Part 4: Loving God Through The Disciplines


By: Justin Anderson

Much of 20th century discipleship practices have revolved around teaching Biblical content and working towards obedience. These practices, while inarguably important, assume that the goal of discipleship is solely theological knowledge and ever-increasing obedience. But as we’ve learned in last week’s blog, those are not the apex of discipleship. We defined discipleship as knowing, loving, and following Jesus. 

Love of God is one of the primary goals of discipleship, which means we need to rethink the means by which we train people to be disciples. 

Historically, most discipleship programs have assumed that if you give people more biblical and theological knowledge, it will inevitably lead to greater obedience. This approach has led to a great deal of teaching and more Christian content in the world today than at any point in human history, which is good. But has increased knowledge led to increased obedience? I’d argue it has not and will not, which should make us rethink our assumptions.

The assumption underlying this approach is that there is a direct connection between our obedience and our knowledge. Or to say it negatively, if we are disobedient it’s because we didn’t fully know, understand, or believe the right things. Therefore, if we only knew/understood/believed rightly, we would obey fully. 

Now, this isn’t the context to explore the historical or philosophical foundations of this line of thinking, but suffice it to say that it is a thoroughly modern (and Cartesian) way of thinking about a person that flies in the face of the biblical witness. It assumes that we are primarily rational, thinking beings and so any immoral behavior is attributed to a lack of knowledge rather than irrationality. This is nonsense, biblically speaking, because it excludes the influence of Satan, sin, and the flesh, three very important biblical causes of our sin. Again, this conception of how people work is thoroughly modern and nonChristian.

A more biblical way of understanding humans is that we are oriented around our hearts, not our heads.

This is driven home in a number of texts throughout scripture but perhaps none more clearly than Matthew 22, a text at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. In it, Jesus tells us that the most important thing is to love God and love our neighbor. Love lies at the center of who we are and is therefore the end or purpose of our existence.

If God had made humans to be primarily thinking things, then the greatest end of our existence would be cognitive. And if there was such a direct connection between our heads and our hands, then God would have made obedience our greatest end. Instead, God chose love because he made us to be lovers, first and foremost. The challenge of discipleship, then, is one of reorienting our loves, not just reeducating minds or disciplining wills. Thankfully God has given his church a wealth of resources to accomplish this kind of discipleship.

Relational Practices

Spiritual disciplines like prayer, scripture meditation, and solitude have been the backbone of Christian discipleship since Jesus himself. They are a gift to the church and are meant to be the primary means of growing as disciples. Jesus practiced many of the disciplines during his life on earth, both as an example to his followers and a means of connecting to the Father.

These practices are alive and well in many parts of the Church, but have fallen out of favor in modern, western evangelicalism. This western stream of Christianity has bought into the idea of humans as thinking things and has struggled to find a place for the disciplines. For many in this tradition, the disciplines seem too mystical, too difficult, or too intangible. Those who do practice some of the disciplines often see them as tasks to be accomplished and soon experience a dryness and detachment that is ultimately unsatisfying.

Some of this can be attributed to the way we tend to talk and think about the disciplines.

First, we call them spiritual.

The word connotes a sense of otherworldliness that may intimidate some people or seem impractical to others. It also is typically not the experience people have with the disciplines when they first begin. Some people try out prayer and meditation for a few weeks but “nothing happens” and they get discouraged and either assume they are doing something wrong or that the disciplines themselves are flawed.

Second, "discipline" can imply drudgery, not joy.

They can seem tedious at times, like a child learning the piano or an adult learning a new language. Without a vision for what those moments of tedium might be leading to, the discipline itself loses its power and its opportunity for wonder. Like anything, learning to connect your heart directly to God requires practice, but if we lose sight of the goal, practice quickly becomes monotony.

Both of these mistakes can cause a person to consider the disciplines a means to an end or a task to be accomplished.

Perhaps a better way to think about spiritual disciplines is as relational practices.

Whenever a person enters into a new relationship, certain practices must take place for the relationship to take root and grow. People have to learn each other’s stories, spend time together, listen to one another, confess fears and insecurities, struggle and celebrate, repent to and forgive one another. These are experiences that every human has had in a relationship and they form the backbone of every friendship. Without them, acquaintances never become friends and friends never become lovers.

Spiritual disciplines are not fundamentally different.

If our greatest calling is to love God and real love requires knowledge, vulnerability, and sacrifice, then it’s those things that we pursue through the disciplines. The same way you have to work at a relationship with a human, you have to work at a relationship with God. On the one hand, this seems much harder to do because God is invisible and doesn’t audibly respond to your prayers. On the other hand, you can be sure that in this relationship, the other person is fully engaged and passionately desires to know you and be known by you.

Any program for discipleship that we build has to include spiritual disciplines, and many do. However, there is a way to utilize spiritual disciplines that is still about learning and doing yet misses loving altogether. We have to teach our people to engage the disciplines as a means of communion with God in a personal and relational way. Charles Spurgeon underscored this point when he said, “I must take care above all that I cultivate communion with Christ, for though that can never be the basis of my peace, it will be the channel of it.” The disciplines are the channel by which we commune with God and cultivate a love for him.

We should think of the disciplines like a door to walk through to experience what is on the other side. No one would walk up to a door simply to inspect and admire it from one side. Doors are passageways, they are meant to usher us into a new space with new people. The disciplines should not just be learned or studied, the Bible should not be read simply for information, and prayer should not be a perfunctory conversation with God. Disciplines contain so much more value when we practice them as opportunities to build relationship with God.

So how will you build spiritual disciplines into your discipleship program? How will you teach your people to love God and to cultivate a relationship with him?


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