Disciplining Daily Deeds
We can learn a thing or two about discipleship and the discipline required of a disciple from our fourth-century monastic brothers and sisters. Like them, we do basic, ordinary activities every day. We get dressed, we buy things and take them home, we think, we eat, we hang out with friends, we talk (a lot), we work (a lot), and we rest. But what we don’t realize is that we tend to do these activities in selfish and vicious ways.
We do these things in ways that hurt our neighbor (and are unhealthy for us). And we are completely unaware of it because we have been doing things this way since childhood. And to top it all off, this way of doing things is unassumingly reinforced by culture and society—this is what everyone does and how everyone does it! But what the lives of these monks reveal to us is that we have to relearn how to be a human being and how God intended for us to act and live on a very basic human level.
We have to relearn how to use our minds—not the mental faculties but the thoughts. We have to relearn how to eat—not the use of utensils but how much to consume. We have to relearn how to socialize—not to network for future jobs but to give people space.
We have to discipline our daily deeds. As John Cassian rightly saw them, what we nowadays call spiritual disciplines are practices for a community to reform its way of life together—the thoughts, attitudes, habits, practices, and behavior of individuals, and the general lifestyle or way of living of the community. These practices are for a community as it interacts in healthy and harmonious ways in shared spaces.
Doing the Work Before the Work
In his highly insightful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith provides an important analogy about the importance of spiritually preparing ourselves for the adversity and challenges that come with success in the world:
Long ago a Chinese man began his career making bell stands for the huge bronze bells that hung in Buddhist temples. This man became prized and celebrated for making the best, most elaborate and enduring bell stands in the entire region. No other person could make the bell stands with such strength and beauty.
His reputation grew vast and his skill was in high demand. One day the celebrated woodcarver was asked, “Please tell us the secret of your success!” He replied: Long before I start making and carving the bell stand, I go into the forest to do the work before the work.
I look at all of the hundreds of trees to find the ideal tree—already formed by God to become a bell stand. I look for the boughs of the tree to be massive, strong and already shaped. It takes a long time to find the right tree. But without doing the work before the work, I could not do what I have accomplished.
Fasting Reveals That Which Controls Us
More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. … We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. … Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. …
Fasting reminds us that we are sustained “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). Food does not sustain us; God sustains us.
Good vs. Bad Discipline
While formally or structurally speaking, there are mechanisms of discipline operative in both the convent and the prison, in both the factory and the monastery, more specifically these disciplines and practices are aimed at very different ends. And here we must make an important distinction: we can distinguish good discipline from bad discipline by its telos, its goal or end.
So the difference between the disciplines that form us into disciples of Christ and the disciplines of contemporary culture that produce consumers is precisely the goal they are aiming at. Discipline and formation are good insofar as they are directed toward the end, or telos, that is proper to human beings: to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Grace and the Spiritual Disciplines
What is the relationship between spiritual diciplines and grace? Does participation in the spiritual disciplines mean that we are not resting in God’s grace? Dallas Willard shares the analogy of a baseball player to describe how the disciplines enable us to grow in our discipleship:
We are saved by grace of course, and by it alone, and not because we deserve it. That is the basis of God’s acceptance of us. But grace does not mean that sufficient strength and insight will be automatically “infused” into our being in the moment of need…A baseball player who expects to excel in the game without adequate exercise of his body is no more ridiculous than the Christian who hopes to be able to act in the manner of Christ when put to the test without the appropriate exercise in godly living.
Our Problem with Discipline
Many of us don’t like this word “discipline.” It makes us feel uncomfortable, even icky. It has negative connotations. We often associate it with punishment or retribution. To discipline is to punish, right? When a child does something wrong, we discipline him and send him to time-out. He sits in time-out as punishment for the wrong he committed. He has violated some rule in the house, and to make up for the “crime” we send him to time-out.
And sometimes we tell him that he won’t get a snack later. We are disciplining him; we are punishing him. To our contemporary mind, they are one and the same. But this confusion is unfortunate. Discipline and punishment are not the same thing. The root of the word “discipline” carries a much more favorable connotation than punishment.
“Discipline” means instruction. To discipline is to teach, and to be disciplined is to be instructed. In meaning and practice, it is worlds apart from punishment. Whereas punishment is about paying a penalty or compensating for a wrong committed, discipline is about making things right. It’s about getting back on track. It’s about settling the matter. It’s about resolving the issue. It’s about fixing the problem. It’s about healing a broken agreement or promise. It’s about reconciling so that we can keep going.
A Repeated Bodily Practice
Christian spiritual discipline is a repeated bodily practice, done over and over again in dependence on the Holy Spirit and under the direction of Jesus and other wise teachers in his Way, to enable one to get good at certain things in life that one cannot do by direct effort.
In the same way that “golf flesh” resides in specific body parts, for example, the wrists, so sinful habits often reside in specific body parts, for example, anxiety primarily in the brain and nervous system, gossip in the tongue and mouth, and lust in the eyes. A spiritual discipline is a repetitive practice that targets one of these areas in order to replace bad habits with good ones in dependence on the Spirit of the living God.
Spiritual Disciplines & the Analogy of Farming
A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain…This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines – they are a way of sowing to the Spirit… By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.
Spiritual Disciplines and Who We are Becoming
God’s primary assessment of our lives is not going to be measured by the number of journal entries…The real issue is what kind of people we are becoming. Practices such as reading Scripture and praying are important – not because they prove how spiritual we are – but because God can use them to lead us into life. We are called to do nothing less than to experience day by day what Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Spiritual Disciplines. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!