Can Spiritual Disciplines be Overemphasized?

I suppose the fact that I’m even asking that question gives a bit of a hint to what I think the answer might be.

I think spiritual disciplines can be overemphasized, and I think they often are.  The spiritual formation movement in some ways started with the publication of Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, and Foster continues to play a major role in the movement and formation community.  A good number of other books (some quite good) by folks such as Dallas Willard, Adhele Calhoun, Marjorie Thompson, and a host of others are written on the subject.  The Call to Spiritual Formation document speaks of it as a vital part of the growth process.  It’s woven through the formation mentality.

Clasped HandsNow let me back way, way up before it starts looking too much like I’m speaking negatively of spiritual disciplines.  They are unquestionably helpful, meaningful, and likely beneficial tools in the process of growth and formation.  They help us to make room for God and the spiritual life, may open us up to the truth of ourselves and God, and can help train our bodies to engage with life in more positive manners and help to eliminate unhelpful habits.  These are all undeniable positives.  Thus, I heartily recommend spiritual disciplines of many sorts.

With this in mind, however, I still think they can be overemphasized.  Foster, in his book, begins by asserting that willpower can become an idol to us as we try to make things happen in our spiritual lives and that spiritual disciplines themselves do not change us.  Numerous others have stressed particularly the latter point as well.  Inevitably, and rightly, I think, such authors point to the work of the Holy Spirit as the transformative element.  However, as much as these highly intelligent, wise, and experienced people point to the Spirit, rarely do they give much of an explanation for what the Spirit actually does.  There is a strikingly strong push to say that the Spirit is the one that transforms but a fairly weak followup as to the details.

Once this is established, there are various pitfalls that open up.  First, if there is no detailed understanding for what the Holy Spirit is doing, then there is no means of interacting with that directly.  How do you work with someone if you can’t exactly tell what they’re doing?  Without this connection, what is there to fall back on other than the spiritual disciplines we started with?  Disciplines end up emphasized because we’re not certain what else to accent.

Second, and almost the same point, if we don’t know what the Holy Spirit is doing, then what is there to write about?  If we feel that it is good to write about spiritual formation and growth, and yet we don’t the process the main element of it goes, then we must again find something else to write about, and disciplines is a viable place to land.

Third, if the Holy Spirit is the agent of transformation, then we aren’t the ones in control.  But that’s a somewhat frightening position to be in.  Being finite, born separated from God due to sin, and unable to see the future, we are sort of born anxious about the future.  How do we know if things will go well?  That anxiety spurs us to try to do something to make sure things go well.  But what do we do?  Spiritual disciplines are a possibility again.  That’s us doing something to spur our spiritual life forward.  Even if it’s not the major aspect, it’s the one that involves us, and that eases our anxiety a bit.

Various other traps could be examined, but I’m actually under the weather at the moment and not inclined to wrack my brain too hard.  One way or another, what we end up with are the disciplines often and inadvertently put in a place that even those writing about them say they shouldn’t be.  No one ever says it, but the spiritual formation community ends up sounding a bit like the classical disciplines of solitude, silence, prayer, fasting, study, worship, etc. are the focus or crux of spiritual formation.  They’re just not.

And they can’t be.  If they are, then the gospel is one of our effort and not the work of Christ on the cross.  We can’t save ourselves, and we can’t grow ourselves, by spiritual disciplines or otherwise.

Again, I’m not disparaging the classical disciplines.  They are indispensable for many reasons.  But they aren’t the solution to the spiritual life and growth, even if they play a part in it.  If I had to put an emphasis on something that we do, I’d lean towards striving to open ourselves in mind and heart to what the Holy Spirit is already doing in us.  But then, one could theoretically argue that that might just be a discipline in of itself, which could tear down my entire thesis here.

Did I just shoot myself in the foot?  Eh, if I did, then so be it.  I still think there’s more to the spiritual life than the disciplines, nifty as they are.


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