Reflections and Blog

Useless Spiritual Discipline

I will never forget a certain question someone asked me during a session of biblical counseling. I was trying to help a young man grow in his spiritual walk with Christ, and he asked me one time, “How many hours of Bible reading do I need a day to overcome this sin?” He was asking a serious question, and, in a certain respect, I was encouraged by his tangible willingness to pursue godliness. But his question also revealed a serious misunderstanding: that godliness can be reduced to a mere formula of time plus religious effort. If such were the case, then many non-Christians would be the godliest people around!

If you think about it, some of the seemingly greatest examples of “spiritual discipline” come from false religions and cults. Some of the most devoted “prayer warriors” I’ve heard about are Catholic nuns and monks who will pray for hours each day and even wake themselves up in the middle of the night just to pray more. Or when it comes to evangelism, many Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons put Christians to shame in purposefulness, boldness, and regularity of proselyte-seeking conversations. Even many Buddhist monks and nuns are well-known for lives of self-denial and the giving up of worldly pleasures. But should any of these serve as our example of “disciplining oneself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim 4:7b)? By no means, for these do not actually fulfill what 1 Timothy 4:7-8 commands. These persons do not follow God’s word but only man’s mere myths and traditions. Furthermore, the aim of their discipline is not the godliness/fear of the Lord that revels in the abundant life of Christ (1 Tim 4:8, 10). Rather, their discipline is a self-righteous effort to earn salvation and enjoy some idol that is not the true God.

With the sermon we heard on Sunday, we must be careful not to interpret the call to spiritual discipline as a call to the mere form of spiritual discipline: otherwise we are no different from the monks and nuns of the world or even the Pharisees and false teachers of the NT (Mt 5:20; 23:13-36; 2 Tim 3:5). It is, for example, quite possible to go through the motions of Bible study, prayer, church fellowship, and evangelism—even spending many hours in these activities—without gaining any true or lasting benefit from them. To avoid this tragic outcome of wastefulness, we must remember that our efforts at spiritual discipline must be according to God’s Word and have God himself as the goal. As pastor and author Heath Lambert notes in one of his books, our disciplined efforts at sanctification must be motivated by the grace of Christ: what we have received, do receive, and will receive in Him. And the greatest gift of grace we enjoy is Jesus himself.

Therefore, let us indeed pursue godliness through discipline that we may know more of Christ and his abundant life!

Philippians 3:7-8, But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.

Questions to Consider:
1. It is possible to pursue disciplines like Bible reading and prayer without growing in godliness. However, is it possible to grow in godliness without spiritual disciplines such as these?
2. Do you feel like you get no benefit out of spiritual disciplines? How might you adjust your approach?
3. What is your ultimate motivation for spiritual discipline?