A friend mine recently walked away from his family and the church he was leading. This friend had graduated from Bible College and had dedicated his life to serving the Lord. Thankfully, his story isn’t over yet.
Here’s the thing about my friend though: as he has made these choices, and as he walking this path which is destructive both to his family and his own soul, he has not ceased believing that the core truths of Christianity are true.
In other words: it is possible to believe the right things, and yet not do the right things.
In 1 Kings 18, we see an example of this with both King Ahab and the people of Israel. They knew what God wanted them to do, yet they didn’t do it. Why not? There were several reasons, including fear and pride, but underlying these things is a question about what you truly love and desire.
Augustine argued that the things which defines a person more than anything else, is not merely what they believe to be true (as important as this certainly is), but what they love and desire. Sin, he explained, can be understood as “disordered love,” and the way to change a person, therefore, is to change what they love.
The good news, is that you can cultivate love and desire for things through the practice of forming habits and doing actions. This is the role of spiritual disciplines in our lives. See: The Role of Habits in Transformation.
In this video, Mike and I discuss this and other ideas related to the importance of desires, not just beliefs, in our spiritual life and walk with God:
The Bible uses a few terms to describe what a relationship with God looks like, and how it is to work in practice. Some of these terms imply movement, such as walking with God (Genesis 5:22, 6:9, 17:1; Luke 1:5).
There are other terms however, which at first glance appear passive. A further look into these terms reveals that they actually imply action:
Wait on the Lord
The word “wait” conjures up thoughts of waiting at government offices, hospital waiting rooms, or waiting for Christmas to come. All of these are passive actions: you have no control over the outcome, and many times these experiences of waiting sap our energy. Waiting for 2 hours at the DMV can be exhausting, even if you spend the whole time sitting in one place and not moving.
However, to “wait on the Lord” is not a completely passive action. The word “wait” in Hebrew is the word Qavahwhich means “to hope” or “to expect.” It can also be translated “to bind up,” or “gather together.”
While on the one hand, the outcome is out of your control, you are not completely passive nor inactive; you are doing something because you know the God who controls the outcome.
It is in this way that Isaiah the Prophet could say,
“Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)
Whereas in many cases waiting can be an exhausting and energy-sapping experience, waiting on the Lord, Isaiah tells us, actually renews your strength and invigorates!
It is in this sense that the Psalm-writer says, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope.” (Psalm 130:5) This is not the waiting of passive inaction, but the hopeful expectation of trusting in God’s word and God’s promises.
Abide in Christ
At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples:
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. (John 15:5,8-9)
To abide means “to remain, to dwell.” In the picture of a vine and its branches, the branch has to merely stay attached to the vine.
Yet, while on the outside it may not appear that there is any movement involved in the branch abiding in the vine, under the surface there is movement of nutrients from one to the other, providing life, health, and growth, which is seen by the fact that this abiding produces something: fruit.
For us to abide in Christ, on the one hand, involves not moving away from Christ, but the actions of abiding are anything but passive. Another definition of abide is to adhere to a pattern of life. Practically speaking, abiding in Christ requires intentional action to pursue fellowship with God.
These intentional actions by which you abide in Christ are also referred to by the term spiritual disciplines, things like prayer, studying the Scriptures, fellowship with other believers, generosity and giving, and more.
In 2 Peter chapter 1, Peter urges the believers to “make every effort” to add to their faith: virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Peter 1:5), stating that these things help us not to fall, and they help us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)
The outcome may ultimately be the Lord’s work in us, but we are invited to participate in working out what God has worked into us, and we get to participate in cultivating our own spiritual growth.
May we be those who trust in, wait up, and abide in the Lord Jesus, not passively – but actively. May we be those who work out our own salvation, knowing that it is God who works in us to will and do to His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about something researchers call “keystone habits.”
According to Duhigg, keystone habits are “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.”
Like the keystone in an arch, these habits have a synergistic effect that overflows into other areas of your life.
Exercise is a well-known keystone habit. When people start exercising, it has an affect on many other areas of their lives, including patience and productivity.
