Paul was one of the early leaders of the church, and he wrote much of the New Testament. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul talks about transformation. He tells his readers, “Those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29, New International Version). The process of being conformed to the image of Jesus is what followers of Jesus call “spiritual growth.”
Spiritual growth is God’s work. If you are a follower of Jesus, it’s an act of grace that transforms and changes you. But the fact that it’s the Holy Spirit who is at work in you doesn’t mean you don’t play a part. There are things you must do in response to the Spirit's work to listen to Him and experience healthy spiritual growth. These things have traditionally been called “spiritual disciplines.”
When talking to a young pastor named Timothy, Paul encourages him to “train yourself to be godly.” He explains, “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 Timothy 4:7-8, NIV). The similarity between physical and spiritual training is informative.
If you wanted to be an Olympic-level gymnast, your daily life would be defined by certain disciplines. Some would help you do things you were previously unable to accomplish. These include endurance training, strength training and conditioning.
Those aren’t the only kinds of disciplines you would need. You’d also cut out certain habits that inhibit your athletic performance. You’d go to bed earlier since you’d be getting up earlier to work out. You’d eat healthier. In fact, your diet would become very specific and regimented.
Spiritual disciplines work similarly. Bible reading is like a super-charged spiritual diet. It provides raw material that the Spirit uses to renew your mind and transform your heart. But you might incorporate other disciplines that help in other ways. For example, fasting is a discipline that encourages delayed gratification and self-discipline.
There are some disciplines, like Bible study and prayer, that every Christian should practice, but there are others that some people might benefit from for a period of time. It’s essential to realize that anything can be a spiritual discipline if it develops better habits, makes you aware of Jesus’ presence or changes behaviors that make growth difficult.
Say you recognize that you have a tendency to be cynical, and you know that becoming more thankful could transform your outlook. You could say, “I’m going to stop being so pessimistic.” But that’s about as useful as an out-of-shape guy sitting on the couch telling himself he’s going to run a marathon.
You have to take steps to make the change you want. To fight cynicism, you might develop new habits like:
You might only do these things for a few weeks or months, and maybe you’ll find that they lead you to other ideas. Practices like these are spiritual disciplines that help develop skills, attitudes or habits you didn’t already possess. Any new practice you incorporate that helps you grow spiritually is a spiritual discipline.
Below are some specific disciplines that Christians have practiced for ages. The first part of the list contains practices all believers should make room for in their lives. The second part examines practices Christians throughout the ages have benefitted from integrating into their walks at various seasons.
For followers of Jesus, there are spiritual disciplines that are non-negotiable. If you want to grow in your faith, these will definitely be part of your life.
One of the first disciplines a Christian should prioritize is reading God’s Word. It’s important for Christians to be familiar with Scripture. This means regular devotional reading. How you make Bible reading a discipline is up to you. Maybe it’s a chapter a day or multiple chapters on a weekend. In any case, it’s critical that you’re spending time familiarizing yourself with Scripture.
Bible study is a very different discipline than devotional reading. The goal is to examine the Scriptures for deeper understanding. Everyone can benefit from reading Scripture, but when you invest time into understanding the Bible on a deeper level, it gives you greater insight into what Scripture is communicating and how you can apply it to your life.
A third way you can incorporate Scripture into your disciplines is by committing key passages to memory. These could be passages that are particularly meaningful, that help you share your faith with others or that meet some specific need at the time. When you internalize Scripture, the Holy Spirit finds ways to make it come alive.
Some great passages to start with are:
It’s almost strange to think of prayer as a spiritual discipline. After all, if you genuinely believe God is present, listening and available, there’s no way around the importance of prayer. But if you don’t approach prayer with a spiritual-discipline mindset, then it doesn’t happen with the frequency and intensity that it should.
If you don’t have an established time of prayer, consider setting one. Prayer is too important to try and fit in when the occasion allows.
Stewardship means thinking of and using your possessions in the light of the fact that God is the ultimate owner of everything and you are His manager. Generosity is a critical discipline that trains Jesus followers to steward God’s resources better and be more thankful and appreciative of God’s blessings.
Making generosity a spiritual discipline means being intentional and strategic about how you give. Planning to give when the opportunity presents itself isn’t the kind of regimen that makes something a discipline. When it comes to generosity as a discipline, regular and intentional giving is key.
From the start, Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of God was at hand. This was more than an invitation to a relationship with God; it was also an invitation to reconciliation and relationship with others. Most of the New Testament focuses on the church’s relationship with God as His people, so it’s important to make room in your life for others.
There are a number of ways to turn fellowship into a discipline, but the obvious one is committing to a church and attending regularly. Beyond that, you can create a plan to mentor or be mentored or look for ways to be intentional about relationships.
God’s people have used fasting as a discipline throughout history. Typically, fasting is denying yourself food in order to focus your attention on prayer and other spiritual pursuits. During the Babylonian captivity, the prophet Daniel practiced a very specific kind of fast where he denied himself rich foods (Daniel 10:2-3).
Many Christians have integrated the practice of fasting into their lives in different ways. Some use fasting periodically to focus on prayer and practice self-denial. The 18th-century pastor John Wesley regularly fasted two days a week and encouraged others to do so, too.
Food is not the only thing you can fast. Sometimes it’s healthy to fast from social media, streaming services, or other things that may distract you from pursuing the Lord.
When considering other spiritual disciplines, the key to getting the most benefit lies in choosing practices that correspond with areas of weakness or opportunity. It’s essential to find ways to offset some of the bad habits so easily picked up from the world. The following are disciplines Christians have used throughout history to increase their faith and grow closer to Jesus.
The world is full of constant noise and distraction. Many people can’t find 20 minutes of quiet in an entire day. This bombardment of stimulus makes it difficult to be spiritually present and to recognize God’s leading.
Many set aside times during their day when they can be quiet and aware of God’s presence. This might be a half-hour of silence at the end of your day or something as simple as not turning your stereo on in the car. This habit is about being strategic and intentional in how you make room for the Holy Spirit.
There’s a strong cultural pull to find value and meaning in what you own and what you do. As a discipline, simplicity seeks to counteract that influence by encouraging you to want less and to prioritize your focus and time better.
As a discipline, simplicity can look like minimalizing what you own and getting rid of stuff that you don’t need. It also can mean placing restrictions around what you acquire. For people who have a hard time turning down opportunities and expectations, the practice of simplicity can look like finding ways to prioritize your time better and being more productive while doing less.
You don’t have to read far into the Old Testament to discover how seriously God takes celebration. God encouraged regular festivals to commemorate His goodness, faithfulness and provision (Exodus 12:14-20). These activities are essential because they create opportunities to remember what God has done and they encourage the outward expression of delight.
Christians should be known for their joy. If this is an area where you struggle, it might be a good idea to consider ways to find and express joy. This could look like finding ways to celebrate the small triumphs of friends and loved ones. Maybe try spending a year journaling about things that God is doing in your life. Or put together one big blowout celebration every year; invite the people closest to you and remember God’s graciousness.
Jesus told His disciples how they were to grow:
Remain in Me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5, NIV)
It’s easy to assume that remaining in Jesus is a passive activity, but it is one of the most active things you can do. It requires intentional behavior. You can see this in the Lord’s own life: He prayed (Luke 5:16), read Scripture (Luke 4:17-21), fasted (Matthew 4:2) and walked in community (Luke 22:7-23).
Spiritual disciplines are tools to maintain connection to Christ. As you abide in Him through spiritual disciplines, you will begin to produce fruit.
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