Many devotional writers through the centuries have not only emphasised the disciplines variously considered, but discipline itself: the importance of subduing the flesh, mortifying the body’s inclinations, or redeeming the time. Certainly, no one makes spiritual progress unless the body is brought into submission (1 Cor 9:27), temperance is exercised, our time carefully measured and used and the soul trained in godliness. Unless we are careful stewards of our time, sleep and physical and emotional states, communion with God will usually be crowded out. None of the nurturing structures we will consider will have any value unless the chaotic and the formless in our natures are ordered and subdued.
Yet, we often fall into opposite ditches on this matter of discipline. The one ditch tells us that all discipline that does not come from a throbbing heart of desire is dead formalism, and heartless duty-bound law-keeping. Adherents of this view are frequently non-starters, waiting for desires to ignite in the green wood of their immature souls.
The other ditch tells us that bodily discipline is a sweetness of its own, and if we would only ignore our wayward desires, embrace our obligations and commit to rigid discipline, we’d enter into a new state of disciplined bliss. Devotees of this way end up either veering over into the other ditch in sheer rebellious frustration, or developing a thick layer of pride, as their will-worship forbids worship of the true kind (Col 2:23).
Instead of this approach, we must recognise that some spiritual sweat will be needed, but sweat is not its own reward. Instead, our desire for communion, combined with our awareness that much in us is still disorderly and warring against that desire will lead us to combine self-denial and seeking. Ask any disciplined man his secret, and he will tell you that necessity and desire married to produce the child of discipline.
The Holy Spirit works in us to will and to do, but it seems his work of both motivating and enabling is deeply related to our earnest efforts to desire and do his will (Col 1:29). Instead of trying to find the starting point of the circle, let us simply remember that what Spirit-prompted flames of desire are present need to be fanned into flame by disciplined, dependent obedience.The organic life of abiding in the vine also needs a trellis to grow on, and disciplines provide such a trellis.
What sort of structures should we build to provide opportunity to commune, and teach us how to commune? What disciplines will saturate our lives with the truth of God’s communing presence, shape our hearts, and develop sound judgement? Scriptural commands and examples, combined with the habits and counsel of Christians through the ages would suggest three categories of structures, which will form the remainder of this series.
1) Private worship. The experience of believers from man’s beginning to the present moment is that believers need to meet God alone. A Christian is regenerated as an individual, and must repent of his own sins and embrace Christ as his own Saviour. Consequently, we need to appear before God as individuals, knowing him in the Word, relating our individual experience to God’s Word, and his particular works in our lives. Private worship does not refer to what many imagine when they think of emotional therapy, not far from New Age ideas of ‘centring oneself’ or personal meditation for relaxation, motivation, or comfort. By contrast, private worship is the time-honoured habit of coming apart from all others, to seek God’s face in the Word and prayer, to praise, adore, sing, confess, and intercede. Disciplines such as meditation, prayer, solitude, writing, and the various physical and time disciplines that go with these are the warp and woof of private worship.
2) Public worship. Communion with God is not primarily a solitary experience. The little tributaries of the private worship of individuals ought to flow into the coursing river of public worship. As God’s people gather for worship, the opportunities to seek God are never better. Here God’s people make an approach to God as a group, and experience music, prayer, and Scripture in ways not possible in private worship. In fellowship, God’s people partake of Christ as they partake of one another. In discipleship and mutual edification, by ‘truthing’ one another in love, all grow into the image of the One we seek to behold and love. The private worship of a Christian will seldom rise above the level of the public worship in which he participates, for it shapes, chastens, and directs private forms of devotion. In light of that, the Christian who desires the posture of seeking God will flesh that out among a local assembly of believers. The disciplines of corporate worship, service, discipling others, obeying the ‘one another’ commands, giving, and submitting will be among the rhythms, routines, and repeated habits that will train us to love God in the body of Christ.
A second meaning of public worship is more general. The ‘public’ understood as human society, includes all the social relations we will encounter: family – our spouses, children, parents, siblings, near and extended relatives, fellow-believers in varying degrees of fellowship, neighbours in the form of colleagues, workers, customers, fellow-commuters, townsfolk, or any other close or distant relationship, and even enemies. Each of these is a possible form of communion with God, or a possible form of idolatry and sin. We either love people for God’s sake, or we love them as ends (or hate them for self’s sake). Though we cannot discipline every aspect of our social intercourse, a disciplined approach to how we think of others will enable us to love them for God’s sake. Disciplines such as loving out of obedience, considering how others reflect the image of God, learning to love for God’s sake will be the structures that will enable Spirit-empowered love to flourish.
3) Perpetual worship. As much as we treasure our times of private and public worship, they will hardly occupy the majority of our moments. Our lives will ever be dominated by the cycles of eating, studying, working, travelling, cleaning, buying, teaching, and resting. Seeking God does not cease when we rise up from our knees or exit the place where we meet to worship with his church. Instead, we are to learn the habits of doing the ordinary for God’s sake, of developing an eye for God’s works, of learning to depend, and serve and delight in God during work and leisure. We are to learn to love God by loving creation for his sake. The disciplines of contemplation, consecration, and sound judgement will help shape our hearts to love God through what he has made.