But, ironically enough, I’m not a fan of the so-called spiritual disciplines, even though they’ve been designed with the introvert in mind. I mean, mention “spiritual discipline” to a preacher or theologian, and you’ll hear a list of such practices as quiet times, prayer, solitude, journaling, Bible study, prayer mazes, lectio divina, and meditation — a list surely compiled by an extreme introvert.
The problem I have with this list is the complete absence of any such a thing from the scriptures. Yes, there are psalms that urge us to meditate on the word of God — but nothing suggesting that this is to be a solo activity. In the ancient world, the scriptures were generally listened to, not read, and they were listened to in a group setting.
In the synagogues, the study of the Torah was very much a group activity. Reading a scroll alone would have been rare — and rude, because everyone in town wanted to read from the same scroll. There was usually only one per village. Rather, someone sat in the Moses seat — a chair before the seated congregation — opened the scroll, and read aloud. The scrolls were too precious not to be shared.
Jesus often sought solitude for prayer, but he was pressed by huge crowds — and not once instructed his followers to do the same. Not that it would be wrong. It’s just nowhere taught as an indispensable path to righteousness.
These are, I’m sure, very fine practices, but the Bible nowhere puts these forward as the path to becoming a disciple. And I’m not sure they help that much. (I detail further complaints about Dallas Willard’s teaching at this earlier post.)
If you were to read the NT looking for the behaviors of a disciple, without the benefit of evangelical popular literature, I think you’d quickly find guidance in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Cor 13, Rom 12, and Gal 5. Neither Jesus nor Paul was reluctant to offer advice on how to live as a Christian. We just don’t care to follow that advice — by and large.
You see, the passages I just cited are all about how to get along with each other in community. For example,
(Gal 5:19-24 ESV) 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Notice the works of the flesh are largely sins committed against the community. You can’t be guilty of a rivalry or a dissension or a division all by yourself in solitude and meditation. You have to be in community.
And the cure isn’t to leave the community but to pursue the fruit of the Spirit. The point of, for example, kindness, gentleness, or peace is how you treat other people. That’s plain enough for most of the list, and in context, surely the major point of Paul’s selection of these particular fruits.
At the end of his letter to the Galatians, after a long course on narrative hermeneutics and deep theology, Paul concludes with: be in community, don’t sin against the community, rather help build the community.
What’s the point of love and peace but for community building? Who cares about your self-control unless you struggle to control yourself around other people?
So all the lessons on faith, works, and circumcision point toward: get along! And not just for the sake of having no conflict. Get along to build a community that so loves one another than the lost will want to have what you have.
(Joh 13:34-35 ESV) 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Our love for each other marks us as followers of Christ; not our journaling skills. And when people see our love in action, they will be drawn to investigate and perhaps to be converted. It’s just that simple.
So it starts with the Sacraments. Done right, the Sacraments (among other things) build community — love in action. They draw us closer to Jesus, and as we approach Jesus, we become closer to each other. (Drawing close to Jesus in private, if such a thing were possible, doesn’t really do that.)
From there, we get to congregational life — which is hard like marriage is hard. Like raising kids is hard. Being around people you love is hard. Especially when you’re together a lot. But time spent together is the only way to grow together.
How well these things accomplish their purposes depends in large part on the story we tell through them. Are we announcing our superior theology? Or are we announcing the Lordship of Jesus? Are we asking individuals to get right with Jesus? Or are we inviting the lost to enter the Kingdom and to join Jesus in his redemptive mission through the church?