Having dinner as a family is another keystone habit which has outsized beneficial effects in areas such as children’s emotional control and performance at school. 
Keystone Spiritual Habits
What about spiritual habits and disciplines? Are there any keystone habits when it comes to Christianity? There most certainly are, in fact – most of the spiritual disciplines that are taught in the Bible would qualify as keystone habits, which have effects which overflow into other areas of your life.
For example, giving, both in generosity towards others and to support the work of God through the church, is a spiritual discipline. One pastor I know used to explain tithing and financial giving like this:
“Tithing isn’t God’s way of raising money, it’s God’s way of raising kids.”
His point was that when God calls us to give, it’s not because He needs money, but because we need to benefit from the practice of giving away 10% or more of our money.
Giving/tithing/generosity is a keystone habit; it shapes the way you live in other areas of your life. It shapes the way you think about what you possess, and the purpose of your life. Since money is literally effort and time made tangible, you are making a choice to spend your life on things other than yourself: on other people, and on furthering the work of God.
Jesus told us that where your treasure is, your heart will be also. This is true: if you give towards someone or something, you will be much more interested and invested in what happens, rather than if you did not have any skin in the game.
Another pastor explained it like this: when you give, you are making a conscious choice not to let your money or possessions possess you. You are choosing to love people and use money, rather than love money and use people. You are deciding that you will not let money set its claws into your heart.
According to an article about these studies in Psychology Today, praying makes you nicer, more forgiving, more trusting, and offsets the negative health effects of stress. Prayer has also been shown to boost self-control.
In his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You, Drew Dyke cites a study on spiritual growth which surveyed more than 250,000 people in 1,000 churches. Their conclusion was that nothing has a greater impact on spiritual growth than engagement with Scripture. Their research showed that Bible-engagement is the single most spiritually catalytic activity a person can engage in.
A 2016 Harvard study found that frequent church attendance actually lowers the likelihood of death over a 20 year period 😮. Studies show that churchgoers are less prone to mental illness, report higher levels of happiness, and have better sex lives. Students who attend church regularly have higher GPAs on average and are less likely to live in poverty. 
Basically, the Bible has been teaching “keystone habits” since before it was cool. What we have now is a large body of research which explains how and why these practices are so effective in shaping us our lives, leading to greater well-being all around.
May we, by God’s strength that he gives us, apply these habits in our lives, for His glory, and our good.
In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
I would venture to say that all of these fruits are very popular today, with one exception: the last one – “self-control.”
Jesus told his disciples that a tree is known by its fruit, i.e.: the way to identify what kind of “tree” (or person) someone is, is by looking at the outward evidences that their life produces. And self-control made the short-list of evidential fruits.
John Stott on Why Self-Control is Essential to Loving Others
“Why do I say that love is balanced by self-control? Because love is self-giving, and self-giving and self-control are complementary, the one to the other. How can we give ourselves in love until we’ve learned to control ourselves? Our self has to be mastered before it can be offered in the service of others.” – John Stott, “A Vision for Holiness”
Self-Control Requires Some Effort on Our Part
Colossians 1:29 describes human effort and divine power working together: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he (Jesus) powerfully works within me”
In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul tells us that we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, but then tells us that it is God who works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose.
Sanctification is like sailing. Sailors can’t move without the wind, but that doesn’t mean they kick up their feet on the deck and wait to start moving. They’re tying knots, adjusting sails, turning the rudder—all while making sure the boom doesn’t swing across the deck and smack them in the head. Sailing is hardly a passive enterprise—but it’s completely dependent upon the wind. In a similar way, we’re completely dependent on God’s Spirit to make progress. But we’re not passive. Our effort works with God’s power to move us forward.
How to Bring Glory to God
In John 15:8, in the same passage where Jesus tells his disciples that the way to bear fruit is by abiding in Him (and He in them) – Jesus then says this: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit”
Why should we care about spiritual disciplines and spiritual development? Why should we care about being fruitful? Because it brings glory to God – and this is the very reason we exist! It’s what we were made for!
