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

Be Zealous

“Who (Christ) gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” Titus 2:14

Friend, please read that again.

Do those words bring a prickle of shame? Do you feel guilt? I hope so. I know I do.

Has anyone ever told you that you’re peculiar? Most likely someone has at some point in time. Has anyone ever told you that you’re peculiar because you have shown yourself to be zealous in your service to the Lord? I doubt it. No one has ever told me that. And that’s certainly not to my credit, or yours.

What is zeal? Here’s the definition I found fitting: “great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective.” To be zealous is to pursue something with energy, to devote time and enthusiasm to a particular activity.

How often don’t we make comments about each other, noting the important things in each other’s lives? We often say “You can tell that basketball is important to him.” “She really cares about her school work.” “He puts so much effort into his job.” Our actions each day show what we value as most important. The things we’re excited about, discuss with our friends, and devote much of our time to are the things we’re zealous about. But why are the comments we always make pointing to zeal for earthly activities? There’s nothing wrong with being zealous for earthly activities – and often they’re good things to care about – but there is certainly an imbalance where spiritual activities are concerned. Is it because earthly things are easier to talk about than spiritual things? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I think we most often take note of the zeal for earthly things because most often that’s the only real zeal we are showing.

I very rarely am zealous in doing good works. I am next to never enthusiastic about sitting down for devotions time each day. Even when I do flee a particular temptation, I don’t follow the Lord’s will with great energy and excitement. I am far from zealous in being a servant of Christ. In fact, most days I am the exact opposite. I’m a sinful child, ungrateful and unwilling to obey my gracious Father. If you’re anything like me, the same is true of you. Zeal for the Lord seems like a lot to ask of us.

But Christ gave himself for me and for you, friend. Every bit of himself, offered for us. And what does he ask in return? He asks for energy and enthusiasm in doing the good works He calls us to. And we often feel like he asks too much? We ought to be humbled by his grace. Ashamed of our attitudes.

“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous therefore, and repent.” Revelation 3:19

Repent, friend. And then go out today, and tomorrow, and every day and be consciously, actively zealous to the point of peculiarity. Be excited when you open your Bible for devotions tonight, rather than opening it out of a sense of duty or guilt that you haven’t lately. Be the peculiar one, the one zealous enough to tell your friends that you won’t watch the movie they’re popping in when you know that none of you should be watching what will come up on that screen. Be zealous enough to drive to school in silence because every song you flipped through on the radio was filled with profanity or inappropriate lyrics. Be enthusiastic as you encourage and help others. Whatever good works the Lord calls you to, do them not because it’s commanded, but do them because you have a thankful, grateful, zealous heart. Be zealous to the point that others see that the work of the Lord is the most important thing you do during your day.

Anna Van Egdom

Christianity is cheating

Ouch. Seems a little controversial, doesn’t it. I mean, we all know cheating is wrong. We are told not to cheat as kids and warned of the consequences of plagiarism as young adults. But Christianity is cheating. And I’m going to explain why.

I am a student at Michigan State University, in case you don’t know me. On campus I’m a part of a Christian group called “Spartan Christian Fellowship” run by a local church, University Reformed Church. It’s fantastic. But I’ve been lax. This past semester I haven’t gone to SCF’s meetings or Bible studies, because I had an evening class and other previous engagements, but deep down I knew that I could’ve pushed and made it on time, if I had the conviction. Somehow I found reasons not to go. I had lab reports to write. I had things to work out as an executive board member of another club. I was just busy. But I went tonight, and it was amazing and reminded me of why I joined in the first place.

I was reminded tonight and recently in a personal way of the trials I have with sin. I am a horrible, wretched sinner. Trust me; none of you have any idea what a terrible, hopeless sinner I am. I can’t even begin to explain myself. There is hope, however. Somehow, someway in His infinite (and infinity is the only way it could be possible to save someone like me) wisdom, grace and love, the Triune God decided to save me. The Father forgives me by the blood of the Son and sends the Holy Spirit to change my heart to feel the pain I feel at my sin. Amazing grace…

So why is Christianity cheating? Most definitions you will find will say something about fraud, and the definition of fraud usually has something to do with either lying about negative qualities or lying about a positive quality that does not truly apply to someone in order to profit them in some way. Obviously, this is a very bad thing! It’s a criminal offense in the big leagues! That’s Christianity for you. We hide our negative qualities under the blood of Christ and claim for ourselves His perfection by His work of mediation on the cross. Every sin, every shortcoming, every individual sinful thought that crosses my mind for even a fraction of a moment nailed His body to the cross, and I claim to have righteousness imputed to me. Every single day, every moment of every day I trip and fall face-first into my own spiritual feces. The sad part is, so often I get up, look in the mirror and think that I’m fine. Fine enough even to quick mumble a prayer before I fall asleep or quick read a passage that I’d forget in a matter of minutes and call it good, call it devotion to my Savior. I cheat every single day because Christ strengthens what I weaken, He does what I cannot, He fulfils what I can only destroy.  I’m a cheater; a beautiful, blessed, thankful cheater.

I can’t stop there. That is my main point, but I have to take one more step further. When someone cheats in a class or commits fraud in their business, they slide by, they don’t try. The opposite is true of the cheating we do as Christians. When I cheat, I only try harder. When Christ strengthens my weakness, I only gain strength. When Christ does what I cannot, I use His strength to do so as well. When Christ fulfils what I only destroy, I only cling to that truth harder.

 

Jesus! What a strength in weakness!

Let me hide myself in Him.

Tempted, tried and sometimes failing,

He, my strength, my victory wins!

Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Hallelujah, what a Friend!

Saving, helping, keeping, loving,

He is with me to the end!”

SK