What are Spiritual Disciplines?
Spiritual Disciplines are one aspect of what is referred to as Contemplative Spirituality, a form of mysticsm that has moved from the Quakers to other religious groups in recent years.
The Scriptures do not mention spiritual disciplines. The word discipline does occur in
the Bible, but with a different meaning.
Discipline is chastisement to discourage improper behavior. Parents discipline their children and God
disciplines His children: He who spares his rod hates his son, but he
who loves him disciplines him promptly (Proverbs 13:24); You should know in your
heart that as a man chastens his son, so the LORD your God
chastens you (Deuteronomy 8:5); For whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges
every son whom He receives (Hebrews 12:6; see verses 5-11); As many as
I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19).
One can discipline himself: When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting,
that became my reproach (Psalm 69:10); But I discipline my body and bring
it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should
become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:27).
A religious standard of conduct
The word discipline in the expression spiritual disciplines refers to a religious standard
of conduct. This usage originates, not from the Bible, but from eastern religions
and Roman Catholic mysticism.
The Buddhist Vinaya can be translated as the Buddhist Discipline. A Buddhist monk
must observe 227 training rules. A regular Buddhist has five rules.
Hindu and Catholic monasteries also have their disciplines consisting of training rules, prohibitions,
allowances and regulations that govern daily conduct.
In this sense, a discipline is a regimentation involving a technique or
methodology intended to accomplish greater spirituality and closeness to God.
Mysticism involves spiritual exercises that supposedly bring one closer to God in a
direct personal better felt than told way.
Disciplines often involve a hierarchy. One has a spiritual director
or spiritual mentor who is supposedly more advanced and closer to God
who helps one with his Spiritual Formation. This violates the command of Christ:
But you, do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and
you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.
And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ (Matthew 23:8-10).
No one but Jesus is qualified to be our spiritual director or spiritual mentor. Anyone who sets himself
up as such is a usurper.
Disciplines are usually elitist. Those who practice the disciplines consider themselves more
spiritual and closer to God than others who do not practice them.
Disciplines are attractive to many people because they promise increased spirituality and communion with God.
By studying and applying the Scriptures we can accomplish these worthy goals. We can exercise ourselves toward godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). We can grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).
Disciplines, however, promise increased spirituality by means of humanly devised practices. Disciplines usually make reference to certain portions of Scripture, sometimes validly but often accompanied by misinterpretation. In substance, however, they are human formulations.
What did Jesus say about
this approach to religion? Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: These
people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their
lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship
Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men (Matthew 15:7-9).
Disciplines have an appearance of wisdom but are worthless
In the first century some who were vainly puffed up by their fleshly
mind (Colossians 2:18) were trying to impose their rules and regulations on Christians.
Paul responded: Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of
the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves
to regulations - Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle, which
all concern things which perish with the using - according to the commandments
and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in
self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no
value against the indulgence of the flesh (Colossians 2:20-23).
What is the source of these ideas?
In the Catholic church, each order has its own discipline. You can take your pick: Augustinians (several different kinds), Carmelites (two kinds: with bare feet in sandals or with shoes and socks), Franciscans (several different kinds), Dominicans, Carthusians, Hieronymites, Cistercians, Trappists (the strictest branch of the Cistercians), Baladites, Benedictines, Basilians.
Non-Catholics in general
have claimed that the whole Bible is their rule of conduct not a
set of man-made rules of devotion.
Certain groups, however, such as the Quakers are mystic religions
with man-made rules and regulations (The Discipline of the Society of Friends)
intended to increase morality and communion with God. Quakers have periods of silence
in their assemblies when they wait for The Inward Teacher to speak to them.
They call this expectant waiting.
When someone gets a message they (men or women) stand up and pass
the message on to the others. This message is viewed as coming from God.
The concept of the Spiritual Disciplines was promoted by the Quaker, Richard J.
Foster in his 1978 book, Celebration of Discipline, the Path to Spiritual Growth.
He praised Medieval Catholic mystics who, according to him, had a closeness to
God that we cannot attain unless we use similar techniques. Since the Spiritual
Disciplines do not come from the Bible, each proponent has his own list.
Foster sub-divided them into inward, outward and corporate. Dallas Willard sub-divides his list
into Disciplines of Abstinence and Disciplines of Engagement.
Another influential writer is Donald Whitney with his book
Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991).
Existential mysticism is advocated by some:
develop your own set of practices that work for you.
