There are spiritual disciplines which will help transform your spiritual life by replacing old destructive habits with new character-building, life-giving ones. If our purpose is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ in this life (Romans 8:29), then these disciplines are vital to spiritual growth and victory. Jesus practiced them and gave us personal examples. Through them he defeated the Enemy.
Today, we face the same Enemy, and the disciplines Jesus used to defeat Satan are still our weapons in spiritual warfare and our tools to live victoriously.
An accomplished ice skater has freedom on the ice because she is disciplined. Being on the ice without the discipline of training only creates chaos and fear for the skater. The key to the accomplished skater’s grace and confidence comes through hours of self-imposed discipline. She defeats her enemies—fear, lack of confidence, and lack of control—with discipline.
As Christians, we can also have grace, strength, and beauty through embracing the spiritual disciplines. Without them spiritual life is often chaotic, even confusing.
The disciplines Jesus practiced and taught us are the vertical disciplines of meditation, solitude, and fasting and the horizontal ones of Bible study, accountability, and confession.
While this is not an exhaustive list, the faithful practice of these disciplines can transform your life and prepare you for a deeper walk with Jesus Christ.
Richard Foster taught us in his classic book on spiritual disciplines, Celebration of Discipline,that disciplines are not the end in themselves. They are the means to the end. The goal of every believer is to fully embody the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).
Disciplines that don’t result in a life defined by the fruit of the Spirit are, at best, “busy work” and will likely have the same fate as the fig tree that bore no fruit (Luke 13:6–9).
Being transformed from a believer to a follower is initiated by the vertical and horizontal disciplines. But, a believer does not truly begin to be a follower until the sacrificial disciplines are put into place. And these are available only when the vertical and horizontal ones are operational and effective in a believer’s life.
The sacrificial disciplines are best described in Luke 9:23: “If anyone will come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The sacrificial disciplines, then, are: deny self, take up your cross, and follow Christ.
It is my prayer that this study will be transforming for you as you follow Jesus.
Vertical disciplines are designed to help us maintain a healthy spiritual life with God. They include meditation, solitude, and fasting.
They do not operate in a vacuum. They are not independent of each other. Meditation often leads to a desire for solitude, which can be the perfect setting for fasting. Fasting is the ideal environment for meditation.
The “whole” of practicing these vertical disciplines is much more than “the sum of the parts.” A synergy emerges which is revelatory and profound.
Meditation (Proverbs 3:5–6)
Meditation is an active discipline, not a passive one. It connects you to the living God and his purpose for you. Eastern religion has held the concept of meditation captive for too long. There is a vast difference between the Eastern concept of meditation and the Christian concept. The Eastern concept generally calls upon the practitioner to empty self and become nothing.
The Christian concept calls those who practice mediation to be filled and transformed.
Meditation keeps you spiritually and emotionally equipped to face the Enemy. When you listen to God’s voice, you can respond in obedience to his word. The world constantly pulls us in multiple directions. Meditation allows a person to focus on what is important.
Busyness is often the most significant obstacle to being transformed from a believer into a follower. Meditation involves changed behavior as a result of consistent, reflective encounters with the living God. You turn from yourself and your own resources to God, seeking his power to become all he has called you to be.
So, how does a Christian meditate?
It’s like learning to ride a bike. You don’t really know how, no matter how much you’ve studied, until you climb on and experience it. Basically, you learn to meditate by meditating.
With meditation, don’t be as concerned with “how” as with “what.”
Find a quiet place and establish a regular time for meditation. Take a particular Scripture and savor every word and nuance of it. Or consider the magnificence of the creation around you and apply the awe and wonder to the One who created it all.
Consider these four methods to guide you in meditating:
- Meditate on Scripture: Don’t rush through a passage, hoping to gain an insight or two. But “ponder in your heart” what God is saying through his word. Study the background. Why were they written, and to whom? Our tendency to rush through quiet time reflects our internal state of busyness, and that is what needs to be changed through meditation.
- Meditate on God’s creation: Be still and know him as Creator. Focus on something that God has created and study it. If God is so intricate with a simple leaf, if he is so mindful of the birds of the air and the grass of the fields (Matthew 6:26–30), how much more so is he concerned with our lives!
