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The Purpose of the Disciplines

Healthy HabitsAs I grow older old, I’ve noticed that being healthy and fit is not my default state. If left alone, that’s not where I naturally end up. When I look back over my last 15 years, I can see my tendency to slide towards being unhealthy and unfit.

Of course, in my younger days, it certainly seemed like health and fitness was the default. When I was in my 20s, it didn’t seem to matter what I ate or didn’t eat. I didn’t have to go to the gym or really, pay any attention to my health or fitness. It seemed I was just naturally in pretty good shape.

But now, as the years have passed, I increasingly find that that is not the case! I can no longer do all those things that I once did. I can’t eat whatever I want without consequence. When I’m doing physical activity, I get tired quicker. My energy runs out sooner than I’d like. My body complains loudly after I do some of those strenuous activities. 

I used to spend a lot of time at camp and back then I had just as much endurance and energy as any of the kids. Of course, I was never the most athletic guy – I’ve never been super muscular or particularly skills at sports. But I certainly wasn’t out of shape. I loved the wide games at camp. I could run pretty quick, so I loved capture the flag or prisoner’s base or all those running games.

Well, I played floor hockey over at the Innisfail Baptist Church a few weeks ago – and after an hour of running around, (and certainly not at the intensity that I used to) I was pretty exhausted. And the next day, man, I was feeling it! 15 years ago, I could have done that with no problem. But not anymore.

And its not just a matter of getting older though… The guy in charge of the floor hockey was at least 10 years older than me and he was still quicker at the end of the night than most of the young guys! So it’s not simply an issue of age – it’s a matter of health and fitness.

So over this past year in particular, I’ve noticed more and more that being healthy and fit is not my default state. Unless I do something to stop this downward progression, I will increasingly grow less healthy and less fit. My energy levels will continue to drop.  My ability to run or play games with my kids or go for hikes or all those things – I’ll be less and less able to do those things. And that’s certainly a concern for me.

We just helped move my Grandma – who is 94 year old now – into a senior’s home just a few weeks ago. She has certainly slowed down, but for a 94 year old, she done a pretty good job over her lifetime of keeping healthy and fit. I hope when I’m 94 years old, I’m as healthy and fit as she is.

I was out for a walk a couple weeks ago and I stopped to chat with my neighbour who was out edging his lawn. He was mostly done by the time I came by – he had edged up and down the sidewalk in front of his house and had done most of the walkway up to his door. There was quite pile of sod that he had trimmed up – and as we were chatting, he told me that he was cerebrating his 80th birthday that week. Man! I hope when I’m 80 years old, that I’m healthy and fit enough to still do as much work as what he was doing.

But I’ll tell ya, if I don’t intentionally do something to change my natural direction, I won’t be. I’ve got to intentionally work at staying healthy. If I don’t want to be shuffling around with my walker when I’m 60, then I’ve got to start working at being healthy and fit today. If I still want to be able to play and run with my grandkids or my great grandkids when I’m 70, then I need to start working at it now.

And it does take work – that’s for sure. Recently, I’ve been experimenting – trying to find the best way for me to stay healthy and fit. And so there’s two specific things that I’ve been trying. One of them is just trying to eat a little more healthy. I found an app that I like for my phone that tracks what I eat. I find that just seeing how much I eat in a day helps me refrain from over-doing it on snacks and second helpings and such. But it’s hard… There are a lot of good things to eat in this world, so it’s work for me to exercise that self-discipline and make sure I don’t over do it.

The other thing I’ve been trying to do is just to exercise more. As a pastor, much of my day is spent sitting and having coffee with folks or reading and studying or working on my sermon in front of my computer. There’s not a lot of physical activity required. So I’ve had to make a particular effort to be more active in my recreation time. In the summer time, that meant lots of family bike rides or going for a walk around the block. Sometime when I can, I try to walk to the church instead of driving there. But again, it all takes work. It’s much easier to drive across town than to walk – but if I want the benefit of being healthy and fit – especially in my later years, then I’ve got to put the work in today and make the sacrifices today so that I can enjoy that later.

And I tell you all this this morning because I’ve found that my spiritual health and fitness works very much the same way. Just like how everyone wants to be physically fit and healthy, as Christians, I think we also want to be spiritual fit and healthy.

