it to build up a life in Christ.

Self-Examination: How well do we know ourselves? To examine ourselves is to know ourselves; to know our own temperament, to know the narrative we tell ourselves when our mind is unfocused, to know our own desires, wants, needs, hopes, and dreams. To examine ourselves is more than just knowing ourselves. It is knowing all these things based upon a goal (a goal we see with increasing clarity because we study it). It reveals to us how far off the mark we are, what we need to adjust, tweak, cultivate, or eradicate. These moments also give us space to plan a way forward to be deliberate about the steps we take and about ordering our life according to the Christian narrative. Cassian, when writing a manual for monks, described the lack of care for the soul as a deadly sin. Examining our psychological and emotional structures will help us to gain mastery over them. A mind, much like a garden, if left untended can be overrun with weeds.

Evangelism: Sharing the faith with others and calling people to be disciples of the Lord is as much a part of the Christian walk as prayer. In the same way, not everyone is called to a dedicated life of prayer. Think Cistercian monk or Billy Graham… not everyone is called to a lifetime of evangelism. However, we all must do both. For some of us, this means only sharing with friends and family and work colleagues. For others, it means being involved in the local fellowship outreach initiative. For others, it means organising outreach initiatives ourselves. The way we do it is not as important as the fact that we are committed to and deliberate about doing it. I have much more to say about evangelism, being an evangelist myself. However, if you will, dear reader, indulge me… I will limit myself to two comments on this topic, as follows:

One, it is better to do a small thing well than try to do a larger thing badly. Two, the days of preaching in public are gone (at least in the western world). Instead, set up a book table and TALK to people – and above all – make connections and do the follow-up. I have so much more to say on it, but I will save that for another blog.

Living in Community: The Christian life is not meant to be lived in isolation. Even hermits are attached to monasteries and have a Bishop and spiritual director. Christians are supposed to live a life of communion, of service to our brothers and sisters in Christ where we live out the love for the Lord with one another (easier said than done). To this, Christians must live geographically close to one another, local to one another. We have to involve and be open to allowing people to be involved in our lives. Nothing will stretch and test your spiritual growth more. Nothing will challenge you to grow in your faith more than having to deal with other people. I want to stress something here… A Christian community is more akin to a village than it is to an institution or organisations. I think the more something looks like an institution or an organisation, the more open it is to abuse, and the more open it is to ’empire building’ individuals. Villages are more relaxed settings, more informal, and more spontaneous and organic. Everybody knows everybody. So if you are not in a community, get connected.