The Place and Purpose of Discipline
When God told Israel to love Him wholeheartedly, he followed up that command with the command to create structures, routines and rituals that would remind, reinforce and reflect that commandment at every corner of an Israelite’s life.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deu 6:5-9)
While Israel over-literalized his words and created physical boxes containing Scripture to wear on the forehead or stick on the doorpost, God’s command was simpler and simultaneously more demanding: create structures in your life that will teach and enable love for God; make these structures prominent, conspicuous, repetitive and natural; create routines, habits, rituals, and ways of life that direct the wandering heart back to loving God. In other words, nurture love for God through discipline.
This is the purpose of the spiritual disciplines. The spiritual disciplines are the structures that nurture communion with God. The disciplines are not communion with God itself, but they are means to that communion. Many disciplines have been suggested: private prayer, meditation on the Word, memorization of the Word, wider reading of devotional or theological writers, journaling, silence and solitude, fasting, corporate worship, giving, service of others, evangelism, and others. Most of these come from either Scriptural example or direct command. So, in many ways, the spiritual disciplines are a matter of plain obedience, or the better part of wisdom. But they are much more than that. The disciplines provide the greenhouse in which desire for God thrives. How so?
First, they provide the opportunity for communion with God to occur. The spiritual disciplines, rightly used, are the moments when we can give clearest attention to communing with God, confessing our sins, consecrating our loves, and conforming our lives. It is no wonder that some have mistaken these means as the end itself, for they provide the stage upon which communion often takes place. They are not communion itself, but few other times and places provide us with as concentrated an experience of communion.
Second, they give our souls practice at bringing together nature, posture and exposure in one. Like many tasks in life that require us to combine and co-ordinate several actions at once, we need practice. We are clumsy when we first ride a bicycle, or try to ice-skate, or drive a car. We are too conscious of the separate actions, and we fumble, fall or stall. As we keep practising, something marvellous happens in our brains, as we combine these actions more and more seamlessly, until we can do them ‘without’ thinking.
Remembering our new natures and what they enable, remembering the postures of humility and repentance, and seeking and submission, and remembering the cycle of communion can feel cumbersome, abstract and frustrating. We learn to combine nature, posture and exposure by acting upon our faith in a practical discipline. We must do something to commune, and the disciplines provide those embodied actions.
Third, they teach and develop the abilities, attitudes and actions fundamental to communion. A discipline is an act of ordering what is chaotic. To cultivate communion with God, the chaotic nature of our spirits must be subordinated so that beauty and order can come out of the chaos. Communion often requires habits such as sustained attention, reflective thought, a perceptive eye, and these habits strengthen and shape such abilities through use. Communion often requires using the religious imagination, saying or writing words of praise, gratitude, admiration or adoration to God. These abilities lie dormant or even defective until regular use begins to carve, shape and polish them into abilities fit for communion.
Fourth, they structure and shape the life so that its rhythms, routines and rituals shape the overall imagination and sensibilities. For the Israelite, his daily routine involved reciting the Shema in the morning and in the evening. When he ate his meals, his restricted diet reminded him to put a difference between the holy and the common and he thought on God. His very clothing had a border commanded by God.When he worked the land, there were laws regarding the animals, laws regarding sowing, tilling and reaping, which caused him to think on God. If he went to transact business, there were laws about money and equity. When he went home, there were laws about ritual cleanness, touching skin diseases, bodily emissions and even the presence of mould on the walls. Once a week, he was to cease work, for God’s sake. If he was anywhere near the Tabernacle, or later, the Temple, he would have seen a routine: a burnt offering twice daily, and a meal offering twice daily – one in the morning, and one in the evening – when the day’s activity began and when it ceased. There would have been a sacrifice every Sabbath, and a sacrifice at the beginning of each month. There were sacrifices at the special feasts of Passover, Pentecost, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles. He was to go to the Tabernacle or Temple three times a year.
What did this routine communicate to him? God is at the centre of life. God is the ultimate reality. God is the One we love ultimately, because he is ultimate reality. 1 The repetition of actions, the structured patterns of obedience, the limits and restraints on our actions, the prohibitions and prescriptions shape attitudes and feelings, while these keep reinforcing the value of the disciplines. So it is with New Testament disciplines.
Finally, the disciplines shape and sharpen our sense of discernment and judgement. We have said that part of ordinate affection is loving what God loves and hating what he hates. We can only do this if we judge correctly: if we evaluate all things are see them as God does – lovable or hateful. We must judge rightly, weigh rightly, discern correctly. We are told that this discernment only comes through use:
But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Heb 5:14)
Through obedient participation, judgement is shaped. The disciplines of the Christian life afford the believer the opportunity to develop discernment.