The Appropriate Place of Spiritual Disciplines in a Grace Defined Life

This morning I preached at Valley.  It is something I do very rarely.  Below is the transcript I worked from.  Enjoy.

So we’ve been working through the sermon on the mount together and today we come to the portion in Matthew in which Jesus mentions the Spiritual Discipline of fasting.  

In Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus tells his disciples, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

 I think fasting is a beautiful discipline.  It is one  of my favorite disciplines in fact.  It fits my personality and is a fantastic call to prayer for me; but there is a problem.

I would be remiss if I spoke on a Spiritual Discipline without first explaining how they work in our relationship with Christ – a relationship defined by grace and faith; not works and legalism.  So instead of diving into fasting, today we are going to step back and look at Spiritual Disciplines as a whole.  

To do this we are going to: first, define Spiritual Disciplines; second, look at a how they are often misused; and third, talk about how we should appropriately use them. 

What is a Spiritual Discipline?

Simply put, a spiritual discipline is anything you intentionally do or don’t do in order to connect with God. 

Things we intentionally do we will call rituals.  For example, fasting (denying yourself something to enhance your relationship with God) is a ritual.  Prayer is a ritual.  Reading Scripture is a ritual.  Coming here every Sunday for Sunday school and worship is a ritual.   

Things we intentionally do not do we will call rules.  For example, abstaining from alcohol is a rule.   Avoiding foul language is a rule.  Not watching R Rated movies is a rule. 

So we have these rituals and these rules (these Spiritual disciplines). 

Believe it or not, Jesus encouraged us (his followers) to pursue and practice Spiritual disciplines.  In our current spot in the sermon on the mount Jesus has already spoken about giving, prayer, and fasting…all three are spiritual disciplines.  Notice he said in the beginning of this week’s passage, “When you fast…” assuming that you will be fasting.  Early Jesus said in the sermon, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” 

Jesus didn’t come to throw away the rituals and rules.  He came to put them in their proper place.  So first let’s look at how we most often mess them up.

How are They Misused?

I first came to Christ as a little kid.  I was baptized when I was in the first grade.  From the get go I began picking up rituals and rules. 

There was coming to church on Sunday.

There was behaving in the right way – no cussing, no lying, no cheating, obey your parents – all kinds of rules.

When I got into High School more rituals and rules appeared.  There was reading my Bible daily.  There was routine prayer.  There were more church meetings (Wednesday night suppers, Sunday night youth, youth choir, hand bells, etc…).  There were also new rules to take hold of: no going too far with girls, no drinking, no smoking, and on, and on.

These rituals and rules defined my life and my faith.  The practice of them was the driving force of my relationship with Christ. 

To be clear, no one taught me this.  No one sat me down and said, “Boy, doing this stuff is what it means to follow Jesus.”  Just the opposite actually.  I was told all the time about salvation being an undeserved gift of grace and all about faith.  But what I was told and what we practiced was completely different.  For example, we said we were saved by faith, but if you missed two Sunday’s in a row people started to wonder if you were still saved. 

In college things got even worst.  I was introduced to a whole new world of spiritual disciplines.  For example, routine prayer.  My college roommate prayed for at least an hour in his closet every day before any of his days activity.  There was fasting.  There was intense long sessions of intercession.  There was meditative chanting, and exercise, and confession, and service.  More and more rituals.

And here is the problem…basing our relationship with Jesus on the practice of rituals and rules brings on four things:

1)      Shame – There is always something else.  There is always something more.   We will never be able to do it all.  If you are competitive and ambitious like me you will end up driving yourself crazy trying to become the most spiritually disciplined person around.

2)      Guilt – Things are going to drop.  Things are going to fall; and when your relationship with God is based on the practice of these things you will feel overwhelming sense of guilt for not keeping up with them.

