When we think about spiritual disciplines, many of us default to the idea of a ‘quiet time’ or a ‘daily devotion.’ Some of us will automatically think of Richard Foster or Dallas Willard or other luminary on the subject.
No matter our starting point, our imagination for the ultimate purpose of spiritual disciplines is often woefully shortsighted. If we aren’t careful, we come to think of disciplines like the latest fad diet or a trendy ‘lifehack.’ Spiritual disciplines become synonymous with the self-help industry, and our engagement with them is all about helping us become the ‘best version of ourselves.’
Now, in fairness, spiritual disciplines, when practiced faithfully, should shape us more and more into the image of Jesus, which ought to give us peace and joy even in the midst of difficult times. We should be ‘improved.’ Granted. But the very process of formation through spiritual practices such as prayer, study, fasting, or solitude is rooted in self-abandonment, self-denial, and a wholehearted joining with God in a much bigger, much better story than our own.
Or, as Jesus puts it: “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Only when we lift our eyes from our personal self-help project can we draw close to the God who has drawn near to us.
A new book by Kyle David Bennett argues that even a redeemed, selfless vision for spiritual disciplines is incomplete if we only consider its vertical component—how it shapes our relationship with God. We practice spiritual disciplines not merely to place ourselves in right relationship with him, but also to prepare us to live for the sake of others.
In Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, Bennett talks about his own disillusionment with his devotional life, seeing these practices as ‘tacked-on’ to his normal life. He came to understand that the practice of spiritual disciplines is about renewing our most mundane actions so that as we live and move through the world and—crucially—as we interact with others, we might embody a kingdom vision for community.
Take, for example, Bennett’s second chapter, on the discipline of simplicity. The call to live simply is a check against our selfishness, owning and possessing in malformed, sinful ways that pull us away from dependence on God. That selfishness, harmful as it is to us, also inflicts damage on our neighbors. When we are greedy, when we pile up worldly treasures, we take from others and abuse others’ work. We grow to envy what they have and see ourselves in competition with those around us. We need the virtue of simplicity not merely that we would walk faithfully with God, but also that we might be at peace with those around us.
Giving Up, David Roseberry’s book on generosity, presents a similar thesis on this point. An intentional practice of giving in our everyday lives, when it comes to our money and our possessions, trains our hearts to give up our self-reliance and self-importance and it restores how we see ourselves in relationship to others. We are no longer the black hole at the center of our universe, drawing all resources forever toward ourselves. Instead, we live among constellations of brilliant creations of God. We are freed to invest in their good, to work toward their benefit, without thinking of our own bottom lines.
As church leaders, this is the sort of lofty personal transformation and renewed community we long to see in those we serve. Often, we don’t connect that lofty goal with the everyday exhortations to give generously, to encourage intentional habits. Practices of Love by Kyle David Bennett will help any church reinvigorate its commitment to the intentional practice of spiritual disciplines. I encourage you to buy Kyle’s book or check out his website for more resources.