When you read the classic works on the spiritual life, you quickly realize that there are tried and true disciplines that the church in every age has recognized as essential to spiritual growth. Though the list is broken down in a number of ways across various traditions, the most basic disciplines are Word, sacrament, and prayer. These time honored means of grace are the channels through which the church keeps company with Jesus and is over time conformed into His very image.
Christian’s often mistake the power of change to be in the the disciplines themselves rather than the Spirit who works through the disciplines. It’s the difference between the source of change and the means of change. The source is the Spirit, and the Spirit uses the means of Word, sacrament, and prayer (among other things) to bring about change. One the reason we so commonly make this mistake is that we are prone to rely on our own effort rather than on God who gives the growth. We like to think that God works on a one to one ratio; what we put in is exactly what we’ll get out. If we read the Bible a lot and pray a lot, we expect to grow a lot. If we neglect the Bible and prayer, then we expect to grow little if at all.
The problem with this form of thinking is that the source for growth is the Christian’s effort and not the Spirit’s prerogative and power. To be sure, God often rewards discipline with his presence and growth, but He takes into account more than our effort. Most importantly, He weighs our heart. This is why David in Psalm 51 draws a stark contrast between the sacrifice of animals and the sacrifice of the heart. “For you will not delight in sacrifice or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” It’s not that God requires less than bulls and goats, but that He requires more. He wants our heart. It’s why earlier in redemptive history Moses exhorts the people not just circumcise their infant sons on the eighth day, but to “circumcise the foreskin of their heart” (Deut.10:16). Though we may read the Bible, pray, attend worship, give tithes of all we get and fast twice a week; those actions alone do not ensure that we will return to our house justified (Luke 18:9-14).
Remember and take to heart: holy things can be done without holiness, and spiritual disciplines can be performed without true spirituality. If this divide becomes the pattern of our lives, then our “good works” are damnable works (to quote John Gerstner). If this is the case, then our obedience will only serve to increase our pride and self-righteousness and our growth will never have the aroma of grace. In sum, we will be Pharisees–whitewashed tombs, outwardly beautiful but inwardly full of dead men’s bones (Matt.23:27)