Each writer has his own list of spiritual disciplines. Prayer is included
but contemplative or mystic prayer is different from Biblical prayer. A mystic thinks God speaks
directly to him when he prays (see separate section below: What is contemplative
prayer?). Other disciplines such as simplicity, solitude and silence
are borrowed from Catholic mystics such as the Trappist Cistercians.
Each of these items is mentioned in Scripture in distinctive contexts,
but they are never presented as spiritual disciplines.
For the mystic, silence is not just silence. Tilden Edwards, founder of the
Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation writes: In its fullness silence itself is
participation in Gods being, which is the depth of our own being. He quotes John of the Cross
that silence is Gods first language, and Mother Teresa
that silence is God speaking to us, and Meister Eckhart
that there is nothing so like God as silence. He concludes:
Silence thus is living, pregnant, sacred space. Contemplative Possibilities
in Corporate Worship/Liturgy by Tilden Edwards.
Contemplative Spirituality has been promoted in various forms among churches of Christ.
Lipscomb University has an Institute for Christian Spirituality with a
Spiritual Direction program led by Associate Director Jackie L. Halstead. Their brochure states:
She holds certificates from two programs with the Shalem Institute - Spiritual Guidance
and Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats, and is a member of the
Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani Abbey.
The web site of the latter states: The Abbey of Gethsemani follows Christ
under a rule and an abbot. We Trappist monks lead lives of prayer,
work, and sacred reading, steeped in the heart and mystery of the Church.
The Abbey is a monastery in the Order of the Cistercians of the
Strict Observance (OCSO), part of the body of the Roman Catholic Church. Notice
that they follow Christ under a rule and an abbot. Their rule is
the Rule of Benedict which consists of 73 chapters.
Jackie is a member of the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani Abbey. This is
what their web site says about membership: We welcome any Christian adult who
feels called to live a lay contemplative lifestyle in the spirit of the
Rule of St. Benedict and the Cistercian tradition.
The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation states the following about their mission: We
trust that God is immediately present, and lovingly, liberatingly active and responsive in
our lives. This Presence is always available to guide us toward being our
deepest, truest selves in God.
Mr. William C. Dietrich, who was Executive Director and Senior Faculty Member of the
Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation for many years, is a Quaker
who is also a council officer (the treasurer) of the Silver Spring Zendo One Heart Sangha,
a Buddhist congregation.
The difference between mystic prayer and Biblical prayer
Not only is the whole idea of having humanly devised rules
and practices condemned by the Bible, but mystic prayer expects direct guidance
from God at the time of prayer. Did you notice this in the
quotation from the Shalem Institute? God is immediately present ... This Presence is
always available to guide us toward being our deepest, truest selves in God.
Jesus taught His followers how to pray (Luke 11:1-4). Paul wrote: Be anxious
for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your
requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6).
Mystic prayer includes being silent and listening for what God wants to whisper
to you. Another designation for listening prayer is contemplative prayer.
Often, people are
encouraged to have a notepad with them when they pray to write down
anything God might tell them. This is called journaling.
Stacey S. Padrick in The Listening Side of Prayer says there are two
techniques for listening to God. One is through His word. The other is
by journaling. He suggests that we write out questions for God, meditate in
silence, and then write down the responses that come in answer to the
questions. He suggests that we should then discuss these replies with other believers
to discern whether they are really from God!
Such a ridiculous idea is not found in the Scriptures. We make our
requests known to God in prayer. He speaks to us through the holy
Scriptures that equip the man of God for every good work. We do read about people
who walk according to the dictates of their own hearts (Jeremiah 9:14)
and prophets who speak a vision of their own hearts
(Jeremiah 23:16, 26; Ezekiel 13:2, 17).
We must observe the warning and statement of Paul: But evil men and
impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must
continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing
from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known
the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through
faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of
God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in
righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every
good work (2 Timothy 2:13-17).
Beware of mystic Bible study
In connection with Contemplative Spirituality a subjective approach to Bible study is often advocated. After reading a passage, the mystic waits and opens his heart' to hear what God wants to tell him about that passage. This is promoted as being God-centered Bible study but it is actually man centered. Certainly it is good to consider what a passage means and how it ought to be applied in ones life. But God speaks in and through the Scriptures, not separately afterwards! If it is not in the Scriptures, it is not from God. If you long for something more than the Scriptures, you are opening up your heart, not to God, but to your own imaginations and even to satanic influences.
This approach is called Transformative Bible Study. This is how
Rhonda Lowry (wife of the president of Lipscomb University) says she prepares
for such study, as reported by John Mark Hicks in his blog of July 8, 2008:
Before we can read Scripture transformatively, we must settle ourselves. We must rid ourselves of the busy-ness of life, focus on the task at hand, and seek God.
