Christianity 101: Personal Disciplines

[This is actually a bonus lesson! I didn’t teach this lesson at Crossroads because I was at my Grandma’s memorial. The incomparable Pastor Ashley Jennings filled in for me. These are the notes I would have taught from. Enjoy!]

Last week, we talked about holiness.God is a God of holy love, and He wants us to lead lives that please Him. That starts with our confession of Christ: accepting Him as our Lord and Savior. Then, the Holy Spirit indwells us, lives within us and changes us from inside out. He helps us to let Jesus truly be the Lord of our lives.

To be honest, it takes us the rest of our lives to work out, and we’re not even really done until we die. And as we discussed, that’s okay. God expects us to keep moving forward, though. We’re expected not to just stop growing. We should be secure in where we are with God, but not satisfied enough to just get comfortable and quit striving. Does that make sense?

To that end, God has given us tools to cultivate our own personal holiness. He wants us to engage Him, to cooperate with the changes He’s making in us. Let’s talk about some of those tools. I’ll also refer to them as disciplines.

This lesson, by the way, was heavily informed by Richard Foster’s wonderful book, Celebration of Discipline. I highly recommend it.

There are two disciplines that are absolutely vital, so much so that you could probably name them off the top of your head: prayer and Bible reading. We emphasize them so much at Crossroads because of the power they have.

Let’s talk about prayer. You can’t have a holy life without it. That may sound like an audacious statement, but consider this: Jesus prayed constantly. Think about that. Jesus of Nazareth was God, but He prayed to the Father. He set an example for us, which He meant for us to follow.

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

-Matthew 6:5-8

What phrase occurred three times in that passage? That’s right: “when you pray.” It’s an expectation. It’s an assumption.

And it’s not just that Jesus expects it of us — it’s incredibly powerful. You can look around at this church and see the proof of that. Jesus says some crazy stuff about prayer:

And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

-John 14:13-14

That’s so crazy, Jesus said it twice in one verse. He said that if we ask for anything that glorifies God and is truly in His name, He’ll do it. Of course, He gets the final say, but that still gives us immense power. We underestimate what God has given us in prayer.

But even more important than that, prayer invites a personal connection with God. It’s our means of speaking directly to Him. And there’s something else we often miss: it’s a really important way that we hear from Him. Prayer should involve speaking and listening. It should be two-way communication, ideally.

Before we talk about Bible reading, I want to mention some other disciplines that can greatly enhance our prayer and reading times: meditation, solitude, and silence. Meditation simply means focusing on what God has said and mulling it over, thinking about it for a bit to the exclusion of other things. Solitude and silence are just what they sound like: getting away by yourself for a bit, and just being quiet. We call them disciplines because we find them so very hard to do these days.

Prayer, Bible reading, meditation, and solitude go very well together. All to often, we rush through our devotions. We take whatever scrap of time we have free and get through them quickly. Instead, get away from the noise of life, all by yourself, and let what God has told you just run through your mind. Take some time. Let it soak in. I know it’s hard, but it’s worth it. Sometimes, it doesn’t even take that long: it’s more a matter of willingness, of openness to God. If take even a moment to orient ourselves on Him, our devotions will be so much richer.

That’s especially true of Bible reading.

Now, Bible reading is essential because, as we said in the first lesson, it’s the clearest way that God communicates with us. It’s the standard for our worldview. It has a record of exactly what He said, some of which is directed right at us, personally. As Paul says, it’s good for instruction: it’s good to live by.

If we pray and we think we get a message from God, we have to check it against what the Bible says first. Whenever our feelings and senses and even thoughts lead us astray, the Bible will check us. Thus, it’s crucial that we read our Bibles daily, and give God that avenue to communicate with us.

Now, let’s talk about a couple types of Bible reading: devotional reading and study. Devotional reading is when you read the Bible specifically to hear from God, to find applications for your life. Study, on the other hand, is to gain a deeper understanding of what specifically the Bible is saying. Devotional reading tends to focus on personal messages from God; study focuses on the original intent of the authors and the facts at hand. The former is more subjective; the latter is more objective. They can definitely overlap, but both are important. Both are very valuable.

Let’s take an example. In your study time, you look into the passage where Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son. You get the point when you read it the first time: we should love people self-sacrificially, and go out of our way to help people. But as you read about the history of the time, you find out something deeper. Jews hated Samaritans. And the priest and the Levite were religious figures among Jews. And Jesus was speaking to a crowd of Pharisees, who were also religious figures. So as Jesus told the parable, the Pharisees expected the last person to be a Pharisee! But instead, it was someone they hated: someone they wouldn’t have treated as their neighbor. Jesus smacked them in the face with their own hypocrisy by making the hero a Samaritan. That’s what’s great about study: finding the nuances of what the Bible is telling us, and digging riches out of difficult passages. If you want to study the Bible more deeply, I’d be glad to recommend some resources for you. For example, do yourself a favor and check out blueletterbible.org.

Say that you’re reading through the Bible and you read the passage where Jesus says that if you serve “the least of these,” it’s like you’re serving Him. As you read the words, something strikes you. The other day, you were coming out of the grocery store and a homeless woman asked for some change. You were about to keep walking, but you decided to give her some of your food instead. And as you read Jesus’ words, you can almost hear Him say, “Well done. That’s what I was talking about.” And you’re encouraged, and you resolve to keep being generous with what you have because now you know better than ever that it pleases God. That’s the beauty of devotional reading. It doesn’t take a commentary, or even a lot of time, necessarily. It just takes an open heart.

Prayer and Bible reading are the two most important disciplines, but there are many others that we can use to draw near to God. Fasting, for example, is a means to show our devotion to and dependence on God. As a neat side effect, it can also sharpen our focus in prayer. There’s spiritual power in it. There’s the discipline of simplicity, where we steadily remove distractions from our lives so we can hear and serve God better. It’s amazing how normal, healthy things can become distractions from God when they pile up.

But all these disciplines are for a single purpose. Through them, we should be devoting more and more of our lives to God. We should be hearing from Him in the Bible and in prayer, and implementing what He says. That’s true holiness: to live under the guidance of the Holy Spirit at all times.

And it’s not just a matter of personal devotion, either. In order to live as God would have us live, we need to come together. Tomorrow, we’ll finish our series as we talk about the church, and what God intended it to be.

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About Brian Armitage

Struggling to live like Jesus, celebrating mild successes.

Posted on April 3, 2012, in Christianity, God, Holiness, The Bible and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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