Spiritual Discipline for the Purpose of Godliness
In 1 Timothy 4:6-10, Paul urges Christians to train themselves in godliness. It is valuable in every way, “as it holds promise for the present life and also the life to come” (v. 8). He goes on to say, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have set our hope on the living God” (v. 10).
This command to be disciplined for the goal of godliness is not optional for Christians. If you’ve been given the Holy Spirit, you are a new creation, with new desires and affections for God. We want to be more like Jesus Christ and follow him, no matter the cost to us personally. No matter the hard work or the effort or the cross he asks us to bear. But although discipline requires training, the end result is great freedom and joy.
The spiritual disciplines that the Bible mentions are not meant to restrict, but to enlarge. They are not in opposition to the good news of the gospel and the freedom that we have in Christ. Being disciplined is not synonymous with legalism.
Elizabeth Elliot puts it this way, “Freedom and discipline have come to be regarded as mutually exclusive, when in fact freedom is not at all the opposite, but the final reward, of discipline.” Oh, that we would have more Elisabeth Elliot’s in the church today! Women who know the value of being trained in godliness, and have put aside the worthless things that compete for their attention.
This path to godliness is through the spiritual disciplines.
There’s no way around it. If you want to be a godly Christian, mature and equipped and increasingly Christ-like, you have to train yourself for it. This means, at the very least, you are regularly reading your Bible. But there is more to it than that.
In Donald S. Whitney’s book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, he outlines what he believes are the main spiritual disciplines the Bible illustrates. And yes, reading your Bible is number one, and arguably the most important. But there is also prayer, worship, evangelism, serving, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, and learning. This is not necessarily an exhaustive list, but they are the spiritual disciplines that the Bible points out most frequently.
This list is not a means to make anyone feel condemned. If you recognize that you need to grow in some of these areas (and we all do), today makes a great beginning. Start now. It’s never too late to ask for God’s help in seeking him. And to be honest with you, I am struggling in more than a few of these spiritual disciplines. You’re not alone, so don’t lose heart. God will give you all that is needed to grow into these habits. It takes commitment and hard work, but we can do hard things, right?
Because nothing great was ever achieved without effort. You cannot be passive in your pursuit of Christ and expect to grow.
And let’s just be honest, life is more difficult when we are not growing in these areas. The more we pursue Jesus, the better we will respond with genuine love, hope, faith, and steadfastness in even the darkest situations we find ourselves in. Godliness is a blessing to the Christian, not only personally, but communally. Mature Christians with godly character are essential to the body of Christ. They don’t become that way overnight, though. They have disciplined themselves to be more like Jesus, cooperating with the Holy Spirit as he works in them.
If you want to be like Jesus, you have to do the things he did. He upheld Scripture, read it, and expected his followers to know it (Matt. 4:4; Matt. 19:4; Mark 12:10; Luke 4:16-21). He prayed (Matt. 6:9-13; Matt. 11:25-26; John 17; Luke 6:12), worshipped (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26), preached the good news to sinners (Matt. 4:17; Matt. 11:27-30; Luke 4:43-44), served others (John 6:11; John 13:1-17; Luke 4:30), stewarded his resources well (Mat. 25:14-30; John 9:4; John 17:4; Mark 4:38), fasted (Matt. 4:2; Luke 4:2), and sought out silence and solitude (Luke 4:42; Luke 5:16; Luke 6:12).
Many of these spiritual disciplines overlap with each other, even in Jesus’ ministry.
Although there is not room in this article for a lengthy discussion on each spiritual discipline, it is worth noting that these activities interact with each other. They bleed into each other.
For example, worship is not only expressed through song. It can be expressed through private prayer and meditation on God’s word. It can be expressed through the way you serve your family, “as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). Although you should respond to God in song, it is just one characteristic of a life of worship.
In the same way, reading and knowing your Bible will affect all other areas of spiritual discipline. It teaches you how to pray. It shows you how to be a good steward of what God has given you. It is the message of salvation to those who are lost. It informs your affections and leads to worship.
The truth is, there is no way to know God apart from his Word. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). If you would be godly, know your Bible. All other disciplines follow this one, and you will not grow much apart from it.
To wrap up, listen to what Martyn Lloyd-Jones has to say about discipline:
“How often do we hear about the discipline of the Christian life these days? How often do we talk about it? How often is it really to be found at the heart of our evangelical living? There was a time in the Christian church when this was at the very center, and it is, I profoundly believe, because of our neglect of this discipline that the church is in her present position. Indeed, I see no hope whatsoever of any true revival and reawakening until we return to it.”
The church is in need of mature Christians who have been trained in godliness. Now, let's forget what lies behind us and instead "press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14).