- Meditate on a life issue: Our minds are cluttered with fragmented thoughts involving every area of our lives. Meditation centers our thoughts on God. Focus on a problem for which you need God’s help, or on a good thing which has happened to you. Use symbolic gestures to help you. With palms down, lay down your cares. Then with palms up, receive God’s provision.
- Meditate on a significant event: Seek God’s mind about it. View the prophetic truths of God’s word as you reflect on world and community events. Pray for those in power. You have the ear of God—and that’s real power.
Solitude (Mark 1:35–39)
Do you have to have the television or radio on just for the noise, even when studying?
The fear of being alone drives some of us to constant noise. Don’t be misled; solitude does not produce loneliness or emptiness! Loneliness is inner emptiness, but solitude is inner fulfillment.
Jesus found it necessary to be alone with his Father. He needed that time of solitude and focus for leadership and direction in his life.
If Jesus needed the discipline of solitude, how much more do we? How does one achieve solitude, especially in a world so cluttered with noise and activity?
In many ways, solitude is nonstop prayer.
Solitude is not about being alone, it’s about being focused. Ask God to prod you to develop the discipline of solitude. How does one experience solitude?
- Set aside a quiet time. Most people who have quiet times do so in the morning before the day begins. Jesus did this daily. And, if you are to find God’s direction and strength for each day, solitude is a key ingredient.
- Find ways for an extended time of solitude. A worthwhile goal is to work toward spending an hour in solitude at least once a week. Then, you’ll discover that you want to find a way to spend a whole day in solitude, perhaps monthly. Some will take the next step of finding a whole week, perhaps annually, to spend in solitude and communion with the Lord.
- Retreat to advance. As you grow through the discipline of solitude, try to withdraw regularly, perhaps three or four times a year to redefine your life goals. Stay late at your office, or find a quiet place at home to reevaluate your objectives and your progress toward them. Take a retreat once a year with the purpose of solitude—try a silent retreat. “In quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).
- Use the small times. Early morning is a great time to know solitude. Before the family awakens, before the daily grind, the few moments in bed before getting up, or over a morning cup of coffee. Redeem some of the time you cannot control—rush hour traffic on the freeway, waiting in a doctor’s office, waiting for an appointment at work. Instead of wasting those minutes, use the time to focus your mind on God. Small snatches of time like these, which we often fill with fretting, can be used as an inner quiet, a spiritual recharging of sorts, for your mind and body.
Fasting (Matthew 6:16–18)
Throughout the Bible, fasting is mentioned as abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. In most biblical cases, it involved private matters between the individuals and God and was not intended for public display.
Should believers fast today?
Jesus spoke of fasting, as he did praying and giving—he taught all three as a part of Christian devotion. While most of us don’t consider a Christian life without praying or giving, why do many of us exclude fasting? Today, especially in western culture, fasting seems to be the antithesis of a fulfilled Christian life. Most of us are well-fed. Fasting almost seems fanatical.
Why fast? There are both physical and spiritual benefits.
- Fasting reveals what controls us. Often, we cover up the turmoil and pain of daily life with food. But, through fasting, things like greed, pride, resentment, etc. are revealed.
- Fasting also reminds us that we are sustained by “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). When the disciples brought food to Jesus, thinking he was hungry, he said, “I have food to eat of which you do not know. My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:32, 34). Jesus was actually being nourished by the power of God. So, how do you fast?
The Scriptures teach we are to fast regularly, humbly, joyfully and expectantly. Fasting does not earn God’s blessings, but it puts us in position to receive his blessings.
Some simple guidelines for fasting:
- Don’t announce your fast. This is personal and usually private. Announcing it may seem self-promoting and give others the wrong impression of why you are fasting.
- Begin with a partial fast. Because we are not used to fasting as a discipline, it is wise to begin by giving up one or two meals. You may attempt this once a week for several weeks before attempting a normal fast. Use the mealtime you’re giving up to spend time with God and give the money you would have spent on the meal to him as well.
- Move on to a normal fast. In Scriptures, the typical fast was from sunup to sundown. When you practice this kind of fast, drink plenty of water. Whenever you feel hunger, think of God and his sacrificial love for you.
