Motivation for Spiritual Disciplines

September 17, 2020

As we begin to explore spiritual disciplines as a way of life, I first ought to address some of the Evangelical suspicions against them. Hopefully in doing so, naysayers can be convinced and even motivated to heartily venture into new depths of spiritual growth and discovery. Incidentally, motivation is one of the root concerns many Evangelicals have. What are the reasons for adopting spiritual exercises? Indeed, it is an important question to consider.

On one hand there is a danger; we must have the right motivation so that our spiritual exercises do not become idolatrous or legalistic. Spiritual disciplines can have a tremendous impact in our lives, but only if they are infused with proper Biblical, God-honouring purposes, otherwise they can become harmful. On the other hand we need sound and proper motivation in order to adopt spiritual disciplines into a new way of life. Lifestyle changes are difficult to make and maintain, and the right motivation makes a crucial difference. In my introductory post to spiritual disciplines, I briefly covered these issues, but a bit more is needed to draw out why as Christians we should be engaging in spiritual disciplines in our daily lives. From what I can see there are two main purposes for this; one is individual, the other is communal. I firmly believe we cannot have change on the communal level before we have it on the individual level, and so we will start there.

In Protestant churches Paul is famous for drilling the point home across the Mediterranean that we are saved by our faith in Christ,
and not by works. As much as we need to embrace this fundamental truth of the Gospel, we should take care to note how much Paul actually does speak about doing “good works” as a way of life created out of our salvation:

“For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters,”Rom. 8:29

Paul, in his letter to the Roman church, painted the big picture about our new lives in Christ. You see, while in our salvation God declares us to be like Jesus when we really are not, it is in our sanctification that He transforms us so that we become more like Jesus in reality. In other words, we are to be literally conformed to the image of His Son after our salvation, in the course of a lifelong relationship with Him. This is all a part of God’s plan for our lives here on Earth. Writing to Ephesian church, Paul puts it this way:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.”Eph. 2:10

How can we as the Church downplay something that is so integral to God’s vision for each and every person whom He has created and redeems? Let me close on the essential importance of good works in a Christian’s life with words that Jesus left with His twelve apostles during the last supper. Jesus was describing Himself as a vine, and His followers as branches when he said:

“Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit.”John 15:2

Here, fruit represents the result of salvation: good works. Not only does God the Father attend to the life of every follower of Jesus so that they are more fruitful, but fruitfulness is also the signifier of true belonging and salvation. The importance of redemptive change in a believer’s life cannot be stressed enough, and it should, in my opinion, drive everyone into sincere self-reflection and inspire a new desire to be fruitful for God’s glory in this life. The answer to this however isn’t just a few more good deeds, done contrary to the state of our hearts. Rather utter transformation is what the Bible has in view, and transformation is exactly what the spiritual disciplines are utilized for.

The second thrust of this argument is the communal purpose for spiritual disciplines, and it builds on the first. You see, if the Church were filled to the brim with Christians actively growing in Christlikeness, you would begin seeing changes throughout the rest of society. My proposal is that the evil we see in society is rooted in the evil of individuals. While it does seem that greater structures in society have power and agency all their own, I maintain that all structures live or die at the hands of groups of individuals. It is from this source of power (that is individuals) that social change can manifest. Dallas Willard puts it much better:

The impersonal power structures in the world are, though independent of any one person’s will and experience, nevertheless dependent for their force upon the general readiness of normal people to do evil. (1)

Imagine, then, what could happen if the individuals who comprise these power structures were not ready to do evil, but good. Just like the individuals that empower it, the structure would undergo a transformation.

Let me step back for but a moment to respond to a critique I hear fairly often. Many Christians object to the idea of the Church getting involved in political and social change. While they agree with me about the focus on individual change, they would rather see the social change I am speaking of as merely a by- product, not as a rightful and God-honouring goal in and of itself. A particular sinkhole that I think traps many Christians here is the separation of the spiritual life with the rest of life, or material existence. The Church deals with the spiritual and that’s the boundary. The problem is that this is not reflected in scripture:

The Torah of Yahweh, [. . .], concerns the whole of their life as persons, as families, as a nation. Faith, obedience, repentance, and love are not bracketed off under the category of religion; on the contrary, they are embodied in ways of behaving that cover much of what we would describe as jurisprudence, public health, education, welfare, and economic policy. (2)

It’s a foolish notion to think that the Creator of Existence cares only for the spiritual lives of individuals and allows people free reign over the wider operation of society. Life is messy and the way we act flows naturally into how society functions, and God cares as much as how we live our lives as how are communities and societies live theirs.

Everything we need is within our grasp. The Holy Spirit is here to lead every Christian into the work of transformation, and through scripture we have all the instruction we need. If that wasn’t enough we have two thousand years of brothers and sisters who have added their insights and experiences in walking the same path. Looking forward to the future, Lesslie Newbigin casts this vision:

Perhaps we can learn to embody in the life of the church a witness to the kingship of Christ over all life – its politic and economic no less that its personal and domestic morals – [. . .] (3)

To this vision I submit a road map; spiritual disciplines patterned on the life of Jesus, the perfect human and our perfect teacher. Through His example and His example alone can we find the expression of life that allows us to love rather than hate, give rather than take, and put others’ wellbeing before our own. This way of life will not just transform people. It cannot. Inevitably the whole of our communal existence will transform to declare God’s design and purpose.


1 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, (1998), pg 231.

2 Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, (1986), pg 97.

3 Newbigin, pg 102.

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn. The Apostle Paul, c. 1657

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