For the past two decades, the popularity of what are called the “spiritual disciplines” has grown at a breathless rate. Some in-depth responses are already on this website, so this article offers remarks on a few main points. The CANA articles addressing specific problems in practices advocated by those promoting the spiritual disciplines are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
A Passage in First Timothy
One of the issues with the spiritual disciplines advocacy is the widely held assertion that First Timothy 4:7 refers to practicing specific “disciplines,” and the presumption that Spiritual Discipline advocates can decree what these disciplines are. Not only do they enumerate and name these disciplines, but they assert or strongly imply that one must do these in order 1) to grow as a Christian; 2) to have “real intimacy” with God; 3) to be in God’s presence; and/or 4) to know/feel God’s love. Here is one such statement:
“I will maintain that the only road to Christian maturity and Godliness passes through the practice of the Spiritual Disciplines” (from Donald Whitney in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, pp. 16-17).
Really? Practicing Spiritual Disciplines is “the only road?” But this is typical, stated either blatantly, or strongly implied. (See Bob DeWaay’s excellent critique of Whitney’s book).
It might be helpful to look at this passage from First Timothy 4 in context:
In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (verses 6-8)
The passage is emphasizing “godliness,” defined also as religion and piety; that is, godly living based on reverence toward God (piety). This godly living results from sound doctrine in contrast to behavior produced by meaningless asceticism from unsound (false) teachings, which are likened to “worldly fables.”
The NET Bible states that the fables “refer to legendary tales characteristic of the false teachers in Ephesus and Crete,” also referred to in 1 Tim. 1:4, 2 Tim. 4:4, and Titus 1:14 ( “cleverly devised tales,” “myths” – in 3 of the 4 passages, and “strange doctrines”).
The word “doctrine” appears six times in First Timothy, and the word “teaching” four times (not including the word “teach”). Paul is clearly concerned with false teachings in the church (see 1:19, 20; 4:1-3; 6:3-6, 20-21), some of which appear to be advocating asceticism, and he is exhorting Timothy to continue in sound doctrine. The focus is on the content of teachings.
A bit further, in verse 11, Paul advises Timothy, “Prescribe and teach these things,” and his closing words in chapter 6 plead with Timothy to
“…guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ — which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith.”
Thus, Paul ends the letter on the note of warning against these false teachings referred to in the passage under discussion. Paul is writing to Timothy to encourage him (in these passages) to continue sound teaching and reject false teachings and fables disguised as knowledge. These teachings undoubtedly were early forms of Gnosticism which included Jewish myths and mysticism. Godliness can only result from teachings based on sound doctrine; there is no authentic profit or growth from ascetic practices or practices based on false teachings. This seems to be his point from the context.
Disciplines or Rules?
“Spiritual disciplines,” is a term from medieval monasticism rooted in salvation and/or sanctification by works, warned of in Galatians 3:3 . This term, “spiritual disciplines,” was in the Roman Catholic Church and seem to appear first in the evangelical church after Richard Foster and Dallas Willard started promoting these spiritual disciplines.
Since the Bible does not specify any practice as a “discipline,” then it is up to each Christian to discover from God’s word which area he or she may need to focus on at which point in their lives. The Bible clearly tells Christians to pray, which is the only practice out of all the more popular so-called disciplines that is commanded.
Discipline is defined as “control gained by enforcing obedience or order; orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior;” or “self-control.” The Bible does prescribe certain forms of behavior but the Spiritual Discipline teachings popular today do not draw correctly from Scripture because most of the so-called disciplines are not prescribed or even suggested in the Bible. Those that are, such as prayer, are redefinied and made into techniques that are about being still, being alone, sometimes using a certain breathing pattern, visualizing, and/or listening for God to speak. None of those practices are modeled as prayer for the Christian in God’s word.
Moreover, the Spiritual Disciplines teachings are aligned with the unbiblical Contemplative Spirituality movement (see articles listed at the beginning). And prayer must be of faith and not of the flesh.
Another problem with the Spiritual Disciplines as taught today is that words are redefined. Prayer, as taught by those promoting the Spiritual Disciplines, is not based on biblical models of prayer. Rather, it is a derivation of Eastern meditation practices, including Transcendental Meditation and/or Buddhist Mindfulness (I practiced Mindfulness for 12 years as a New Ager).
