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

Book Review: Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin

I received a book as a gift entitled “Women of the Word” by Jen Wilkin. The author is a speaker and writer of women’s Bible studies and brings so much insight into studying the Bible in this book. It made me take a minute to stop and realize what studying the Bible was to me. I asked myself why I was studying the Bible. Was it to satisfy my own conscience? Was it to make myself feel good? Was I reading it looking for verses that spoke to me? Or was I reading it to find out more about who God was?   2 Timothy 2:15 “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

Wilkin said something that was true of me. She says: “I got it backwards, I failed to realize that the Bible is a book about God. The Bible is a book that clearly reveals who God is on every page…or perhaps I really did know that the Bible was a book about God, but I didn’t realize that I wasn’t reading it as if it were. I approached my study time asking the wrong questions. I read the Bible asking ‘Who am I’ and ‘What should I do?’ We must read the Bible with our ears trained on hearing God’s declaration of himself.”

Wilkin begins the book talking about her own life and experience, telling about her growing passion for studying the Bible. She then goes on to explain how she began to turn her study time in a different direction: rather than asking herself what the Bible could do for her, she asked herself “what am I learning about God in my study, since this book is about Him?”  She also explains how before she had often let her heart lead her in her study. I think a lot of modern Christianity today asks, “How is this making me feel?” instead of “What am I learning about God and my walk with Him?” But remember, we cannot love what our minds do not know; we first have to have the knowledge. Psalm 119: 125 “I am thy servant, give me understanding, that I may know thy testimonies.”

Wilkin explains that the book’s purpose is “to teach you not merely a doctrine, concept, or story line, but a study method that will allow you to open up the Bible on your own. It intends to challenge you to think and to grow, using tools accessible to all of us, whether we hold a high school diploma or a seminary degree, whether we have minutes or hours to give to it each day.”

After talking about her failures and changes in study, Wilkin talks about a desire for Bible literacy.  Bible literacy is “when a person has access to a Bible in a language they understand and is steadily moving toward knowledge and understanding of the text.” She lists a few different approaches of studying the Bible, explaining what they are, and the problems she has with them. She then begins to give her readers a different guide for studying the Bible, talking about the “Five P’s” of study. Here she teaches her readers to study with Purpose, Perspective, Patience, Process, and Prayer.  She goes through each one of these in great detail, giving a what, how, and why for each. This takes up most of the book and is a simple way of going about studying the Bible, which brings forth valuable findings.

I loved how throughout her book Wilkin shows her great love for God and because of that love, her love for His Word. She says quite a few times how she loves the Bible because it teaches her about God.  The way she speaks of and describes the Bible proves her words to be true. I also found that I really liked the way she told her readers that our minds should be trained before our hearts so that we can understand before letting our emotions take over our study.

As part of the objective audience for this book, being a woman, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I highly recommend it for women, but I know that men could find it beneficial as well. She is a very good writer, easy to understand and uses great examples and Scripture to back up her points. As always we must read with great discretion, especially when it comes to books that are popular mainstream by Christian publishers, but I wholeheartedly think that this is a great book to read and to help start a foundation for studying God’s Word.  She simply states a humble way of studying the Bible and I have found it to be very helpful in my own personal study time.

Lisa Heystek

Book quotations taken from: Wilkin, Jen. Women of the Word, Crossway 2014.