We want to enjoy a close relationship with God. We want to continually make right choices and honour God with how we live our lives. We want to be like those great heroes of the faith that we admire so much. We want to do our part in helping others come to know and love Jesus. We want to experience the full and abundant life that God has promised us.

But unfortunately, spiritual health and fitness isn’t our default state either. As people born with a sinful nature, our natural inclination is away from God – not towards him. And just like how, without intentional effort, we tend to grow physically unhealthy and out of shape, likewise, without intentional effort, we tend to grow spiritually unhealthy and out of shape.

You know, if you did a survey and asked people if they wanted to be healthy and fit, I imagine you’d get 100% of the people saying “Yes, I want to be healthy and fit.” But I wonder how many of those people actually end up doing the work and making the sacrifices necessary to be healthy and fit. Because it is hard to stay healthy. It takes work to be fit.

And the same thing is true spiritually speaking. There are a lot of Christians, who – despite their good intentions and best wishes, end up living weak, unhealthy Christian lives. Their relationship with God typically feels distant and lacking. They struggle to make right choices and to honour God with how they live their lives. They end up being nothing like those great heroes of the faith that they admire. It’s rare that they help others come to know and love Jesus. They simply don’t experience the full and abundant life that God has promised us.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. God has given us the tools and the provided some fantastic examples in his Word of how we can stay spiritually fit. Just like how a healthy diet and exercise and training keeps us physically fit, God has given us a collection of tool or methods for us to stay spiritually fit. This collection of tools or methods for staying spiritually healthy are often referred to as “spiritual disciplines”. They include all kinds of things things like Bible reading and memorization, prayer, fasting, worship, fellowship – and a whole bunch of other things that we’re going to look at over these next several weeks.

And just as it requires a lot of self-discipline to eat healthy or to follow an exercise program or to train for a marathon, it requires a lot of self-discipline to engage in these activities that help us stay spiritually fit. That’s why they are called ‘spiritual disciplines’ – because it takes discipline to regularly engage in these activities. These aren’t things that you might naturally do. It takes deliberate effort. For example, most people don’t naturally or accidentally memorize Scripture – that usually requires some pretty intentional effort.

Of course, like any habits, the more you do them, the easier it becomes.

If you’ve ever started a new exercise program or a new diet, you know that it is super hard at the first, but over time, it gets easier. I remember when I first started working at the Meadowbrook greenhouse just west of town – back shortly after Heather & I were married. My main task for that job was to move trays of plants from one part of the greenhouse to another part of the greenhouse. It wasn’t really hard work per se, but I wasn’t use to all the bending over and the repetitive motions, and so for about the first 2 or 3 weeks at that job, I would come home and just soak in the tub. My muscles were so sore and tired. But I stuck at it, and eventually, I wasn’t that sore at the end of the day. Before too long, those particular muscles had grown stronger and were able to handle the strain.

Engaging in these spiritual disciplines will be like that too. At first it’s going to seem pretty difficult. It’ll be challenging to develop these habits. There will be times when you wonder – why am I doing this? It doesn’t feel like I’m getting stronger. It doesn’t feel like I’m getting anything value out of this. But be patient. Over time it becomes much easier – and you will start experiencing the benefits.

In the first week that you start lifting weights, you’re not going to see any growth. You’re not going to feel any stronger. All you’re going to feel is sore muscles. But as you stick with it, your muscles will grow stronger and over time you will notice a difference.

These spiritual disciplines work the same way. The more these practices become a regular part of our life, the easier it is to do them, and the more we experience the benefits of doing them.

And so for the next several weeks, I want to go through several of these spiritual disciplines – or as I’ve labeled them these “Healthy Habits” that help us stay spiritually fit and healthy.

And my goal is certainly not to give you “17 Things to add to your to-do list in order to be a good Christian”. My goal is to introduce and explain to you several of the tools that God has provided for us so that we can overcome that natural tendency to drift away from God and instead, stay in continuous, close fellowship with Him – and experience the full and abundant life that He has promised.

Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:8…

“Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” 1 Timothy 4:8

And that’s what these spiritual disciplines do. They train us for godliness.

