I’m a runner, though I wouldn’t have self-identified as such before last year. A recent physical exam revealed that my cholesterol was high, and having just turned fifty without a regular exercise regimen, I figured it was time to get the lead out. Tipping the scales at 138 pounds, I concluded that my physique was better suited to running than body building. (What I lack in bulk I make up for in common sense.)
So, last spring I bought some shoes and went for a run. The last time I had tried something like this was in college. Any conditioning I had achieved then did nothing for me these thirty years later. My goal was to run a 5k race someday, but after a mile and a half I started wheezing like a cat coughing up a fur ball. It wasn’t pretty. I knew it wouldn’t be.
However, after several months of training, I ran a 5k in September in which I turned in a fifth place finish for my age bracket. I even shaved a couple more minutes off my time before winter. I’m learning to appreciate the difference that consistent training can make.
It works the same way in the spiritual realm. What regular morning runs do for my stamina and speed, regular disciplines like prayer, Bible meditation, and journaling do for my spiritual health.
So what are spiritual disciplines exactly?
According to Dallas Willard, “Spiritual disciplines are activities in our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.”
Imagine what might have happened if I had relied on sheer willpower to run that 5k. What if I would have showed up on race day ready to try my hardest without having trained? And what if, after being carried off on a stretcher, I came back next year determined to try even harder without having trained? At that point you’d probably say. “Forget the stethoscope. This dude needs to have his head examined.”
I learned something years ago from John Ortberg that has stuck with me. He said, “There is an immense difference between training to do something and trying to do something.”
This is why we need spiritual disciplines. You wouldn’t show up on race day without prior training. So why would we think we could forgive someone who hurt us deeply, love our enemies, resist temptation, or accomplish any other spiritual feat Christ calls us to if we haven’t trained for it. Spiritual disciplines are that training.
By saying this, I’m not diminishing in any way our utter dependence on the grace of God for spiritual progress. I’m suggesting that when we consistently pray, worship, read our Bible, give, serve, and fellowship with other believers, we make use of God-given means for expanding our capacity for Christ-likeness. By practicing such spiritual disciplines, we actually equip ourselves to respond to situations with spiritual maturity and Christian obedience.
So “Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Rediscovering Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2006), 52.
John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 43.