Sitting on the lawn, I stared down at the leaf from a Magnolia tree. You know the kind—oversized and rigid. It was 1992, I was a seminary student at Beeson Divinity School and was looking for some inspiration about a paper I was writing.
I don’t remember the paper I eventually wrote, but for some reason the image of that Magnolia leaf has stuck with me. I think it was the contrast of colors and texture. Slick and deep green on one side. Rough and dirt brown on the other. It strikes me as a representation of the trajectory my devotional life often takes when I invest is spiritual disciplines. I am moving toward something vibrant or something that is less than fully alive. The difference is in why I engage with them and what I intend to do as a result of them.
I have held a respect for the great books on these practices in our lives. Some of the writers in this field are ancient theologians that have much we need to hear about intimacy with Christ and its impact on our lives. Others are more modern writers that press us to look past the consumer-centric culture toward an eternal vision of God’s kingdom. The phrase “spiritual disciplines” has been used to refer to such practices as study, prayer, meditation, confession, fasting, service, celebration, and silence.
For many Christians, they practice some of these disciplines as a regular part of life whereas others must be more intentionally observed. But, in my own life and I’m guessing some of yours as well, it is not always a matter of the “Am I doing them?” but a matter of “Why am I doing them?”
The disciplines should engage both the private and public portions of our lives. As I am drawn deeply into my proverbial prayer closet, it is so I can clearly hear from God and speak carefully to Him. The fifth chapter of Ecclesiastes reminds us that we are “guard our steps” when in God’s presence and that it is better to be silent than to make a hasty vow (Eccl 5:1-7). The same is true studying the Bible, why we fast, or how we go about a time of simplicity in our lives. The disciplines help us to turn away from the stuff of earth that impedes our ability to hear from God’s Spirit and discern His will.
But the impact of the spiritual disciplines does not end when I exit my proverbial prayer closet. What I become in private as God works on my life should affect how I live in public as God works through my life. The spiritual disciplines are to draw you closer to God but only you. As we delve into the depths of our own relationship with the Messiah, it should, as a natural consequence, launch us into the harvest field. I find that the spiritual disciplines are most effective in my life when they have an affect in the lives of others as well.
As you consider your private devotional life, consider how it is impacting the believers and unbelievers around you. The disciplines exist not for themselves but as instruments that can refine us in our usefulness for God and His kingdom. They can be the grace-filled activities that move us deep into intimacy with the Lord so that we can speak more boldly of His gospel.