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The Disciplines as Discipleship

Acts 4:13 records the reaction of those who encountered the disciples after Jesus’ ascension: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Simply put, by spending time with Jesus, his followers had noticeably changed. When they were first invited to follow Christ, Peter and John were “unschooled, ordinary men.” They were Galilean fishermen. However, after three years of close association with Jesus, they had become like him, emulating his teachings and his actions.

The word used for this process is “discipleship.” The concept makes more sense when it is understood in its original cultural context. In Jesus’ time, it was customary for a Jewish rabbi to invite promising students to study Torah with him. They became his apprentices, a part of his “school”; they took his yoke. This was considered a great honor, equivalent perhaps in those days to being admitted to a prestigious university. As they spent time with and learning from their rabbi, students would begin to talk, think, and act like their mentor. When the first disciples were called to “follow” Jesus, they were being invited to join his school and spend time with their rabbi, Jesus.

One way personal transformation takes place, then, is through spending time with the person we wish to be like. In the case of the original disciples, this is easily comprehensible. The original disciples spent actual time with Jesus. They walked with him. They talked him. They shared meals together. They had an actual, “tangible” relationship with Jesus. All this raises a practical question for us: How does discipleship happen today? It is one thing to understand the process of discipleship historically, and another to understand it practically. How does one have a relationship with a person that no longer walks this earth?

Jesus addresses this issue as he talks to his disciples on the eve of his death. He informs them of his soon departure and comforts them with the following words:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-the Spirit of truth…I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you… But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.[1]

In other words, although Jesus is no longer physically present on this earth, through the Holy Spirit, he is somehow present to his followers. Also, we learn through Paul, the Holy Spirit is the source and agent of change in individuals. The Spirit indwells believers and bears fruit in their lives— “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”[2] Because Christ is present and active this way through the Spirit, it is possible to talk about learning from him, spending time with him, and being transformed by him today through certain practices.

It is important to note that discipleship, in general, is initiated by Jesus’ invitation. Paul Jensen, in his analysis of Matthew 28:16-18 (where the disciples are called up to a mountain), notes that to avoid legalism, discipleship must be understood as something that is initiated by God. He notes that “Jesus initiates a spiritual discipline with his disciples, shapes it, guides its practice, and empowers them in it. This is spirituality from above.”[3]

What exactly is a spiritual discipline? Various Christian thinkers offer differing definitions. Dallas Willard writes, “A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.”[4] He explains, “If I repeat the telephone number aloud after looking it up, I can remember it until I get it dialed. Otherwise, I probably couldn’t. If I train rigorously I can bench press 300 pounds; otherwise not. Such ordinary activities are actually disciplines that aid our physical or “natural” life. The same thing happens with disciplines for our spiritual life.”[5] Richard Foster describes the disciplines as “God’s means of grace.”[6] According to Foster, God has “ordained the disciplines of the spiritual as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.”[7] Marjorie Thompson compares the disciplines to a trellis. A life patterned with the disciplines “curbs our tendency to wander and supports our frail efforts to grow spiritually.”[8]

While these explanations are helpful, I believe Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen provide the most insightful explanations. Peterson explains that the practices are not “a spiritual technology at our beck and call but rather immersion in an environment in which our capacities are reduced to nothing or nearly nothing and we are at the mercy of God to shape his will in us.”[9] I like Peterson’s definition because it places emphasis on what God does through the practice of a discipline. He is the one that works his will in our lives. Similarly, Henri Nouwen writes, “A spiritual discipline is human effort to create open space to listen to the voice of the one who calls us the beloved.”[10] Here once again, while human effort/response is recognized as necessary, it is God who speaks. While I appreciate the explanation that Willard gives, I think it has the danger of becoming, as Peterson puts it, a “spiritual technology,” or an indirect form of legalism where our efforts are understood to produce change.

That said, Willard still makes several salient points about the disciplines. He writes that “whatever is purely mental cannot transform the self… to reject them [the spiritual disciplines] wholesale is to insist that growth in the spirit is something that just happens all by itself.”[11] In other words, spiritual transformation does not “just happen.” It is connected to actual activities done with our bodies. Secondly, Willard explains, “the activities constituting the disciplines have not value in themselves… Rather, it is the effective and full enjoyment of active love of God and humankind in all the daily rounds of normal existence where we are placed.”[12] In other words, the disciplines are not an end in themselves, but a means toward the higher goal of loving God and loving neighbor.

So what exactly are these practices? Foster lists fourteen of them and then subdivides them into three categories— the inward, the outward, and the corporate. Willard states that there are two basic categories: disciplines of abstinence and engagements, and within this two-fold division he explores multiple practices such as prayer, fasting, small group participation, and tithing. Some of these practices, such as scripture reading and prayer, are familiar to most Christians. However, there are others that are not so familiar to many Christians. We’ll have the opportunity to explore some of these disciplines in the coming months as this new column continues to develop.

But for now, it’s important to realize that the disciplines are not a “spiritual technology” we use to improve ourselves. As Peterson and Nouwen point out, it is God who does the work. God works through the disciplines to speak and to change us. Engaging in the disciplines is a tangible way humans respond to God’s gracious invitation. A commitment to the regular practice of the spiritual disciplines is not a commitment to perfection, or a program, but a relationship with a person; practicing the disciplines is an integral part of being a follower of Jesus today. As we respond to the Spirit, as we spend time with Jesus, we are transformed; by beholding, we become changed.[13]


[1] John 17:16-27.

[2] Gal 5:22-23.

[3] Paul Jenson, Fuller Theological Seminary, Course handout.

[4] The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 353.

[5] Ibid., 156-57

[6] Celebration of Discipline, p. 7.

[7] Ibid

[8] Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, p. 138.

[9] Living the Message, p. 147.

[10] Nouwen, 1983.

[11] The Spirit of the Disciplines, pp. 152-53.

[12] Ibid., p. 138.

[13] 2 Cor. 3:18.

Zane Yi lives in Atlanta, where he is completing his dissertation for a PhD in philosophy through Fordham University.

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