The spiritual disciplines are essential for spiritual growth. We cannot expect to thrive spiritually if we neglect them.
That much is plain, and all the books on spiritual disciplines will say so. And they will lay out a great many disciplines for us to consider. Donald Whitney’s classic Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Iists ten spiritual disciplines. In addition to obvious ones like the reading and study of Scripture (to which he gives two chapters) and prayer, Whitney lists several more that I might not have thought of as spiritual disciplines:
Fasting (never my favorite)
Silence and solitude (a novel idea in our hyper-connected world)
That list is, frankly, daunting. And I hesitate to recommend it to anyone just starting out in organizing his or her life to begin in the spiritual disciplines. I fear that much of what we say about the disciplines can lead people to take on more than they are ready for, and they are quickly overwhelmed and discouraged, and they give up.
Let me suggest three basic spiritual disciplines that form the core of Christian life. Think of these as the irreducible minimum of the spiritual disciplines, the three legs on a three-legged stool:
If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to envision the spiritual disciplines as things a believer does in private, alone with God. From that point of view, Scripture and prayer obviously have a prime position here. In the study of God’s Word, I hear from God. In prayer, I speak to God. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that prayer has always been difficult for me. I have long known that I would rather study the Bible for an hour than pray for fifteen minutes. Prayer is hard work, at least for me.)
But I have come to realize recently that Bible reading and prayer can work like two legs on a three-legged stool. I have come to realize that service belongs in this discussion as one of the non-negotiable basics of spiritual discipline. It’s all too easy (at least for me) to approach the spiritual disciplines in a way that can easily become self-absorbed, as if the whole point of the disciplines is about me. Service pushes me out toward others. As a matter of fact, if my spiritual disciplines are comprised solely of the things I do alone with God, I am not following the example of Jesus, who came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
What does the spiritual discipline of service look like? It can take on any number of appearances, from cooking a meal for a neighbor in distress to helping out at a church work day to serving as an usher at the Sunday worship service to cleaning out the gutters for an elderly friend to changing diapers in the church nursery. Service does two things that need to be done in our lives: it presses us out toward others, and it creates opportunities for spiritual conversations to emerge naturally with the people we serve. Acts of service aimed at unbelievers can lead to opportunities share the Good News about Jesus with them.
Give some thought to how you might incorporate service as an essential element in your spiritual disciplines. Who are the people God has placed in your life whom you can serve? How can you serve them thoughtfully and creatively?