I’m always amazed at these Olympic athletes that are so totally devoted to their sport. The amount of training and practice and sacrifice they make so that they have a shot at winning that gold medal is amazing. I mean, these guys spend between 4-6 hours a day, practicing and training. And that’s just so that they can have a chance at being the best at diving in the water, or to be the fastest at running from here to there or to be the most skilled at sliding down a snow-covered mountain!

And if they have that much dedication in physical training for things that really, aren’t all that important – how much more dedicated should we be in training for godliness – training to be like Jesus! “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.”

You know, we train for a lot of things in this life. We start our training early with potty training. We spend 12 years in school training for the work force. We might take drivers training before we get our license. We might go to college or university for a few more years to take some specialized training for the career of our choice. And then even when we get that job, most of the time we have to continue our training from time to time just to keep up to date. We spend all kinds of time training… But how much time do we invest in training for godliness?

Paul expounds on this metaphor of an athlete in training in 1 Corinthians 9.

25 All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. 26 So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. 27 I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 9:25-27

So here Paul says that he disciplined his body like an athlete – training it to do what it should.

And I find the connection between our physical body and our spiritual well-being very interesting. Paul was disciplining and training his physical body for some spiritual benefit. It seems there is a connection between what we do in our body and what God does in our spirits.

And I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising since God did create us to be both mind and body. Both are part of who we are and it would make sense that what happens to one should have an effect on the other.

And so Paul has determined that He will discipline his body like an athlete – training it to do what it should, so that he is not disqualified from his eternal prize. And John McArthur has some good comments on this passage. He says…

“Most people, including many Christians, are instead slaves to their bodies. Their bodies tell their minds what to do. Their bodies decide when to eat, what to eat, how much to eat, when to sleep and get up, and so on. An athlete cannot allow that. He follows the training rules, not his body. He runs when he would rather be resting, he eats a balanced meal when he would rather have a chocolate sundae, he goes to bed when he would rather stay up, and he gets up early to train when he would rather stay in bed. An athlete leads his body; he does not follow it. It is his slave, not the other way around.” ~ John McArthur

And so when we read that Paul disciplined his body – he was saying that His mind was telling his body what to do – not the other way around. I think we can apply that to all kinds of different aspects of life – but certainly that fits in our discussion of the spiritual disciplines.

If you determine that you want to get up a 1/2 hour earlier in the morning to read your Bible – you’re going to have to make sure that you discipline your body in order to follow through on that. If your body makes the decision, you’ll sleep in every time. You have to train your physical body to do what it should so that you can gain that spiritual benefit.

We’re going to talk about fasting in a few weeks. If you’ve ever gone on a diet or done the 30 hr famine, you know the battle that goes on between the mind and the body. There’s a lot of spiritual benefit in fasting, but if you don’t discipline your body to do what it should, you’ll miss out on all those benefits.

So there is certainly a connection between physically disciplining our bodies – making them do the things that they may not naturally want to do – so that we can remain spiritually healthy and fit.

And on that token, it’s important to note that it’s not all about self-discipline. That’s certainly a part, but spiritual health and well-being doesn’t come simply from our own effort. It not our effort that makes us more like Jesus. That’s the job of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:22 says…

“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23a

We don’t produce that in ourselves. The Holy Spirit does. But He only does that as we submit ourselves to His training. And that’s really what all of these different spiritual disciplines do. They are outward, physical actions that we do, that give opportunity to the Holy Spirit to work in us and to transform us from the inside out.

You could almost think of it like weight lifting. Maybe this isn’t the best illustration, but it helped me wrap my head around this idea.

Simply lifting weights doesn’t actually make us stronger. But what it does, by straining our muscles, it actually creates tiny tears in them. That creates an opportunity for your body then repair those tears, making the muscles stronger than they were before. So you’re not actually getting stronger during your workout – you get stronger as you rest afterwards and your body repairs the damage. It’s kinda cool how that works. So it’s not the exercise per se, that builds your muscles. The exercise creates an opportunity for your body to build your muscles.

That’s kind how these spiritual disciplines work. As we engage in these different activities – these healthy habits, it creates opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

But we have to be careful not to substitute our actions for the work of the Holy Spirit. Simply doing the physical action of these spiritual disciplines doesn’t necessarily mean we’re automatically going to develop these fruits of the spirit. Your motivation and the reason why you’re doing these things play a big part in this.

