Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life

Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald S. Whitney, Carol Stream, IL:  NAVPRESS, 2014.  Paperback, 304 pp.

The theme for this book on spiritual discipline is scriptural: “Exercise [or discipline] thyself…unto godliness” (I Timothy 4:7). But when we hear of a book with a title such as this, the temptation might be to dismiss the work completely. Are we not saved by grace? Why should I read a 300+ page list of prescribed activities I must participate in to apparently assure myself that I am “spiritual” or even that I am a Christian?

Though there are times where Whitney’s Southern Baptist background of experience and Puritanism are quite apparent, the work as a whole is written from the understanding that “we stand before God only in the righteousness that’s been earned by another, Jesus Christ” (3). The book does not stem from an attitude of legalism or a goal of putting restrictions on readers. Further, Whitney writes that it is only because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that we now have “holy hungers” that we did not have prior to Christ earning us righteousness; the Spirit makes godliness our purpose (3). Whitney contends that God outlines disciplines for us in Scripture so that we might pursue holiness, grow spiritually, and become more like Christ; or to put it another way, that we discipline ourselves unto godliness (4).

As stated above, Whitney maintains throughout the book that the reason we must practice each discipline is for the purpose of godliness. In fact, each chapter that covers one of the disciplines is the name of the discipline (e.g., “Prayer”) followed by the phrase “For the Purpose of Godliness”; further, each discipline is introduced with an explanation as to why our practice of it must be for this purpose. For example, we serve others for the purpose of godliness lest we begin to serve only “occasionally or when it’s convenient or self-serving” (144).

Whitney recognizes that our natural tendency as readers is to read about each discipline, agree that the practice is important—and even admit that it’s something we should begin to practice or practice more often—but never change our habits to include regular attention to the discipline in our life. Therefore, he ends each chapter with several pointed questions that ask us whether we will adopt the discipline and whether we will become more faithful in our observance of it. So, for example, he asks at the end of the chapter on silence and solitude whether we will seek daily times of it (244). And anticipating our claim to practice the discipline when we “have time,” he asks: “Will you start now?” (246).

The first edition of this book was released in 1991. The revised and updated version which I reviewed was released in 2014. It would be interesting to compare the books to see how much Whitney updated the text. While I hesitate to call the revised edition dated, I do think Whitney’s increased years may have contributed to a somewhat cursory treatment throughout the book of the current challenges (temptations) that keep readers from becoming spiritually disciplined.[1]

Another critique I have for this book is that it reflects Whitney’s Puritan leanings. I use the example of the discipline of stewardship: while a call for stewardship, especially of one’s time, is welcome in a blatantly self-serving society, I was disappointed that Whitney’s overall point appeared to be that we must use the time God gives us now because we are running out of time, and that we must “come to Christ while [we] still can,” (167). There is no assurance in that attitude. A better motivation for the disciplined life can be found in Rev. Barnhill’s blog series and which Whitney faithfully states in other parts of the book: as adopted children of God, we want to grow in our discipline (commitment) to serving God because we desire God’s glory and our own growth in holiness.

Despite some shortcomings that I found in this text, I would recommend Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life to Beacon Lights readers. This book is not targeted at a specific age level, but we as young people and young adults need to hear the message of this book. We are not a disciplined generation. By nature we are not interested in Whitney’s prescribed “workout” as J.I. Packer puts it in his foreword to this book (x). But we should be. As those redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, we are called to be holy even as God is holy (I Peter 1:16, 18-19). When we are disciplined we live more holily, and when we live holily, we “become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ, [and we] constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in a life to come” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 115).

[1] If you would like to read more about contemporary challenges to living a disciplined life, there is an excellent series of articles by Rev. Ryan Barnhill on the blog of the Reformed Free Publishing Association (available here): https://rfpa.org/blogs/news/tagged/spiritual-disciplines. Rev. Barnhill dedicates one of his articles to both identifying three challenges to the disciplined life—laziness, busyness, and technology—and to encouraging readers to persevere in the disciplines despite these challenges.

Miriam Koerner

Guarding Our Tongue

Perhaps more than anything else the Bible warns us to control our tongues. Solomon, who was blessed with great measures of wisdom, tells us “Whoso keepeth his mouth and tongue keepeth his soul from troubles,” (Proverbs 21:22-24). How do we keep our mouth and tongue so we do not fall into trouble? Do we hide it and conceal it behind our lips as to prevent ever making offense?

Foolish it would be if we never used the gift of speech that God has given us. We most certainly must be a good steward of the ability to speak. I Peter 4:10-11 instructs us that every man that receives the ability to minister and speak must use that gift, so God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.

How must we use this gift of speaking to glorify God? We must use our tongue as the lame beggar who went walking, and leaping, and praising God as a witness to all those who were around Him and were astounded by His ability to walk. We must use our tongue, even in the simplest things, to be a witness of the truth. If we fail to tell the truth when we are asked something as meaningless as how tall we are then how can we expect to be able to hold to the truth of God’s word which is offensive to many? There is also according to Ecclesiastes 3:7 “a time to keep silence.” As young people it is especially important to have this time of silence and listen to the wisdom of our parents, grandparents, and others who have wisdom from age and experience that we lack. It is also important that we use our tongue to communicate with others and God. It is essential that we communicate with God because our life in prayer is a reflection of our spiritual life.

God instructs us also that the tongue is as a devouring fire (Isaiah 30:27). Certainly, we must be careful in the use of this devouring fire. There is that use of the tongue as a fire which burns down others so we commit the sin of murder towards them and fail to be edifying in our communication. There are also many curse and swear words that, to the world, have become normal expressions. Many will say, “I know that my friends are not offended and I do not mean these words to be wickedness.” Perhaps our friends are fine with us saying things and maybe we are somewhat innocent in our use of such words, but is it acceptable before God? We always must come before God the judge, and the God whom we live our lives to glorify and please. Can we truly testify that no corrupt communication flows from our mouth, and that our conscience is holy before God?

It is a great temptation, especially given the world we live in, to say the phrases “O my God” and “O my Word”. These phrases have become the normal exclamation for surprise. God’s name is fearful and worthy of making one stop and pause with awe and respect. There is no word we can utter forth with our tongue that is as fearful as God’s name. According to the Heidelberg Catechism Q.A. 99 we must not profane or abuse the name of God. To profane something is to make it common. Therefore, the third commandment forbids any taking of God’s name and pulling it down from its lofty place. Often, we do realize that saying this phrase as an exclamation of surprise is wrong so then we change the wording a little bit and say, “O my goodness,” or “O my gosh.” It is good we try to change our bad habits, but these are not innocent phrases either. Mark 10 recounts the story of one who came running to Jesus and came to him saying good Master. Jesus said why callest thou me good for there is none good, but one, that is, God. Even Jesus would not allow someone to call him good. Should we then say O my goodness? (If you are interested Reverent Huizinga had a sermon on “Our Use of God’s Name” which spoke and gave a complete reasoning why we should avoid all phrases contained in the initials OMG. See the link below. https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=54121718486).

May we all be active in our efforts to please God with our tongues and pray the words of Psalm 141:3-4, “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips. Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practise wicked works with men that work iniquity…”

Luke Christian Potjer