- Seek God’s will for a longer fast. Fasts of three to seven days are the most common in this category. However, some people follow Jesus’ example and fast for forty days. This seems to be the physical limit the body can endure. In the longer fast, you may experience more physical discomforts, including headaches, stomach pains, dizziness and weakness. These will improve with time. Your physical bearings will amaze you, but it is more important to monitor your inner bearings. You will continue your daily routine, but inwardly you will be in prayer and adoration.
- Break your fast with fresh fruits and vegetables and with inner rejoicing. Fasting helps equip us for great battles. It can bring about breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that are not possible in any other way.
- Fasting does not necessarily have to involve food. You could fast from television, the internet/phone or your favorite pastime. It needs to be a meaningful sacrifice, though. While I would enjoy fasting from mowing the lawn, that misses the real meaning of fasting!
The horizontal disciplines
Horizontal disciplines are important not only in our relationship with God, but with others. These vital disciplines include Bible study, accountability, and confession.
As with the horizontal disciplines, these disciplines are not independent of each other. Being transformed by the study of God’s Word creates in us a desire for meaningful relationship of accountability. We need people in our lives who see us the way God does. Accountability is a fertile environment for confessionand experiencing life changing forgiveness. Confession and forgiveness always lead to a deeper hunger for manna: God’s word.
The horizontal disciplines engage us with the faith and with each other.
Bible study (Acts 2:42)
Bible study is the discipline which brings great changes in a believer’s spiritual life. Church attendance doesn’t change us. Serving on committees won’t, either. Singing in the choir or even reading the Bible won’t. But a deep embrace of God’s word will. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). So, how do we “know the truth?”
A good artist studies his subject before drawing or painting it. He knows it, then he can draw with greater freedom. When you study God’s word, you begin to know it. You start to know God and can have greater freedom in the Christian walk. You turn from merely reading the word of God to allowing it to fill and change you.
Jesus said that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). God’s word is the food he has provided for your soul and the catalyst for real change.
There are several steps which will help us develop the discipline of Bible study:
- Repeat the Scriptures. Repetition channels the mind in the right direction. This trains the mind to respond to what is being repeated, to renew itself by conforming to God’s word. “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). It is known that repeated listening to destructive, violent lyrics or dialogue can lead to destructive behavior. Repetition works.
- Concentrate on God’s word. In addition to repeating the truths of God’s word to condition the mind, also concentrate on them. With the twenty-first-century digital age, there are more distractions around us now than ever before. Our culture is full of children who cannot concentrate in classrooms and are medicated to help them focus. As a culture, we are not conditioned to concentrate or to center our minds on a particular subject. Unfortunately, most of us attempt to operate with distractions, often times ineffectively. Condition your mind to focus on God’s word and with singleness of purpose, concentrate on what it says.
- Know and understand what you have read. If you condition your mind through repetition and concentration, then you can more clearly comprehend God’s word. Words on a page, even biblical words, do not set us free. But, the knowledge of the truth frees us. Comprehension involves knowing, understanding, and applying what is being studied. All of us have tried to read while distractions swirl around us. We read a line over and over without comprehending what is being read. That is why conditioning the mind with repetition and concentration is necessary before comprehension and transformation come.
- Put God’s word into his perspective. Reflect, even meditate, on what you have studied. How is it important to your everyday life? By reflecting on God’s word, you see things from God’s perspective. The purpose of Bible study is to change us, not to increase our mind’s database. It not about knowing, it about being transformed.
The discipline of Bible study leads you to experience what you have read. First, one learns what the Scripture says. Next is applying and obeying it. It moves from your head to your heart. Finally, you continue in God’s word, applying it to your lifestyle. His word is the only food God provides for the soul. Nothing else works.
Accountability (James 5:19–20)
As we actively pursue these disciplines in our lives, there is another one which is often overlooked. But it is essential for spiritual success—accountability. Accountability is basic to life.
Banks hold us accountable for our financial transactions. Schools hold students accountable for academic growth and achievement. Employers hold employees accountable for work performances. Coaches hold players accountable. Parents hold children accountable. And God holds us accountable.
