Jesus lived and acted as a human being filled with the Holy Spirit in dependence on His Father’s leading. Throughout His incarnation, he voluntarily refrained from employing his divine nature (Philippians 2:5-11). He thereby becomes a real example for us to follow. Accordingly, Paul can say without blinking an eye, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” To be sure, he did not have a sin nature like us nor did he ever sin (II Corinthians 5:21; I Peter 2:22). But as a finite human being, he was subject to growth in various ways. Thus, perhaps the best summary of Jesus’ journey towards adulthood says that “Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
In point of fact, Christianity is an ascetic religion and Jesus engaged in the regular practice of spiritual exercises or disciplines. We should follow him in this, and to encourage such imitation, I shall do two things: (1) explain what a spiritual discipline is and why it works and (2) discuss Jesus’ relationship with spiritual disciplines.
1. What is a spiritual discipline and why does it work? A Christian spiritual discipline is a repeated bodily practice, done over and over again, in dependence on the Holy Spirit and under the direction of Jesus and other wise teachers in His Way, to enable one to get good at certain things in life that one cannot learn to do by direct effort.
Romans 12: 1: I urge you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your rational service of worship.
This verse is unpacked earlier in Paul’s letter:
Even so, consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to Godâ€¦I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. (Romans 6:12-13, 19, bold added)
To see the importance of these passages, let’s set aside spiritual disciplines for a moment and bring up a fairly painful topic for many: learning to play a sport, for example, tennis! In a very literal sense, the beginner brings to the game a specific tennis-character, consisting in the sum total of good and bad habits relevant for serving, using your backhand, and playing tennis in general. One’s tennis-flesh is the sum of one’s bad tennis habits—tendencies to hit the ball in the net or to serve outside the appropriate lines. Clearly, the goal of the novice is to develop his tennis-character. And this will require him to get rid of his tennis-flesh.
Now, exactly how does one do this? As a first step in answering this question, one must answer another question: Where do these bad habits reside? Answer: They reside in specific body parts/members as ingrained tendencies. One may have good habits in one’s wrists but bad habits, tennis-flesh, residing in one’s shoulders or ankles. Tennis-flesh resides in the specific members of one’s body, namely, those areas of the body in which bad tennis-habits reside.
We are now in a position to vouchsafe a crucial insight: How does one develop a good tennis-character, that is, how does one become good at tennis? Clearly it is not enough to engage in daily tennis readings, watching Wimbledon each year, and seeking constant exposure to motivational tennis music (whether it be traditional tennis hymns or contemporary tennis praise music)! No, one must present one’s members to a tennis instructor at a tennis court as instruments of tennis “righteousness” instead of following one’s tennis-flesh as an instrument of tennis “unrighteousness.” By so presenting one’s members, one gradually gets rid of bad tennis habits and replaces them with good ones. If this is done repeatedly, tennis transformation ensues.
Now, exactly how does one present one’s members to a tennis instructor? The answer consists in two crucial factors. First, a person must be committed to the pursuit of tennis righteousness (to getting good at tennis), and choose to submit as an apprentice to a master tennis instructor. Second, one must “present one’s body” to a tennis instructor repeatedly by engaging specific body parts in regular activities done over and over again through repeated practice and body movement, under the watchful eye of the teacher. For example, one may present particular body part, say the wrists, to the tennis instructor by practicing over and over again a specific wrist movement with racket in hand. In general, a sport’s discipline is a repeated exercise relevant to that sport, a bodily movement involving specific body parts, repeated over and over again, that is done for the purpose of getting rid of the specific sport’s flesh and replacing it with new habits that sport’s righteousness that resides in specific body parts. A tennis-disciple is done repeatedly not to get good at the discipline, but to get good at the game of tennis.
It should now be clear as to how insightful the passages under consideration really are for getting good at life. When one presents one’s body to God as a living sacrifice (Ro 12:1), it involves not only a one-time act of dedication, but a habitual, repeated bodily exercise (I Tim 4:7-8; I Cor 9:24-27) involving specific body parts (Ro 6:12-13, 19), resulting in putting to death one’s bad habits (Col. 3:5), i.e., removing the flesh that resides in those body parts, and replacing them with righteousness that comes to reside in the members of one’s body.
2. Jesus and Spiritual Disciplines. In Jesus’ case, he did not practice spiritual disciplines to rid himself of something he did not have—sinful habits residing in his flesh. But he did practice them to develop and sustain his human character and to draw strength from spiritual practices. Remember: Historical narrative in the Ancient Near East was written not only to present historical facts, but to teach ethical and spiritual lessons through selecting certain events to report. Though it mentions them briefly, the Gospels indicate that Jesus engaged in certain disciplines, and we disciples follow Jesus by applying his teachings and engaging in his behaviors and practices.
Jesus’ use of spiritual disciplines is important to rebut a misinformed criticism of the practice of spiritual disciplines: The practice is Roman Catholic and should be avoided. For three reasons, this criticism is wrong. First, even if spiritual disciplines are “Roman Catholic,” that does not prove they are wrong. After all, Catholics are right about many important things (e.g., the Trinity). And the Bible itself actually praises the wisdom of pagan nations with pagan philosophers and religious practices (see Isaiah 19:11-13 where the counselors of Egypt who are acknowledged to be wise have, nevertheless, become fools; see also, Jeremiah 49:7, I Kings 4:29-34, Acts 17:28). So just because something is believed or practiced by Catholics or even by a cult or non-Christian religion, that does not by itself prove the belief or practice is wrong. Second, the earliest Church Fathers practiced spiritual disciplines in the centuries before Roman Catholicism became a distinctive movement. In this, they believed they were following Jesus and New Testament teaching. Finally, Jesus Himself practiced these disciplines as noted above.
What spiritual disciplines do the Gospels report that he practiced? Four seem central to His life: solitude, fasting, prayer, and service. He regularly slipped away to be in solitude and silence (Mark 1:35, 6:31, 46). He began his public ministry by strengthening himself through a forty-day fast (Matthew 4:4) and, no doubt, he followed his culture’s regular engagement in fasting. He combined the discipline of prayer with solitude (Mark 1:35), and he also combined prayer with the practice of watchings (see Luke 6:12)—the activity of spending an entire night in prayer, seeking God’s face and His guidance. Finally, Jesus regularly practiced the spiritual discipline of service (see Matthew 20:26-27, John 13:3-9; cf. Philippians 2:5-11).
Much more could be said about spiritual disciplines in general and Jesus’ use of them in particular. But for my purposes, the central point is this: Jesus practices spiritual disciplines, we are to follow him in this, and solitude, fasting, prayer and service are central among those disciplines.
For more on this, see: J. P. Moreland, Klaus Issler, The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006): Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).