Spiritual Disciplines: The Backbone of Freedom

I wrote the following article a year ago for Seven Magazine (published by Promise Keepers). Given the season of Lent that we find ourselves in, I thought it would be fitting to share this article on “the spiritual disciplines” with those who may not have read the original publication.

Spiritual Disciplines: The Backbone of Freedom


The spiritual disciplines are not magic.
They are certainly no guarantee of life unsullied by suffering, error, or outright failure. This I know from experience.

Neither are the disciplines a strategy to obtain brownie points from a stern God whose only joy is to suck the life out of everything that is fun to do.

I suspect that the spiritual disciplines, in themselves, have little value. But they are, I think, related to Paul’s confidence that, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). And though we don’t normally assume a corollary between discipline and freedom, I hope to make the case that the two could hardly be more closely related. And to better understand my meaning, we only have to take this out of the realm of the spiritual and look for a similitude in the physical.

I love Dallas Willard’s pithy paraphrase of 1Timothy 4:7 “Don’t try— train.”

We all know that if we would like our bodies to do something, or perform something in a manner that doesn’t come naturally, that a wisely mentored and disciplined habit of practice can often get us there. No one has ever run a four minute mile simply because he wanted to. It has never happened. Not once. But one doesn’t accomplish this remarkable feat by a singular practice either. In other words, one doesn’t pull off a four-minute mile simply by running a lot. There is a whole suite of disciplines and practices that come to bear if the goal is to be realized. There is proper diet, sleep, core and upper body strength training along with lower body training. There is study of the body and its processes, of breath, of strategy, of mind control. There is endurance training, foot care and proper attire. And there is rest. The practice of these things is no guarantee of success, but the dismissing of them is pretty much a guarantee that the desired goal will not likely be realized.

The world I’m more familiar with is the realm of music. I am a singer/songwriter by vocation and I often put bands together for special tours. My go-to piano guy is a fellow named Mike Janzen and he really is a wonder, both as a player and as a person. He’s the type of player who can easily lay back and play supportively and inconspicuously, but if there is ever a time to kick it up and take an improvisational solo… oh my goodness! One almost expects the heavens to split, a dove to descend and a voice to proudly declare, “That’s my boy!” But I’ll let you in on a secret. Often, before concerts, when the rest of us are hanging out back stage, joking around and generally making merry… Mike will slip off and find a piano somewhere to run some scales and focus his mind. I’m not being falsely modest to say I’ll never play like him; I simply don’t have the aptitude, but I don’t have the discipline either. That doesn’t mean I can’t make meaningful music, but it does mean my joyful participation in that level of freedom is as an observer.

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche Communities

When I was a boy, I once asked my dad how you know what you should be when you grow up. “The better question,” he said, “is who do you want to be when you grow up?” He paused to let that subtle shift sink in. Then he continued. “Pick someone you admire for who they are, meaning the kind of qualities they display. Find out what they did to develop those qualities, and as best as circumstances permit, commit yourself to them.” My mind immediately settled on Jean Vanier, the modern day saint who founded the L’Arche communities around the world. He stayed at our house once while on a cross-Canada speaking tour and even as a boy I found him to be a compelling curiosity. He dressed simply, he walked and gestured slowly, he spoke economically, and he had a quality of attunement and gaze that made you curious as to what possible wonder he could be looking at when he looked at you. When I started to learn more about him I found him to be a man committed to simplicity, deep contemplative prayer and meditation on the life of Christ. He was a man renowned for loving, practical acts of startling compassion for the world’s marginalized. In other words, the wonder of his personhood was no accident. He was a man dedicated to soul-craft, which made him a man of radical freedom.

So, what are the spiritual disciplines? There are various lists of course. Dallas Willard identifies two categories of practice: disciplines of abstinence, and disciplines of engagement.

Under abstinence he lists: solitude, silence, fasting, Sabbath, secrecy (hiding your good deeds) and submission.

Under engagement he lists: scripture reading, worship, prayer, soul friendship, personal reflection and service.

I have more experience with some of these than with others, and certainly I am master of none. But these are not a bad starting point, or filter, through which to consider the direction of one’s trajectory.