3)      Failure – This is the biggest problem of all.  You see, God doesn’t judge the quality of His relationship with you on the rituals and rules you practice; but if we insist on that being the standard of measurement, He will hold us to it and we will always fall short.  This is what the Jews found out in the Old Testament.  They were going to all the festivals.  They were singing all the right songs.  They were following the law.  They were routinely going to temple.  But the God said through the prophet Amos said, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies…But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21 and 24) This is what Paul meant in Romans when he said that life by the Law only leads to death.

4)      Finally, Rejection – Not only do we feel like failures in our relationship with God, not only will we become filled with guilt and shame; we will fail with others as well.  You see, I lived this life of rituals and rules and then someone told me I had to share it with others…but who wants all of this! 

There was a group in Jesus’ time that was obsessed with the practice of spiritual disciplines – the Pharisees.  They were crazy about rules.  They had rules and rituals for everything, from how to behave on the Sabbath to how to wash your hands during a meal.  They lived by an intense amount of rituals and rules.  Take fasting for instance.  The Pharisees fasted three days a week.   Three days a week they skipped meals and prayed instead.  I struggle to eat breakfast an hour late…much less skip three meals.  And this was just the tip of their spiritual discipline ice berg. 

Now they collided with Jesus on this often in the New Testament and people saw it.  They could tell by watching Jesus that He was bringing something new to the table in relationship with God; that there was something different about Jesus’ holiness and righteousness that was not like the Pharisees. 

A few chapters after the sermon on the mount disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and ask Him about this very thing (Matthew 9:14-17):

“Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

You get the picture here.  Their arms are full of boxes and they look at Jesus’ arms and all He has is love and freedom and they are like, “HEY!  That’s not fair!  Why don’t you guys have to fast three times a week like us!”

“Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?  The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.”

So this is Jesus’ answer specifically about fasting – They don’t need it right now.  They will need it later; but not now.  Keep that in mind for a moment. 

Jesus goes on to attack the larger problem. 

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.  Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins.  If they do the skins will burst, the wine will run out, and the wineskins will be ruined.  No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

In the Old Testament New Wine was a sign of prosperity, of good things happening, of growth, of new life.  You see, if there was new wine it meant there had been a harvest and the land was healthy.   Everyone celebrated new wine.

And Jesus was saying, “I’ve brought you this new life.  This life of love and freedom.  This relationship with God that you were always intended to have, that you were created to have.  I’m making this possible right now.  But you can’t hold onto it with your rituals and rules.  If you try you will only find guilt, and shame, and failure, and death.  The rituals and rules will fail you.  So if you want to keep the old wineskins – the rituals and rules – settle for the old wine of legalism and rituals and rules based relationship as well. 

How Do We Use Spiritual Disciplines in the Right Way

So let’s talk quickly about the new wine that Jesus brings and what the new wine skin looks like.

  • Jesus compares this new life, this new wine, with pearls in a field that once found you will sell everything to keep. (Matthew 13:44-45)
  • Jesus said this life would be abundant (John 10:10) or full.
  • Jesus said this life would be defined by freedom (John 8), joy (Mark 4:16), and grace and truth (John 1:14). 

Not guilt, shame, frustration, and failure.  No.  Passion, abundance, freedom, joy, grace, and truth. 

  • Best of all this life will be defined by love.  When asked to summarize all the rituals and rules, when asked to put it all together, this is what Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37)

So love is not about rituals and rules.  Love is not about what you do.  Sure, it is expressed through rituals and rules, but they are not the point.

For example, a few mornings ago my son drew me this picture.  He drew it to show me he loves me.  The picture is not his love.  If he fails to draw me a picture the next morning does it mean he loves me less.  No.  That’s ridiculous.  The picture is simply an expression of his love.  The picture is a tool that facilitates the communication of his love. 

In essence, our rituals and rules are just that – they are tools that facilitate the communication of love.

