The Three Tracks of the Spiritual Disciplines

Talk to anyone who is active in making disciples, and you may soon find yourself having a conversation about the spiritual disciplines, those holy habits that cultivate the soil of our hearts so that God’s Spirit can create life-transforming fruit. Just as physical disciplines such as adequate rest, good diet, and regular exercise promote physical well-being, so also the spiritual disciplines (most notably: regularly engaging with Scripture and pursuing a life of prayer, service, fellowship, and evangelism) are vital to our spiritual well-being.

But the spiritual disciplines can never be thought of as an end in themselves. If I am engaged in the disciplines for the wrong reasons – to impress my Christian friends, to satisfy the expectations of my own checklist spirituality, or (worse) to earn God’s favor – I have created my own idol, my own impotent means of achieving my own goals. Jesus said that if that is my mindset about the disciplines, I may well get what I hope for – impressing my friends or achieving my goals – but God has no interest in that sort of discipline (Matthew 6:1-6). All my activity is bent in on myself and serves only my interests, not God’s.

No, the spiritual disciplines must always be understood as a means to the greater end: obeying what Jesus called “the first and greatest commandment,” to love God holistically, with all that I have and am, to draw closer to Jesus.

Which means that there are three tracks that we must travel simultaneously if we want to engage in the spiritual disciplines. I have already pointed toward the first two:

1.       The first track is my motive: I am engaged in these disciplines as the necessary means to the one worthwhile end: knowing God.

2.       The second track is the depth of my commitment to the disciplines themselves: I’m going to do this, even though I know it will hard and no one will notice or give me credit for it.

Right, Paul. You’ve just summarized what you started with: my commitment to the spiritual disciplines must be serious and it must be God-focused.

So what’s the third track?

I add this third track because it is distressingly easy to turn a select set of the spiritual disciplines – the ones that I can do on my own (Scripture and prayer) – into a kind of sanctified navel-gazing: dedicating myself to the disciplines and forgetting God’s heart for other people. Jesus called his people to spread out and tell everyone about what he had done, so if I really am pursuing the heart of God, He will give me a heart for people outside my circle, outside the faith.

So the third track?

3.       Cultivating an outward focus on people around me: my neighbors and co-workers who need Jesus, anyone, in fact, who needs my help. If I really am getting to know God better, I will find myself dissatisfied with merely building up an impressive inventory of spiritual insights and holy habits. If I am paying attention, God’s Spirit will prompt me to look for people around me who need what I have to offer: my assistance, my prayers, my counsel, the Good News about Jesus.

It is my dream that PPC would more and more be the kind of fellowship where God’s people are unceasingly occupied with all three tracks: yearning to know God, investing in the spiritual disciplines, and looking outward for people in our lives who need our help.