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The Spiritual Disciplines: Exercise Unto Godliness

Dr Alex Tang, 20 Jan 2014


How we behave, think and live our daily lives depends more on own inner self than on external circumstances. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was very aware of this. In The Republic which may be considered the first text on spiritual formation, Plato emphasized that the training and shaping of personal character is the basis of great leadership and the building of great nations. Character is formed and transformed by the building of good habits.

We are aware that to excel at any skill sets require hours and hours of practice. While intrinsic gifting and talents are necessary, it is the single minded pursuit of excellence through repeated practice that distinguish successful persons from others. Musicians such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, basketball players such as Michael Jordan, footballer such as Pele, and programmers such as Bill Gates achieved their excellence through constant practice. Malcom Gladwell estimated that 10,000 hours of practice is minimum to develop successful skills that makes a difference[i]. Practice develops habits that affects body coordination, muscle memories, and worldview (which is a way of knowing and thinking about reality). This changes is circular in that the changes affects practice which then affects habits. A person’s character is formed by that person’s worldview (Rom.12:2).

Godliness is a Trinitarian worldview. This worldview helps us to perceive a reality that is in communion with the Trinity.  Paul encourages Timothy to develop such a worldview.

 7 Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8 For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Timothy 4:7-8)

Likening godliness-also known as holiness - to physical training, Paul seems to imply there is also spiritual training. This is in connection to what Paul means as to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” and “spiritual worship” in specific spiritual training of our human bodies (Rom.12:1). This spiritual training is what we call the spiritual disciplines or “disciplines for the spiritual life”. The spiritual disciplines are helpful habits that will help us to develop holiness. We must be aware that the habits of spiritual disciplines will only conform us to certain behavioral patterns. These behavioral patterns do not change our characters. Only the Holy Spirit can transform our characters to that of the character of Christ. John Wesley regards the spiritual disciplines as means of grace that enables the Holy Spirit to work on our lives. Richard Foster notes that “[a] Spiritual Discipline is an intentionally directed action by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the ability (or power) to do what we cannot do by direct effort”[ii]. The spiritual disciplines must be understood only as a means to holiness, not an end by itself. Further, we must note that the spiritual disciplines is not works-righteousness. Practicing the spiritual disciplines does not earn us righteousness with God. That righteousness comes from the work of Jesus on the cross. The spiritual disciplines leads us to form habits of holiness. It is exercises unto godliness. This in turn allows the Holy Spirit to transform our character to that of the character of Christ.

Discipleship or following Christ involves practicing the spiritual disciplines. In the preface to The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard writes,


My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing—by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father. What activities did Jesus practice? Such things as solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, intense study and meditation upon God's Word and God's ways, and service to others. Some of these will certainly be even more necessary to us than they were to him, because of our greater or different need. But in a balanced life of such activities, we will be constantly enlivened by "The Kingdom Not of This World"—The Kingdom of Truth as seen in John 18:36-37[iii].


If we study the life of Jesus carefully, we will discover that he practices many spiritual disciplines. And our record is only from snatches of his childhood and his three and a half years of ministry. What about the thirty odd hidden years? To have the character as revealed in the Gospels will mean that Jesus has spent years and years developing it. It is significant that the author of Hebrews notes that Jesus while on earth has to “learned obedience from what he suffered”(Hebrews 5:8). It should therefore not surprising to discover that the early church equates discipleship and spiritual growth with practicing the spiritual disciplines. Jerry Bridges notes that in The Pursuit of Holiness[iv].


The spiritual disciplines in this list should be considered. Please note that this is not a comprehensive list.

1.      Celebration

2.      Chastity

3.      Confession

4.      Fasting

5.      Fellowship

6.      Guidance

7.      Meditation

8.      Prayer

9.      Sacrifice

10.   Secrecy

11.   Service

12.   Simplicity/frugality

13.   Silence and Solitude

14.   Study

15.   Submission

16.   Worship

17.   Journaling

18.   Reflection



Different teachers categorize the spiritual disciplines in different ways. Richard Foster in his now classic Celebration of Discipline divides the spiritual disciplines into three categories: the inward disciplines, the outward disciplines, and the corporate disciplines[v].


The Inward Disciplines

·        Meditation

·        Prayer

·        Fasting

·        Study


The Outward Disciplines

·        Simplicity

·        Solitude

·        Submission

·        Service


The Corporate Disciplines

·        Confession

·        Worship

·        Guidance

·        Celebration



Following my SHALOM model of spiritual formation, the spiritual disciplines may be categorized into the following:


Story telling (Communion with God)

·        Fasting

·        Secrecy

·        Silence and Solitude

·        Journaling

·        Reflection


Heart (Abide in Christ)

·        Prayer

·        Submission

·        Worship


Action (Minister to others)

·        Chastity

·        Guidance

·        Service


Learning (Live in the Word)

·        Study

·        Meditation

·        Writing


Opening to Community (Fellowship)

·        Celebration

·        Confession

·        Fellowship


Missional (Witness to the world)

·        Sacrifice

·        Simplicity/frugality




Bridges, Jerry. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs, CO.: NavPress, 1978.

Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989.

Foster, Richard and Kathyrn A.  Helmers. Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation. New York: HarperOne, 2008.

Gladwell, Malcom. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.

Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1988.



[i] Malcom Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008)., 35-68

[ii] Richard Foster and Kathyrn A.  Helmers, Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation (New York: HarperOne, 2008)., 16

[iii] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1988)., ix-x)

[iv] Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs, CO.: NavPress, 1978).

[v] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989).


 Soli Deo Gloria


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