Scripture tell us that we are all accountable to God. We will have to give an account of our actions to God (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:12). But we are also to hold each other accountable. In Luke 17:3, Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”
God can save you from heartache and sin if you are yielded to him and his will. But how do we follow the discipline of accountability with each other?
- First, find someone you trust. A spouse, or a good friend, a coworker or a counselor, these are some of the people you may want to consider. But find someone with whom you can share honestly and one who will be unreservedly honest with you. The last thing most of us need is someone else telling us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear.
- Form an accountability relationship. After you find someone to trust, work with that person on a regular basis. Accountability is asking that person to help you accomplish your goals, not that person imposing his standards on you. He is to help you achieve your goals and avoid the pitfalls you disclose to him.
- Allow your partner to restore you. Likely, when you need accountability the most, you desire it the least. You must allow your partner to restore you gently and with humility. His purpose is not to criticize or judge you, but to build you up and help you meet your spiritual goals.
Why do we need accountability?
Our burdens are too great for us to carry alone. God never intended Christianity to be a solo act. We are to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). We need each other.
Confession (Psalm 51)
All the horizontal disciplines relate to how we treat others and how we are perceived by them. These disciplines aim at transforming our minds to conform us into the image of Christ (Romans 8:28–29). In the process, they bring to surface old habits, entrenched sin and bad attitudes which need changing. We are not really transformed until these things change.
So, how does that happen? It’s simple and at the same time monumental: we confess these impurities and acknowledge our need for God’s help.
God is a God of redemption and forgiveness. When Jesus died on the cross, he took upon himself the sin of the world. God “made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This was the only way total redemption was possible. The Bible promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
How do we confess to God our sins? How do we get cleansed?
- Agree with God and call sin what it is: sin. Our conscience has to bother us. Under the gaze of God, examine yourself and deal with definite sins—not generalizations.
- Agonize over your sins. Genuine sorrow, godly sorrow, means hating what we have done so much that we are willing to turn, even run, from the sin. That is repentance.
- Avoid the sin and the circumstances where it appears. You must then have a determination to avoid the confessed sin. You must desire what God desires for you, which never includes sin.
- Accept God’s forgiveness. If you hold onto past sins which you have confessed to God, you will not be empowered by him. The Scripture says he is “faithful and righteousness to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He is faithful. His faithfulness is not contingent on our willingness to receive his forgiveness. He is faithful in spite of us, not because of us. But our transformation is contingent on accepting his forgiveness. You must accept it —incorporate it, believe it—and act on it.
Confession is good for the soul, we’re told. But, more than that, confession requires humility, vulnerability and trust in God to do what he says he will do: forgive!
And if he is faithful and just to forgive us, how ought we to treat each other?
The sacrificial disciplines: Deny self, take up cross, follow Jesus (Luke 9:23)
For a believer to be transformed into a fully devoted follower, the interaction of the disciplines we have examined becomes a powerful cruciform of transformation: the vertical connected to the horizontal.
Meditation coupled with Bible study equips the believer. Solitude teamed with accountability empowers the believer to become more than a conqueror. Confession in the milieu of fasting engages a believer to embody the faith in life-changing transformation. It is at this juncture of the vertical and the horizontal—the cruciform—that the crowning, sacrificial disciplines become available. All that has been discussed to this point is the springboard into the ultimate expression of the faith through disciplines: the Sacrificial Disciplines. They are best summed up in Luke 9:23: “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
The nonbeliever is reborn through the milk of God’s word. The believer is grounded and nurtured through the practice of the disciplines, the meat of God word. But, the ultimate expression of the faith springs from the sacrificial disciplines: the manna of God’s word.
The sacrificial disciplines mean that you are to:
- Deny self (no man can serve two masters): Matthew 6:24. Self-denial bears faithfulness.
- Take up your cross: 2 Corinthians 4:10–11. Sacrifice bears gentleness.
- Follow Jesus: Romans 8:29. At this point, one becomes most like Jesus. Discipleship bears self-control.
The most pointed invitation to surrender in all of Jesus’ words is Luke 9:23: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Spend a moment with each phrase:
“If anyone”—these words apply to every prospective follower of Jesus, no matter our religious background, achievements, or education.