Contemplative Prayer comes from three Trappist monks, Basil Pennington (d. 2006), Thomas Keating (d. 2018), and William Meninger (d. 2021). They admitted in a video that their method came from Thomas Merton, the very obtuse and mystical text Cloud of Unknowing, and Eastern meditation methods. Keating had Buddhist monks and a former monk turned Transcendental Meditation teacher come to his abbey to teach and meditate with the Trappist monks.
Advocates of the Spiritual Disciplines will maintain that the prayer practices are not Eastern and not New Age, but they are, at least as taught by the founders of the Centering/Contemplative Prayer Movement, and by many others.
Reading Scripture in Spiritual Disciplines lingo is Lectio Divina, a private way of reading the Bible as though it is a mystical book with subjective meanings for each person (context is actually supposed to be ignored). However, it is considered superior to normal Bible reading.
Silence and Solitude and Others
I have found no biblical validity for the supposed disciplines of “silence and solitude.” There is nothing wrong with silence or solitude, and they can be of value at times, especially if one is praying or reflecting on God’s word. But does the Bible support these as disciplines? No. I have examined every passage misused to support these two alleged disciplines and they are all taken out of context.
Moreover, we face the same dilemma as with “prayer” — redefinition of a word. “Silence” is often a code word for “going within” or some other esoteric practice in order to supposedly hear from God or be in his presence. I am not sure how spiritual discipline advocates miss the fact that believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit and are in God’s presence through prayer.
Please see the CANA two-part article here and here on two books by contemplative teacher and leader, Ruth Haley Barton, one of which is titled Invitation to Solitude and Silence. The CANA article seeks to expose the lack of biblical support for this teaching as well as expose the misuse of Scripture in attempts to do so.
Other named disciplines aside from silence, solitude, and contemplative prayer include journaling, simplicity, fasting, Sabbath, and stewardship. Although there are many examples of fasting, there is no prescriptive basis in the Bible for fasting as a “discipline” for Christians. There are biblical principles for stewardship of time and money, but is this a discipline? Christians are under grace; the Lord wants us to desire to give to others, and voluntarily love and serve Him, not live by imposed rules, or disciplines as defined by others. Following the biblical guidelines in these areas is sufficient.
Simplicity, advocated by Quaker Richard Foster, is a concept with no objective standards. To hold up simplicity as a discipline requires one to define it, or to submit to someone’s interpretation of what simplicity is. Is the concept of simplicity in the Bible? Perhaps if redefined as not accumulating material goods for the sake of possessing them or out of idolatry. Biblical warnings about wealth are in the context of not trusting in it, and against reliance on riches in contrast with righteousness or with faith in God (Proverbs 11, 4, 28; 28:6; Mark 4:19; Luke 12:21, 16:19ff, 1 Timothy 6:9). But proponents of simplicity add much more to it than not seeking wealth or goods; it easily becomes another moralistic pursuit that actually is not supported in the Bible.
If someone feels that they should fast, seek solitude, live a simple life, or journal, and they believe this will help their Christian growth, then that is their choice and doing these things as led by the Lord is that person’s walk with Christ. However, I do not think anyone has a scriptural basis for calling these disciplines, especially if it is taught that Christians will not grow unless they practice such so-called disciplines as found in the quote at the beginning of this article.
The advocates of spiritual disciplines typicallly:
- Use narrative as prescriptive (especially Elijah’s “still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19 in some translations)
- Misuse the biblical text (such as Psalm 46:10 which is “Be still” in the King James, and of every passage used to support these practices that I have so far examined)
- Give worldly examples that are not analogous to biblical examples
- Read their own meanings into the biblical text (this is documented in some of the CANA articles listed at the beginning)
There is also a spiritual elitism that comes along with this, an implication that if you do not practice these disciplines, or do not do them in a certain way, then you are failing to fully live the Christian life and are missing out on some alleged richer, deeper, and/or higher spiritual plane. The words “deeper” and “intimacy” in relation to one’s connection with God are ubiquitous in Spiritual Discipline material, along with implied or overt suggestions that normative prayer and Bible reading/study are dry, insufficient, or even detrimental.
