christian growth

Why We Need Spiritual Disciplines

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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).


[1]Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Rediscovering Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2006), 52.

[2]John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 43.


Data, Dogma, and Drama: Three Things We Confuse with Discipleship


You’ve probably noticed, if you’ve spent much time reading the Gospels, that Jesus doesn’t like phony spirituality. And he seems to have this innate “counterfeit detector.”

Here’s what it sounds like when Christ’s phoniness meter is pegged: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27-28). And this is just an excerpt from an entire chapter of this kind of language!

It turns out that exposing the counterfeits was a prominent feature of Christ’s teaching on discipleship. Unfortunately, these same counterfeits persist today.

Here are three such forgeries that we often confuse with discipleship.

1.  Data

How could we possibly confuse data with discipleship? We do it every time we pat ourselves on the back for being able to recite the books of the Bible in order, quote a section of Scripture from memory, or identify which of the kings of ancient Israel were good and which were bad, as if knowing this information makes us better disciples.  

Don’t get me wrong. These are all worthwhile pursuits that can build our biblical understanding and fuel our spiritual growth. (I’ve done these things myself.) But there’s a subtle danger of confusing our expanding knowledge of biblical facts with spiritual maturity. Mastering the biblical data doesn’t necessarily mean we’re becoming more obedient to Jesus.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were like walking Bible encyclopedias. Here’s what Jesus said about them: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt. 23:2-3). Evidently, it’s possible to be a Bible scholar and not even be a disciple of Jesus.

We must not confuse mastery of the biblical data with a growing discipleship to Jesus.  

2.  Dogma

A growing understanding of theology is vital to a maturing discipleship to Jesus. But dogma, if viewed as blind adherence to a particular doctrinal system, can actually hinder discipleship. Elevating our denominational traditions over our allegiance to Christ is not discipleship. It’s hypocrisy.

To those who were more concerned about keeping their religious traditions than obeying the teachings of Scripture, Jesus said, “You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!” (Matt. 15:6-7).

We must not confuse loyalty to our particular dogma with a growing discipleship to Jesus.   

3.  Drama

Acting spiritually minded isn’t the same as being spiritually-minded. Jesus said, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). Whether it’s giving (vv. 2-4), praying (vv. 5-8), or fasting (vv. 16-18), if we’re doing it to impress people, then we’re practicing something other than discipleship. Jesus is not impressed by showy displays of pseudo-spirituality.

We must not confuse dramatic displays of religiosity with a growing discipleship to Jesus. 

Discipleship is not about assimilating more biblical data, defending our dogma, or acting out our good deeds for the accolades of others. These are cheap substitutes for authentic discipleship, by which we open our hearts to the transforming power of Christ.