Throughout the centuries the Church has understood that it requires discipline, instruction and training to be a disciple. Spiritual disciplines or exercises are intentional practices that give space in our lives for the presence of Jesus to transform us. These exercises include solitude, silence, prayer, fasting, study, service, worship and celebration and are designed to replace the habits of our former non-believing thinking and behaving with ones that fuel our desire to know and love God.
Paul likens the life of discipleship to taking off an old set of clothes and putting on new garments, ‘you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self’ (Colossians 3:10). Habits are important. A habit is a tendency to perform certain actions or behave in a certain way without thinking – things we do on automatic. Unless our beliefs transform our habits our desire to become more like Christ will be frustrated. Aristotle said, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit’.
Changing habitual patterns is not easy. Willpower is seldom enough. It will take us so far but we often find ourselves slipping back into old ways. The truth is that we cannot, of ourselves, change – only God can change us. The spiritual disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us. Just as the goal of going to the gym is not to do various exercises for their own sake, but to get fit, so the disciplines contain no merit of themselves. As Richard Foster explains in Celebration of Discipline,
‘It was this important truth that the Pharisees failed to see. The Disciplines place us before God; they do not give us Brownie points with God.’
Although some of the exercises such as solitude and silence require us to set apart time, many can be practised in the spiritual gym of our workplaces. Just as we can build physical exercise into our day for instance, by using the stairs instead of taking the lift, we can also build in spiritual exercise. Examples might be: praying on our way to a meeting, thanksgiving for provision of all kinds during the day, gaining insight by studying the dynamics of our team, fasting from unhelpful comments, practising secret acts of service and celebrating work well done.