There has been an emphasis in recent studies to return to a spirituality based around ancient monasticism. Books and magazine articles are being written to encourage Christians to rediscover these ancient ways of connecting with God. Seminars are being developed to help lead individuals through ways to practice these disciplines in the midst of everyday life. Christians are being challenged to spend more time in prayer and meditation, silence and fasting in order to help them grow closer to God. Overall it is sending a message to take not only Christianity but Spirituality seriously.
I for one am happy for this movement. I have long been challenged by our fore-bearers in the faith to connect to God in meaningful ways. Monasticism has been an interest of study for me in recent years, not just on an intellectual basis but on an experiential basis. I still have much to learn when it comes to practicing spiritual disciplines but I am growing and finding new ways to connect with God. And I am thankful that others are finding these ancient disciplines helpful in their own walk with God.
However, there is a danger in this continual emphasis on returning to an ancient monasticism in that we can be deceived into thinking that becoming experts in the spiritual disciplines is the goal and not a means to a goal. So much emphasis can be placed on having a quality prayer life, and spending time in silence and learning how to fast for extended periods of time that we can fool ourselves into thinking that we have arrived when we have conquered these disciplines, meanwhile our lives may look no different. And if our lives don’t look any different, have we really accomplished anything?
Psalm 1 is a beautiful Psalm that describes in a very simply way two different ways to live life. The Psalmist says that blessed is the righteous person who does not follow the way of the wicked but delights in the Law of the Lord and meditates on God’s law day and night. The righteous person will be like a tree planted by streams of water which always yields its fruit in season and will always prosper. It is a beautiful picture of how meditating on God, spending quiet time with God, becoming more in tune with God helps to lead to a positive life. And while this is true, and spending quiet time with God is vital to faith, it is not the goal of faith. The goal of faith is not endless meditations on God’s law, the goal of faith is a changed life. This idea can’t be seen any clearer than in Psalm 15 when the Psalmist asks, God who may dwell in your sanctuary? The answer that is given is not the person who learns how to pray or fast or spend time in silence. The answer is an ethical one. The person who can dwell in God’s sanctuary lives a righteous life that is characterized by speaking the truth, not looking upon evil, keeping your word, and not taking a bribe. It is the one who lives an ethically righteous life that will stand on God’s holy hill and never be moved. Psalm 15 clearly states that the goal is not more knowledge of God, although knowledge is beneficial, the goal is a transformed life.
Spiritual disciplines are important, but they have to be leading us to a changed life or they are of little value. Learning how to fast is wonderful, but if it doesn’t teach us how to deny self and say no to personal desires then it is has not reached its intended goal. And having times of intentional silence is a blessing, but if it doesn’t teach us to listen more carefully and hear the voice of God then we haven’t gained the intended benefits.
I am a proponent of spiritual disciplines, they have been a blessing in my own life and I look forward to continuing to grow and mature in them because I will admit I still have alot to learn. However, practicing spiritual disciplines is not the goal, it is a means to a goal. The goal is a life transformed into the image of God and lived out in an ethic that mirrors the sermon on the mount. Let us never place so much emphasis on the means that we lose sight of the goal. Because as Psalm 15 declares, it is only the one who lives a righteous life that will stand on God’s holy hill forever.