“Come after me” is a call to complete devotion, not just Sunday church attendance. The phrase points to the first-century disciple’s decision to live as his master lived, to follow where his master went, to mimic his life in every way.
“He must” leaves no options, no levels of devotion for different people or roles, no loophole for part-time discipleship.
“Deny himself” means to put ourselves second to Jesus, to make Jesus’ glory and priority more valuable than our agendas or ambitions.
“Take up his cross” means to accept death. A cross was not jewelry in Jesus’ day. Rather, it was the most hideous means of execution ever devised. Go to the electric chair would catch its sense today.
“Daily” is found only in Luke’s account of these monumental words, recalling Paul’s later call to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1).
“And follow me” is the positive side of surrender. It means to go wherever Jesus leads and do whatever Jesus says.
Here’s the reward and warning: if we try to save ourselves for our own ambitions, we lose all that we try to gain. If we lose ourselves in Jesus’ purpose, we gain all that Jesus gives (Luke 9:24).
On the day Jesus returns, he will reward those who have stood for his glory and be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him (9:26). We have only this day to be ready for eternal reward or its loss.
We cannot serve both God and self. We must choose who will be our master, for one always is. And that one will shape our life purpose and mold our soul.
How we use our talents and resources reveal our true values: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Are you serving with your spiritual gifts? What we serve creates our values. How we spend our money and time shows and shapes who we are.
We will live either for the Creator or self. We will define success either by pleasing him or pleasing the world; accumulating reward in heaven or possessions on earth; acclaim in eternity or popularity today. We cannot have both.
But some try, as Jesus makes clear. He calls the eye the “lamp of the body.” He says it must be “good,” translating the word for “single.” If your eye gives your body a single image, you are “full of light”—you can see where you’re going.
But if your eye is “bad,” meaning diseased or unhealthy, it gives your body blurred or double vision. Then you are “full of darkness”—you cannot see where you’re going.
You can only have one life purpose. To live for two is to have spiritual double vision, a blurred soul. It cannot be done.
Jesus is blunt: “No man can serve two masters.” “Serve” translates “slave.” You are owned by one or the other. Either God or Self. You must choose. You cannot serve them both.
Years ago, Billy Graham said, “Our lives should resemble a channel, not a reservoir. A reservoir stores up water. A channel is constantly flowing. God wants us to be a channel of blessing to others. When we are, it is we who receive the greatest blessing of all.”
Benjamin Disraeli: “The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” What is yours? The Creator or his creation? Treasure on earth or in heaven? William Cowper: “The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.”
God gave his best, his only Son, to purchase our eternal life, our soul’s salvation. He finances his kingdom on earth through the faithful sacrifice of his people. And he blesses such sacrifice with an even greater reward.
But we must trust him. We must trust the One who loved us enough to die for us.
We “carry . . . the death of Jesus” continually, always ready to die for him. As a result, Jesus’ life is revealed in us (2 Corinthians 4:10–11).
God’s plan for our lives is that we “be conformed to the image of his Son”(Romans 8:29) “Conform” means to “make with” or “mold.” He wants us to be like Jesus. He wants us to manifest the character of Christ. What does this mean?
- It means that we obey our Father like the One who prayed, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
- It means that we commune with our Father like the One who got up “very early in the morning, while it was still dark” and “went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
- It means that we refuse sin like the One who said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (Matthew 4:10).
- It means that we forgive our enemies like the One who prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
- It means that we serve our friends like the One who washed his disciples’ feet and told us, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).
God wants Jesus to be “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). “Firstborn” in the Jewish culture meant the preeminent one; we are to imitate him as members of his family, showing the world Christ in us.
So, if you were given a “spiritual growth” test, how would you score? Reflect on each discipline below and see where God may want to increase your spiritual health this year.
- Bible study
- Deny self
- Take up your cross
- Follow Jesus
- Refuse sin
These elements build on each other. Conforming to Christ requires that you embrace the sacrificial disciplines. The sacrificial disciplines can’t be operative without the horizontal ones. And none of this is fully effective without the vertical disciplines as the bedrock of your spiritual life.
It’s good to know where you are on this journey.
This year, may you experience better physical health, increased mental health, and deeper spiritual health—for your good and God’s glory.