May the Spirit of God move in us that we would produce the fruit of self-control, and may we be those who work with all the energy that God supplies in order to bear much good fruit that brings God glory!
In my recent post Going Through the Motions, I talked about how the biblical metaphor of walking, which describes a pattern of life, implies small, continual actions which lead somewhere. With this in mind, habits can be vehicles for transformation. They help us build practices into our lives that shape us into certain kinds of people.
In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith pushes back against Rene Descartes assertion that we are fundamentally “thinking beings” who happen to have bodies, and asserts that are bodies play a much more integral part in our formation than many in Western society have tended to think (as a result of Descartes’s philosophy). Thus, the things we do with our bodies have a role in shaping our affections and forming sanctified habits.
“Spiritual disciplines” refer to actions such as prayer, church attendance, studying the Bible, giving generously, serving, taking communion, fasting, and more – which are taught in the Bible and were modeled by Jesus himself. Spiritual disciplines are habits which serve as vehicles of transformation: shaping us through repeated action into certain kinds of people.
Drew Dyke in his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You, points out how God prescribes routines and rituals designed to build holy habits into the lives of His people:
“God commanded the ancient Israelites to observe seven sacred annual feasts, keep the Sabbath, tithe their income, purify themselves, worship regularly, and present offerings and sacrifices at the temple.
Though the New Testament frees Christians from having to keep the whole Jewish law, there are still sacraments like baptism to symbolize our spiritual rebirth and the communion meal to remind us of the sacrifice of Jesus. On top of this, our weekly gatherings include rituals designed to instill beliefs and behaviors to bring us closer to God and each other.
Even in ‘low church’ settings that don’t use the liturgical calendar or recite ancient creeds, there’s often a rather predictable cycle of songs, prayers, and preaching each Sunday. There are Sunday school or midweek small group meetings.”
“But We Shouldn’t Be Religious or Legalistic, Right?”
I have met people who say: “Oh, I don’t want to be religious or legalistic — so I only do those spiritual disciplines sporadically.”
This is not about legalism nor empty religiosity. We do not believe for a minute that any of these things save us. Nor do we do these things in order to manipulate God into blessing us or giving us what we want. That is the definition of legalism: believing that your relationship with God is predicated on your ability to keep rules.
Instead, we do these things in order to be healthy and grow. Eating and sleeping and drinking fluids help us be healthy physically: to do these things only sporadically would be very unwise and cause you to be very unhealthy. The same is true when it comes to a neglect of spiritual disciplines.
Atheism and the Ache for Spiritual Disciplines
Drew Dyke shares in his book about a talk he heard from a man who “gushed about how brilliant the church is to establish such rhythms.” “He waxed eloquent about singing Christmas carols, looking at religious art, and the experience of paging through the Bible.” The surprising thing is that the speaker, Alain de Botton, is an atheist.
“We tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it…. Religions go, ‘Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it,’” – Alain de Botton
He isn’t being critical of repetition; just the opposite. He acknowledges that Christianity is very good at creating habits which fuel transformation, and recognizes that atheists are poorer for lacking this.
I would argue that these spiritual disciplines cannot be translated into an atheist or agnostic framework because they are tied to Christian theology. Some humanists try to be “good without God” – but what they lack is the foundation of Christian spiritual formation, which is justification by faith: the fact that in Christ we are accepted and loved by God apart from our good works.
Alain, like James K.A. Smith, states that “The other thing that religions know is we’re not just brains, we are also bodies. And when they teach us a lesson, they do it via the body.” He also praised the biblical practice of dividing up time by having repeating holidays such as Easter and Christmas, which force us to “bump into” key beliefs and celebrate them again and again.
Essentially what this atheist man was rightly observing and praising was that spiritual disciplines are designed to help transform through the development of habits.
Spiritual disciplines are “Spirit-empowered, heart-calibrating, habit-forming practices to retrain our loves.”
Check out the discussion Mike and I had about transformation, and the roles of the hope of the resurrection and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Also, about half-way through I spill coffee on my Bible…