I seek this with some meditative breathing exercises and prayer. To encounter God in the present, we need to be in the present (rather than letting our mind wander back to the past or planning the future). I find the easiest way to do this for me is to pray the Jesus prayer with rhythmic breathing. As I inhale I address Jesus with these words Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, and as I exhale I pray have mercy on me, a sinner. I do this repeatedly until calm enters my soul, everything else is excluded from my consciousness, and I sense some focus on Gods comforting presence. It is an experience of calm. This prepares me to hear the text.
Where in the holy Scriptures that equip the man of God completely for every good work
(2 Timothy 3:17), are we instructed to prepare for prayer or Bible study by means of
Mysticism downplays doctrine
Jesus said: If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 3:31, 32). John warned: Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son (2 John 9).
A mystic tends to consider doctrinal soundness unimportant because he thinks he can commune directly with God in silence without words.
Mystics of widely differing doctrinal backgrounds (even including heathen mystics) often feel a closer bond with one another than they feel with non-mystics in their own fellowship.
Referring to the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, which is composed of mystics from many different religious denominations, Jackie Halstead wrote in her blog on October 16, 2010: Next leg was five days at the Shalem gathering in Maryland. How do I describe this community of believers? My faith community, soul friends, people of my heart.
Mysticism gives false hope. Many of the people at Shalem have never been born again according to the teaching of Christ. Yet, they all think they have close communion with God! They also think they are more spiritual than others who have been born again of water and the Spirit (John 3:5) but who do not espouse contemplative spirituality.
The Mystic Theologian Adolphe Tanquerey writes that mental prayer is the most effective means of assuring one's salvation (The Spiritual Life, A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology, #673).
Ritualism and mysticism enable people to feel close to God when their hearts are far from Him: These people draw near to me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men (Isaiah 29:13).
Spiritual disciplines are unspiritual
The Holy Spirit commands us through Peter: If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of
God (1 Peter 4:11). Since Spiritual Disciplines are not in the Scriptures,
they are not beneficial for spiritual growth. God condemns subjection to human disciplines
and designates them as unspiritual, basic principles of the world
What is contemplative prayer?
One aspect of Contemplative Spirituality is Contemplative Prayer.
In the holy Scriptures much is said about prayer and many examples are
given. The expression contemplative prayer is not found in
The word contemplate has a general meaning of to think seriously and we
certainly should think seriously as we pray: Be serious and watchful in your
prayers (1 Peter 4:7).
But that is not what is meant. Contemplative Prayer involves mystic exercises that
supposedly put one in esoteric communion with God.
Actually, it is not contemplative because the first step is to empty your
mind of all thoughts! Various techniques are used by different proponents to accomplish
this, such as breathing exercises, relaxing the body, and repeating a word like
Jesus over and over.
This is an insult to Jesus, since He said: And when you pray,
do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do (Matthew 6:7). Contemplative prayer
is similar to Hindu and Buddhist practices.
Nor is it prayer in the Biblical sense because it is a silent
state of mind without words or thoughts. The mystic thinks God can only
give him a message or make His presence felt if his mind is
empty! Paul said: I will pray with the spirit, and I will also
pray with the understanding (1 Corinthians 14:15).
Thus contemplative prayer is neither contemplative nor is it prayer. A more accurate
designation would be mindless non-meditation.
According to Jesus, empty is not good. When an unclean spirit goes out
of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none.
Then he says, I will return to my house from which I came.
And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.
Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than
himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that
man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this
wicked generation (Matthew 12:43-45).
Do you want to learn how to pray? Listen to Jesus!
Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place,
when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, Lord, teach
us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. So He said to
them, When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in
heaven. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our
sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do
not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (Luke
Biblical prayer is with words: When you pray, say... (Luke 11:2); Hezekiah turned
his face toward the wall, and prayed to the LORD, saying... (2 Kings
20:2); But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, May the good LORD provide atonement
for everyone (2 Chronicles 30:18); I prayed to the LORD, saying... (Jeremiah 32:16);
He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying...
(Matthew 26:39, 42, 44).
Our words are inadequate. The solution, however, is not to get rid of
the words, but to trust in Gods promise that the Spirit will help
us! Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not
know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself
makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered (Romans 8:26).
God listens to our prayers (1 Kings 8:28; Jeremiah 29:12). What does He
hear if our minds are blank? Hear my prayer, O God; Give ear
to the words of my mouth (Psalm 54:2).
The Scripture quotations in this article are from The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982, Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers. Permission for reference use has been granted.