These practices are part of a larger, troubling movement in the church that I have called Contemplative Spirituality. This movement is often linked to the use of the Enneagram (many Spiritual Directors* use and/or teach the Enneagram), to Perennial Wisdom views, and to heretic Richard Rohr. Time and time again, I have noted these connections. It is very telling, and should not be surprising, that the Spiritual Disciplines are tied into unbiblical teachings.
* This article on the role of a Spiritual Director is by Richard Foster. I disagree with Foster that this is a biblically supported role/calling and disagree with many of the points made in the article. Although proponents of Spiritual Direction claim that it goes back to the early church (with no biblical support for this), Spiritual Direction was mainly developed in monastic communities. I am giving the link so that those interested can read for themselves what Foster espouses.
Sanctification by the Spirit
One thought continually bombards my mind in response to this epidemic of “spiritual disciplines” in the church:
“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Galatians 3:3
A Christian should yield to the Holy Spirit, who is transforming one into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10), but the growth of each Christian varies according to the pace and design of the Lord’s purposes for that person through His grace. This is the process of sanctification.
If a Christian tries to do any spiritual growing by their own effort or out of their own strength, it is wasted because the Lord makes it clear that we can do nothing fruitful outside of abiding in Christ, which means doing it by the Spirit (John 15:4; 1 John 2:27, 4:13; Romans 8:4; Galatians 5:25).
It is only by dependence on Christ, the grace of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit that any Christian matures in the faith. Pursuing so-called spiritual disciplines, especially if one is told they are needed for spiritual growth, can easily become just another way to rely on self.
The Bible does provide instructions to read, learn, study, and ponder God’s word; to pray; to worship; and to fellowship with other Christians. This is clear and meaningful guidance from the Lord that is meant to spur growth in Christ, and that results in a fruitful life for the Lord. The explicit advice and commands on these areas are what will give encouragement and spur maturity in Christ.
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” John 15:4
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Gal. 5:25
Critique of Lectio Divina by Brad Klassen
Article by Tim Challies on book by David Helms about Lectio Divina
Critique of Donald S.Whitney’s book on Spiritual Disciplines by Bob DeWaay
Brief assessment and critique of spiritual disciplines by D. A. Carson
Thoughtful discussion of the term “spirituality” by D. A. Carson
Book, Out of Formation: Spiritual Disciplines of God and Men, by Gary Gilley; I have not read this but I am familiar with Gilley and have read some of his writings. He makes cogent critiques and responses based on Scripture.
Video of Basil Pennington, William Meninger, and Thomas Keating discussing origins of Centering/Contemplative Prayer
A Roman Catholic article (one of many) critiquing the unbiblical nature of Thomas Keating’s Centering Prayer
[Note: “Centering Prayer” became “Contemplative Prayer” on the late Thomas Keating’s website, Contemplative Outreach].
<Famous Saints in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition e.g. St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, St Seraphim, St Ignatius of Loyola, regularly saw spiritual directors and were themselves spiritual directors to others, leaving writings of letters of spiritual guidance still read today.
Elsewhere, in Ireland, as far back as the 5th Century, early saints of the Celtic church such as Brigid of Ireland, Patrick, Columba of Iona and Cuthbert of Lindisfarne emphasised the role of the ‘anam cara’, or ‘soul friend’, as central in Celtic spiritual life. This was a person to whom you could reveal the deep intimacies of your life. Your anam cara was the truest mirror to reflect the contours of your soul to you, a creative and critical friendship rooted in love that was prepared to negotiate the world of your inner contradictions and woundedness to bring you closer to God.
In the 14th century the Devotio Moderna movement in the Low Countries of Holland and Belgium extended this practice of spiritual direction to lay men and women. Similarly, most religious orders established Third Orders and Oblate groups among the laity for the primary purpose of furnishing spiritual direction to men and women in the world. In the 17th century, St Francis de Sales and St Vincent de Paul in France made the custom of spiritual direction for lay men and women even more popular, a custom which continued into the 19th century with Abbe Huvelin and his student the Englishman Baron von Huegel, who left some notable letters of spiritual guidance. Carl Jung once said that the person who came close in all history to his own methods of healing souls was Abbe Huvelin in the 19th century.>
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