Some Musings on Spiritual Disciplines

As a biblical thinker, I must admit that I have some problems with what seems to me like a list of practices or disciplines that must be accomplished in order to be an authentic believer. A new kind of “pull yourself up by your spiritual boot straps” or “how to become more like Christ with ten easy disciplines.” This appears to me to be a new set of “boundary markers.” I am not against moving toward Christian maturity by putting into practices certain disciplines. What I think should be the focus is practices that are clearly mandated in Scripture as the priority than other “disciplines” that may be proposed. (There is no agreement on what a list of spiritual disciplines should be). We use the word “spiritual” as an adjective to specify what kind of disciplines one is speaking about. The term “spiritual” is not used in this way in the New Testament. Rather spirituality is defined in terms of the Spirit. A person is spiritual to the degree that he or she lives in and walks by the Spirit within a community of faith. (See Gordon Fee. “To What End Exegesis? Reflections on Exegesis and Spirituality in Philippians 4:10-20.”

I believe that Biblical practices, those that we are admonished in Scripture to follow, will form people in a way of life. Our churches have been lax in providing such instruction for its community because our culture holds a deep-seated belief in the freely choosing, autonomous individual who out of rational self-interest forms his or her own way of life. Spiritual disciplines seem to lean heavenly on individualism in the sense of gaining some “inner” strength that makes the outward person stronger. The conduct of a Christian is not the result of simply an effort to become better. Rather, by incorporation into the Body of Christ, our individual growth takes shape. It seems that God’s intention is that Christian behavior is to be reinforced and upheld by the friendship, company, teaching, counseling, and loving criticism of other Christians (by alleloning). To try to be an individual working on becoming spiritual is not a sign of becoming truly human, but is a sign that the old life of bondage still dominates. Paul has argued in Colossians that the Colossians were free to follow Jesus. Jesus had defeated the principalities and powers to deliver freedom to his people.

Spiritual DisciplinesIn Colossians chapter 3 Paul provides a refreshing program of living for Jesus. The prohibitive list is twofold: the abuse of sex and speech. The new life has no more sexual immorality, no anger or violence. However, there is a catch, trying to stop the old lifestyle without recognizing that the old powers have been defeated only brings failure. Living the “new life” stands squarely and firmly on the work of Jesus in his life. The reality of living between the times is played out in this and other like passages.

Put to Death (3.5-6). Paul’s imagery moved from death and life to putting clothes on and off.

Put to death . . . whatever belongs to your earthly nature. The Greek tense in this command suggests a decisive action, as if Paul said, “Mortify it! Do it now! Do it resolutely!” The list of evil activities flowing from humankind’s earthly nature includes

  • Sexual immorality: Sexual intercourse outside of the marriage relationship (Illustration: 1 Cor. 5.1ff).
  • Impurity: The general word for immoral activity, which shuts a person off from God’s presence. The opposite lifestyle is found at Matthew 5.8
  • Lust (pathos): Uncontrollable passion which leads to sexual excesses
  • Evil Desires: Illicit craving
  • and Greed (or insatiable desire; sexual greed), which is idolatry

Rid Yourselves (3.7-9). Though the Colossian Christians used to walk or live in these evil ways, before they came to know Christ, Paul commanded that they do so no more. Now you must rid yourselves of all such things. The word “rid” (apothesthe) means “to put off” like a suit of clothes. In its ethical use here it means “throw it off like a dirty shirt.” Repulsive habits—anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language–do not fit or suit the community of faith. They are unbecoming to followers of Jesus (cf. Eph. 4.17, 31).

  • Anger (orgen) is a chronic attitude of smoldering hatred
  • Rage (thymon) is an acute outburst. Thymos elsewhere is rendered “outbursts of anger” (2 Cor. 12.20), “fits of rage” (Gal. 5.20), and “rage” (Eph. 4.31).
  • Malice (kakian), the deliberate intention to harm
  • Slander (blaspheian), “railing or evil speaking, defamation of character”
  • Filthy language (aischrologian) is shameful or abrasive speech.

Put on New Humanity (3.12-17). Because of their new lives in Christ all believers are called on to clothe themselves in virtue, letting Christ’s peace rule them. His Word should dwell in them richly, and they should do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. Again Paul called on believers to take a decisive action:

Clothe yourselves (endysasthe). We must remember when we read these passages that the “you” is plural. Paul did not have the individual in mind first and foremost, he had the community in mind. Again, it is fair to say that God’s intent is for us to be formed in his image within a community where our individuality can truely become all it was meant to become. Because they have “put on (endysamenoi) the new self” (v. 10), they should live accordingly, with appropriate attributes and attitudes. Paul listed the abuses of sex and speech and now in contrast to them, Christians—as God’s chosen people (cf. Rom. 8.33; Titus 1.1), holy (“separated to God”; cf. Col. 1.2) and dearly loved (cf. Rom. 5.8; 1 John 4.9-11, 19)—are to have several virtues. These include

  • Compassion (splanchna oiktirmou). Concreate acts of mercy
  • Kindness. Benevolence in action; or generosity
  • Humility, A lowly attitude toward God; cf. Phil. 2.3; 1 Peter 5.5,
  • Gentleness(prauteta). Meekness, a consideration for others and a willingness to waive one’s rights.,
  • and Patience (makrothymian), long suffering which endures wrong and puts up with the exasperating conduct of others rather than flying into a rage or trying to get vengeance.

We don’t want to make spiritual disciplines another religion of this “present evil age” when in reality we live in the “age to come” becoming what God has created us to be as his people (community and individually) for the sake of the world.

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