For example, there are lots of people who read the Bible academically. Atheists can read the Bible without seeing any life transformation. Christians can read the Bible without seeing any life transformation.

I admit that there are times when I’ve read my Bible solely out of habit. I don’t even really pay attention to what I read – I just read it so I can check it off my to-do list for the day. I certainly try not to read it like that, but sometimes that happens. And when it does, I guarantee you that I see absolutely no life change because of my reading that day.

But do you know when I do see life change coming out of my Bible reading? It’s when I go into it wanting God to teach me and to transform me. When my purpose in reading my Bible that day is for God to speak to me, to teach me more about Himself, to show me where I’ve gone astray. When I go into it with that purpose and that motivation – that’s when the Holy Spirit brings about change in my life.

But it doesn’t happen without the actual physical reading of or listening to God’s Word – and it doesn’t happen without the right motivation. You need to have both aspects. And that’s true of all these different spiritual disciplines that we’re going to be talking about over the next several weeks. If you actually want to experience life change, you need to both physically participate in these healthy habits – and you need to do it with the right motivations.

So for those of us who are already participating in some of these spiritual disciplines, perhaps a practical application for us today might be just to examine our motivations.

When we pray – why are we doing that? Is it simply because… that’s what we do each night before bed? Is it so that God gives us the things we want? Or do we pray because we want to know God more? Is it because we want to know his will and to follow his lead? Is it because we want to become more like his Son, Jesus Christ? What’s our real reason for praying?

When we come and worship here together on Sundays – why do we do that? What’s our motivation there? Why do we sing praises to God or give our tithes and offerings or even sit here and listen to a sermon? Is it because that’s what good Christians do? Is it because we want to feel good about ourselves? Or is because we want to experience the full and abundant life that comes from knowing God and being in fellowship with Him? Is it because we want to draw near to God and allow Him to transform our lives? What’s our real motivation here?

You know, if you come to church just so that you can say you came to church – the impact on your life is going to be pretty minimal. (And that’s true for reading your Bible, praying, fasting, tithing, or any other spiritual discipline. If you just do those things to say you did them – the impact on your life is going to be minimal, if any.)

But when you come to church or partake in any of these other spiritual disciplines with the desire to draw nearer to God, to honour Him, and to allow Him to change you life – that’s when God will do some amazing things!

And that’s really the heart of why we do these things. It’s not about religious ritual. It’s not about earning God’s favour. It’s not about pious acts of self-righteousness. It’s about drawing near to God.

It’s like how Jesus said in John 15. He said…

4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5

Our whole goal in all this is to remain in Jesus. To stay connected to Him. He is our source of life and joy and hope and peace. Abiding in him is what keeps us spiritual fit and healthy. Apart from Him – we can do nothing. We produce no fruit.

And so these spiritual disciplines are primarily how we do that. It is these practices that keep us close to and connected with our Heaven Father.

If we want to enjoy a close relationship with God, if we want to continually make right choices and honour God with how we live our lives, if we want to be like those great heroes of the faith that we admire so much, if we want to do our part in helping others come to know and love Jesus, if we want to experience the full and abundant life that God has promised us – then we need to physically train ourselves for godliness through these spiritual disciplines with the motivation and purpose of knowing and becoming more like our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

And I did touch on this briefly before, but I want to re-emphasis that doing these things has nothing to do with our salvation. We don’t earn salvation by practicing these things. We don’t gain additional favour with God because we do these things. God doesn’t love us any more when we do – nor does He love us any less when we don’t. The Bible is very clear that there is nothing we can do or not do to change how God loves us. He just loves us regardless!

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

Christianity is not about what we do – it’s about what Christ has done. That’s what makes Christianity different from all other religions. Other religions tell you what you must do to be saved. Christianity tells you what Jesus did so that you can be saved. All this other stuff that we’re talking about is the gravy!

It’s what we do out of love in response to what God has already done. These spiritual disciplines don’t change how God sees you – but they certainly change how you see God.

So I’m super excited to begin this series. I think God’s going to do some cool stuff as we seek to abide in Him and draw close to him through these different spiritual disciplines.

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