What are Spiritual Disciplines?

The Scriptures do not mention ‘spiritual disciplines’. The word ‘discipline’ does occur in the Bible, but with a different meaning.

Biblical discipline

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 almost always involve an 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 ‘the spiritual disciplines’. Prayer is included but mystic ‘prayer’ is different from Biblical prayer. A mystic thinks God speaks directly to him when he prays. 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 God’s being, which is the depth of our own being.” He quotes John of the Cross that ‘silence is God’s 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 which 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 one’s 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 God’s comforting presence. It is an experience of calm. This prepares me to hear the text.”

Where in the holy Scriptures, which 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 breathing exercises?

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’ (Colossians 2:20-23).

Roy Davison

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.

Published in The Old Paths Archive