Remembering Spiritual Disciplines

Authors David Mathis and Philip Nation discuss a vital subject.
Remembering Spiritual Disciplines

Ed Stetzer: What prompted you to write on this subject?

David Mathis: I spent eight years on the college campus, first as a college student and then discipling college students on staff with Campus Outreach. One of our biggest focuses was teaching students to “fish for themselves” in the Christian life by creating lifelong habits for Bible intake and prayer. Also, Christian community and the fellowship of the local church was an important habit to develop during the college years, to set students on a trajectory for spiritual health both during and after their college years. I had gravitated toward the topic since being assigned Don Whitney’s book by a discipler while I was a student.

Then several years later, Bethlehem College & Seminary, where I chip in as andjunct professor, assigned me a course for college juniors on personal disciplines and personal disciplemaking. This pressed me to answer common questions in the classroom, and in particular to help students simplify the framework of the spiritual disciplines, and distill the key principles, so that an often intimidating topic could become more realistic and life-giving. Teaching on the disciples inspired me to write some articles at on what I was finding most helpful in the classroom, and the team at Desiring God encouraged me to pull the vision together in book form. Crossway Books rallied to the project, and now Habits of Grace exists. Looking back, I didn’t really set out on the hunt to write this book; it’s sort of something that hunted me down.

Philip Nation: The spiritual disciplines are tools that God has used in my life to deepen my relationship with Him. Having been introduced to them by some of the classic books on the subject, there always seemed to be a few missing elements. I was happy to partner with Moody Publishers to offer a book that is biblically-oriented, accessible to any reader, and gets people engaged with God's mission because of the disciplines.

My take on the spiritual disciplines is that they must revolve around the one central discipline of love. With our love for God as the pivot point for all we do, it helps to decrease the lure of legalism being employed as a way to please God. Instead, we learn more about God through practicing the disciplines and express our love to Him as well.

In the end, I want people to see the practical nature of the disciplines. They give us tools to better understand the ways of God by engaging Him in the Bible. Alongside of more deeply knowing Christ, we can enjoy our relationship through the disciplines.

ES: Why are your books are subtitled as they are?

DM: It seems we’re stuck with the term “spiritual disciplines,” and I’ve made peace not to fight it too much—but I am happy to register my preference for the term “means of grace.” That’s how the Puritans, and other greats in church history, talked about these vital Christian practices before the recent wave of interest in “spiritual disciplines” a generation ago.

The terms “means of grace,” then, raises the question: Means to what end? Means are means to some end. What is the end goal of the means of grace? The answer is that the “surpassing value,” as Paul says it, is knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:8). After all, what is eternal life? As Jesus prayed to his Father for his disciples, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

We were created to glorify God. And that happens supremely by our knowing him truly and enjoying him above all else. And for the Christian, Christ now has been made the focus. The simple and complex longings of the human soul correspond to the simplicities and complexities of who Jesus is, and what he has accomplished for us, as the God-man. The great end of our existence is knowing and enjoying Jesus—and I find it immensely helpful to keep drawing attention to the end goal of enjoying Jesus, especially in considering his appointed means of grace, and our practices to access those means, which I call “habits of grace.”

PN: The spiritual disciplines are too often understood as practices by solitary, monk-like people. The Bible gives us a very different picture. Believers need help to understand how their faith can be personal without it being privatized. Growth is necessary as we progress in our understanding of the Word and as the Holy Spirit works in our lives. The disciplines can be the tools He uses to facilitate that growth.

Spiritual disciplines also expand our understanding of how we participate in the body of Christ. Throughout the Bible, we see God's people praying, ministering, worshiping, and even resting together. The New Testament is clear that the church grows and stays on mission together. The subtitle is long but hopefully helpful in describing the personal, community, and missional levels of practicing the disciplines.

ES: Philip, about half of the 12 chapters in Habits for Our Holiness discuss a specific discipline that leads to interacting in some way with others. What is the danger of thinking of spiritual disciplines as only a personal issue?

PN: Yes, each chapter deals with how the discipline causes us to interact with others around us. If we allow the spiritual disciplines to be a merely individualistic endeavor, we are tempted to ignore the needs of the church and our need for the church. The disciplines primarily help us to understand our need for God but also how He has built the church for our benefit from as well. Whether you are looking into the Old Testament practices of Israel or the New Testament life of the church, God consistently called the people of faith to live interdependently. We must have a personal faith but it should never be privatized.

ES: David, Habits of Grace devotes one of its four major sections to growing in grace within the context of the local church body. Why is this important in a spiritual disciplines discussion?

DM: The fourth section is the “Coda” or “what now?” section after the three sections that are really the heart of the book: hearing God’s voice (his word), having his ear (prayer), and belonging to his body (fellowship in the local church). If you think of the means of grace as a pie, I don’t see word, prayer, and fellowship as cutting the pie into three separate pieces, but as the three key ingredients found in every part of the pie. Even our private Bible reading and prayer is profoundly shaped by life in community, what others have taught us, and how we orient toward God. I find it very unfortunate that the classic texts on spiritual disciple have focused so heavily on the individual to the downplaying or neglect of the essentially of the church in the Christian life, and how pervasive and essential is the place of other believers in God’s ongoing provision of grace in our lives.

ES: Philip, you include a chapter on simple living. Do you implore readers to sell all earthly possessions, or are you aiming for something else?

PN: Not at all. In that chapter, my encouragement is not to endorse a poverty doctrine where the poorer you are the more holy you become. Rather, it is to help us in the areas of contentment and stewardship. Simple living as a discipline reminds us that our joy is not found in the stuff of earth but the Savior from heaven. By using our stuff and caring for God's mission to people, we reduce the temptation of using people and obsessing over stuff to make us happy. Simple living is about gaining our identity in Christ.

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