Spiritual Disciplines For the Christian Life (Book Review)

whitney-spiritual-disciplinesWhy would anyone want to discipline himself for spiritual purposes?  Of course, lots of people maintain spiritual habits and diversions because they feel good, or make one feel good about oneself.  But when the feeling of benefit wears off, why would anyone want to discipline himself in spiritual ways?  Donald Whitney, author of Spiritual Disciplines For the Christian Life, provides the Bible’s answer: for godliness (1 Tim 4:7b).  The spiritual disciplines are for the purpose of godliness.  Some will misinterpret what the author (and the Bible) means by godliness.  It is not the cultivating of a “holier than thou” attitude, or even the character of “Jedi master.”  Rather, godliness simply means that a person has grown into a person that reflect the characteristics of God that are appropriate (even necessary) for human flourishing.

The spiritual disciplines that Whitney discusses are Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, serving, stewardship, fasting, silence & solitude, journaling, and learning.  How do these activities shape a person into the mold of God?

Bible intake teaches us who God is, who we are made to be, and how we are to live.  Without a revelation from God, we would yearn for the divine, for the spiritual.  But we would be in the dark, ignorant of God and his ways.  With the Bible, God has given to us a divine and supernatural light.  By his Light do we see light.  By his Light do we see at all.  As the God who is reveals himself to people through the Bible and by teaching us to receive his words faithfully, we learn the other spiritual disciplines that make us more like him.

Prayer is the way we commune with God.  It is the means of a vital relationship with God.

Worship is the way we assign worth to God, valuing him above all things.  It is the means of approaching God, both individually and corporately, both privately and publicly.

Evangelism is the way we tell others about God, directing them to their Creator and Lord.  It is the means of continuing the presence of God’s people after we are gone.

Serving, sometimes labeled “ministry” in Christian-ese, is the way we respond in thankful action to God as he has blessed us.  It is the means of communicating our love for others, but especially and fundamentally God’s love for others.

Stewardship is the way we yield our quantitative resources to God as our Lord.  Our time, talents, and treasure are all gifts from him for which we shall all give an account.  Being a steward is a means of denying our natural selfishness and being faithful in life “tangibles,” recognizing that all we have we will someday give back to God as rightful owner.

Fasting is the way we express the seriousness of our desire for God to hear and act on our prayers.  It is a means to relinquish our comforts to rely wholly on God to bless us with care, protection, guidance, answered prayer, etc.

Silence & Solitude, coupled together, are a way to concentrate on God and his ways.  It is the means of giving God our full attention without the various distractions of life impinging upon time devoted to God alone.

Journaling is the way we tell our story for love of God’s story that he is writing of our life.  It is a means of finding clarification and insight into God’s direction of one’s life, a means of practicing many of the other spiritual disciplines, and a means of “improving” upon the blessings experienced through all the other disciplines.

Learning is the way we get out of ourselves and discover what else God is teaching, both in the world, and in the lives of others.  It is the means of humbling ourselves before God who calls us to pursue him with others, and sharing what we learn of God with others.

Donald Whitney’s book is written explicitly for Christians, or at least for those who want a Christian perspective on spiritual life practices.  He is a pastor-teacher and thus seasons each chapter with many illustrations, stories, and appeals to persevere in the disciplines for the purpose of godliness.  He offers many valuable suggestions for beginners and veterans alike.

One of the things I appreciate about the book is I was encouraged to pursue my relationship with God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  It became apparent that I had been doing many of the activities that encompass the spiritual disciplines.  Like many Christians, I read the Bible, I pray, I attend church services to worship God, I try to serve others in my family, my church, and my community, I try to use my resources for gospel-ends, I occasionally deny myself things I like for prayer and worship, I get time alone to spend undistracted with God, I journal (who figured blogging could be a spiritual activity!), and I read and observe things that push me toward thinking about God.  But also like many Christians, I tend to pursue these activities according to my personal whims.  If I don’t want to read the Bible today for whatever reason, I probably won’t.  If I’m mad, or sad, or fat and glad, I likely won’t be praying.  This is where the value of spiritual disciples lies.

As I’ve focused on considering the classical spiritual disciplines, I’ve noticed a peculiar thing happening in my spiritual life.  My affections have begun to change!  It turns out that practice and mental consideration has led my heart to desire discipline.  I find that God does use the spiritual disciplines to move me toward spiritual hunger, which is the lifeblood of spiritual maturity.  To move from duty to delight makes all the difference in disciplining myself for godliness.

After reading Richard Foster’s famous book Celebration of Discipline, I am more comfortable with Whitney’s treatment of the disciplines.  As an evangelical, he seems more grounded in the Scripture than the mystical-leaning Foster (who is in the Quaker spiritual tradition).

The most useful chapter for me was Whitney’s explanation of fasting.  Most Christians in the western world simply don’t fast.  Ever.  That’s my observation from my limited perspective.  When Christians do fast, it seems for all the wrong reasons.  To manipulate God to bless with health and wealth.  To get healthy.  But the Bible’s reasons for fasting are not manipulative or selfish.  Whitney reminded me that fasting should be done with a biblical purpose, such as:

  • To strengthen prayer
  • To seek God’s guidance
  • To express grief
  • To seek deliverance or protection
  • To express repentance and the return of God
  • To humble oneself before God
  • To express concern for the work of God
  • To minister to the needs of others
  • To overcome temptation and dedicate yourself to God
  • To express love and worship to God

All these are valid reasons to fast.  They are driven just as much by a desire to change our present circumstances before God as a desire to change ourselves before God.   I like what he says about fasting:

Like all the Spiritual Disciplines, fasting hoists the sails of the soul in hopes of experiencing the gracious wind of God’s Spirit.  But fasting also adds a unique dimension to your spiritual life and helps you grown in Christlikeness in ways that are unavailable through any other means.  If this were not so, there would have been no need for Jesus to model and teaching fasting. [pp. 179-180]

I’ve already experienced God’s blessing through my study and fitful starts at pursuing the spiritual disciplines.  If you want to begin anew this same journey toward godliness, spend a few weeks reading Whitney’s book in one hand and the Bible in the other.

Exploring Further

Donald Whitney’s Center for Biblical Spirituality

Review by Tim Challies

Reviews at Goodreads

Donald Whitney’s articles on the Spiritual Disciplines in Tabletalk magazine

Richard Chamberlain’s teaching slides (start here) based on Whitney’s book

Here is the author discussing a related book on diagnosing your spiritual health:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haGG1sEVza4 w=460&h=345]
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