Who do you want to be? Is there someone whose life and witness so moves you that you are at least curious about his or her process? Is there someone whose countenance and candor are so winsome that you find yourself coming alive in his or her presence, or, in the presence of his or her story? It may well be untrue that “you can’t get there from here,” as the naysayers love to quip.

And why should we bother with such an arduous ascent? Why…for the sake of the world of course. Personal freedom is a desirable thing, but far too low of a goal. What makes a soaring eagle greater than it is (for its own sake) is that others can see it soar, a sight that causes our hearts to thrill.

WINGS OF AN EAGLE
music and lyrics by Steve Bell (adapted from Isaiah 40:31)

As we hope in the Lord
We will gain our strength
We will run for miles
We will stand up straight
We will not grow weary
We will not grow faint
On the wings of an eagle we will rise

On the wings of an eagle we will rise
On the wings of an eagle we will rise
For our hope is found
In the power of God
On the wings of an eagle we will rise
On the wings of an eagle we will rise

For the Lord who is God
Takes His people home
Not to be afraid
As we journey the road
Hand in hand we’ll be walking
With the Lord our God
On the wings of an eagle we will rise

5 thoughts on “Spiritual Disciplines: The Backbone of Freedom

  1. Thoughful and thought provoking… My personal religious alarm bells always ring now whenever we Christians talk about disciplines etc… Why? I think it’s because I’ve been down that road of a self-improvement course with religion and it only ends badly and I see it happening everywhere under a nice christian banner… I have my personal issues with pride and self-righteousness, so probably this is my problem much more than others. But here we are, two thousand years past The Event, and yet it seems like the doctrine of grace, and what Paul meant by disciplines, still seems to be the source of much confusion. I’ve found few pastors who lived and expressed it better than my (recently-retired) pastor and friend, Ted Veal. (last sermon link below – worth a listen imo). Thanks, Steve. You always get me thinking.

    http://www.hammondbaychurch.org/uploads/2/9/9/6/2996090/the_pursuit_of_god_feb_12_17__2_.mp3

  2. I have started to refer to disciplines as habits – it seems to make them a bit more accessible for the younger generations. Joe Coughlin, founder of Christian Service Brigade when he was 17 back in 1937, said “The purpose of milestones is not to dictate what a man must do, but to enable him to realize goals the Lord has led him to set…” I think spiritual habits are the same. If done without the Lord in our own strength, they become nothing more than tasks or legalism. To partner with the Lord in means of grace (things that help us understand, and open us up to, God’s grace to work in and through us) allows the Spirit to be at work in the things we put our minds and hands to.

    Make it a habit to get into the Word because you want to know more of the Creator. Spend time in prayer, which is for the Christian like water is to a fish. If we can start by being “all in” for Jesus, then the things we do will naturally draw Him in, as He is the one leading us.

  3. Hi Steve

    I have a study on Spiritual Disciplines I will be starting soon by Jan Johnson.
    It is forwarded by Dallas Willard.
    He tells us,”Jan Johnson opens a path on which anyone can actually and continuously grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

    Thanks for the message and your music.

  4. I admire Advent and I really respect Holy Week. More than any other time of the year it makes me stop in my tracks and breathe in the sweet memory of my salvation experience which then ultimately reminds me that I am still his disciple.Today I was reminded that Jesus first words in the gospel of John were “Come and see”. Wow, 38 years ago my Jesus invited me to follow him and in so doing I was swept up in a spiritual journey. I am still listening for His voice,hearing His words,and feeling the heartbeat of my heavenly Father. In light of that I can bear the weight. Happy Easter and thanks Steve Bell for purifying lyrics and songs from your heart to ours.

  5. I just stumbled upon this piece regarding spiritual disciplines, and was reminded of the Richard Foster (Renovare) seminar I attended years ago based on his book – Celebration of Discipline, and the more recent John Ortberg book/study – The Life You’ve Always Wanted – both of which correspond to Dallas Willard’s material. Also, your reference to Jean Vanier’s visit reminded of the CogentNotion newsletter interview you were so kind to give me back in 2006, where you mentioned the experience. Finally, everything comes around in this life. It was Carolyn Arends who turned me on to your music in the first place, and now she is serving with Renovare as Director of Education. God is so cool!

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