Another example, Wendy and I love to go on dates.  We love to go out just the two of us.  One of our favorite date routines has been to go out to dinner somewhere we can talk without the kids and then go to a book store and walk around together.  It is a fantastic time of processing life with each other without the constant “Mommy?  Daddy?  Mommy?  Daddy?” in our ears.  There is nothing fancy about this ritual.  It is just something we do to get away together.  It is a tool that facilitates the communication of our love for one another. 

Jude is seven months old.  With an infant these times of relaxing intimacy are hard to come by.  Because we haven’t had one in a while, does it mean we love each other less?  No.  Of course not. 

This is how rituals and rules are supposed to work.  You are in this love relationship with God.  You have given your life to Him.  You want to know more of Him.  You want Him to know more of you.  You need/want to connect with Him.  There are a thousand ways to do that.  There are a thousand tools to journey with Him on.  Let’s take reading your Bible.  We know that meditating on the Word (on Scripture) transforms our thinking.  It helps us gain God’s perspective and let go of our own fallen one.  There are times on this journey when spending routine daily times in this book is a powerful expression of love.  Maybe it takes you from here to here in communicating and expanding your love with God.  Then there is prayer.  Some days you are going to need to invest deeply into prayer.  There is fasting.  When something is weighing on your heart in a major way – you need to fast.  There is coming here and worshiping on Sunday morning. 

Some of these rituals and rules are going to click with you and you are going to want to do them forever.  They speak your love language to God.  Worship is that way for my wife.  She could never get sick of worshiping.  For me, Scripture is always powerful.  Or journaling and writing…also a huge way I connect with God.  But for you it maybe service, it maybe fellowship, it maybe telling others about Jesus, it maybe prayer.  There are a thousand options out there.

Conclusion:  So what now? 

Some of you are sitting out there right now thinking, “My faith has always been based in these rituals and rules and I don’t know what to do next.”  That’s cool.  Like any addiction, the key to overcoming addiction to rituals and rules is admitting you are an addict.  I, Rick, or one of the deacons would love to sit down with you and help you process through that.

Some of you are sitting out there thinking, “I don’t know that I have ever really been in love with Jesus.  I’ve been here in church my whole life, but it has always been about the rituals and rules.”  That’s cool.  Let’s fix that.  There is a whole new life out there waiting for you.

Here are the keys to transformation:

It happens in partnership with others.  Don’t try it alone.  Come down front and let’s pray together and start walking with each other.

So we are going to pray now and then Ed is going to lead us in singing.  If you want to start walking together, if you need freedom from the rituals and rules, if you long for that loving, passionate, grace filled, relationship with God – come down here, let’s pray together, and start that journey.

The Appropriate Place of Spiritual Disciplines in a Grace Defined Life

6 thoughts on “The Appropriate Place of Spiritual Disciplines in a Grace Defined Life

  1. Great “Blermon”!

    It’s hard for me to escape the church of Ephesus analogy, that what God wants is to have a relationship with US, not for us to hide behind any rituals that God is likely more bored with than any of us could imagine.

    If there is to be another great reformation, this one based in sanctification as the first was based on justification,we’ll have to re-discover the doctrine of the trinity and the covenant of relationship it exemplifies.

    But before that can be invented, I think it will have to become a necessity, much more so that it already is.

    Won’t learn the easy way? alright…

    1. jeffandwendy says:

      Well put. I’ll have to think on the 2nd Reformation based on sanctification…never thought of it that way. Mind twisting.

      1. All we hear about is relationship, but what does that mean?

        At least in part it’s about the characteristics of the first century church, it’s about being able to tell Christians by the love they have for one another! It’s about being on Gods side,instead of thinking He’s on ours!

        Being sanctified or set apart from the world on the basis of those things is where I’m going with this.

        The trinity is the three in one, or the perfect example of a relationship.

        It’s not “playing church”…

  2. Caitlin says:

    Thank you for posting this. It was a great encouragement to me today, as it hit me right where I am these days…learning what it means to have a relationship with God rather than a relationship with rituals.

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