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Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines

What can we expect as we practice spiritual disciplines? In this study, we will learn some lessons from Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Here we will discover how to maintain Jesus as our focus and how to be rooted in Him. Mary models for us the value of practicing spiritual disciplines—spiritual health habits. As we choose to rest in Him, i.e., to be in His presence, we will see worry dissipate, our priorities get in line with our Lord’s plans for us, and our activities more focused and prioritized.

When Martin Luther was in the depths of despair, his wife took the rather bold and dramatic step of dressing herself in black. Martin asked her, "Who has died?" Her reply was that by his behavior, he gave the impression God had. This remark was enough to shock him into a renewed exercise of faith and praise to God.

In our lives, there are a number of ways we give the impression that God is sick, very weak, or even dead. The most common is with frenzied activity. There are always things—good things, needful things, loud, demanding things, even spiritual activities that squawk for our attention. Doing these good things, however, may distract us from the many opportunities we have to communicate, fellowship, and just listen to God. Thus we act as if He was dead, too.

What do you think our Lord does when we begin to act as if He doesn’t exist? Jesus does not respond to our action-filled way of living by saying that we should not be busy with worldly affairs. He does not try to pull us away from the many events, activities, and people that make up our lives. He does not tell us that what we do is unimportant, valueless, or useless; nor does He suggest that we should be removed from the struggles of the world.

Jesus’ response is quite different.

 

"He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the 'many things' to the 'one necessary thing.' He wants us to live in the world, but be firmly rooted at the center—in Him"—Henry Nouwen, An Introduction to Spiritual Life.

An illustration of this dilemma and the solution to it is seen in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. If we are to maintain our center focus and be rooted in Him, we must learn the lesson of Mary and Martha. Jesus said to Mary, "Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her."

Let’s look at the whole scene:

38] As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39] She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40] But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" 41] "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42] but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Looking at this scene, what’s the answer to busyness? The solution for Martha could be to stop all the cooking for, and entertaining of, friends and strangers. Our answer may be to stop any kind of ministry or activity that isn’t absolutely necessary. We could lay down everything we’re doing and just sit. That may be a temporary solution, but for lasting results more is needed!

I believe there is a better response to the dilemma. To get the solution, let’s first understand the problems Martha had, then we’ll see what the best response might be. Believers today face similar problems.

  1. Her preparation and plans led to distraction
  2. Her priorities would not last
  3. Her prayer was selfish.

Her preparations led to distraction

Why does that happen so often to us as well? To answer, let's ask a few questions about plans and preparations.

  • Are preparations a necessary evil?
  • Are they to be avoided or at best tolerated?
  • Should we just live one day at a time?

Thinking in terms of this incident in Luke 10, if Martha had forgotten the preparations, would she have been rebuked? The answer is quite obvious. The problem wasn’t the preparation, but that it needlessly became a distraction—v. 40. Martha missed the present because of worry, not because of her activity. The solution for her was not to avoid preparation, but to learn to enjoy the presence of God in those necessary preparations, and have faith in His care for her.

We’re not going to be able to go through life without planning, any more than God did. The Scripture confirms that killing the Lamb of God (Jesus) was planned before the foundation of the world. If God's preparations were before time began, then certainly we must have plans, from the essential to those of lesser value throughout our life. The challenge is to learn to plan and prepare for the future, and yet live in the present with peace and not worry.

Some might be saying, "Oh, you don’t know my schedule." Or, "I have the kind of job that demands all my attention." Scripture makes it clear; no matter what our job or lot in life, we can learn to practice and enjoy God’s presence now—Matt. 6:25-34. Brother Lawrence, a humble monk, learned to do this when he was cleaning pots in the monastery, and so can we in our everyday lives. We have a capacity within us to focus on whatever we choose.

The answer is to choose to do the following:

  • Fight distractions (not work, ministry, or planning). We don’t need to be diverted from essential activities, even in the midst of our busiest times.
  • In the future, have faith in God's care for His children.
  • Enjoy His presence now. How can that be done?

The solutions will be different for everyone, but here are a few to help you practice God's presence throughout your work day. (Suggested by Elsa Houtz, "Spiritual Disciplines From 9-5," Discipleship Journal, #74, p. 47.)

  1. Get mileage out of your travel time—listen to tapes, pray, worship.
  2. Set aside a minimum of one lunch hour and/or one coffee break a week.
  3. Keep a "jotting journal," a small notebook for jotting down questions, issues, or experiences you want to follow up on later.
  4. Schedule checkpoints into your day—a regular time in your schedule when you take two or three minutes to ask, "Am I depending on God, or am I working in my own strength? Am I letting Christ be seen through me today"?

Her prayers become selfish

v. 40—"But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, 'Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!'"

These verses aren't a prayer per se, but they are addressed to God, and do reflect a lot of our prayers and requests. Compare Martha's statements with your own prayers. What do your prayers sound like? Have you ever prayed:

"Lord, will you put it into my sister’s/husband’s/friend's head to help me?"

"Lord, will you make________ feel bad about what He’s done, or is not doing for me? Convict him, Lord."

What’s the problem with these prayers and/or statements? When we begin to focus on the weaknesses and sins of others, our prayers will quickly become selfish and even demanding. We become so sure about what is needed that we don't even bother to pray for wisdom, or ask how to respond to the need before us. The result is:

  • Our prayers do not reflect God’s character or name.
  • Our prayers begin to focus on God as the problem or obstacle.
  • Our prayers may even attack God. "Don’t you care?"

What’s the solution?

  1. First, we need prayer that asks for God’s solutions and doesn’t demand our answers. If we don’t have a clear word from Scripture for the future, we must ask for God’s solution.
  2. Second, we need prayer that doesn’t demand God make someone else fit my expectation—"Lord, tell her to help me..."
  3. Third, we need prayer that begins with an accurate view of God and does not impose human frailties and characteristics upon Him—"Don’t you care?"

Here’s an alternative to Mary’s prayer: "Lord, I know You care how I feel about Mary. I feel unappreciated and taken advantage of—but I know You have a solution. What is it? Thank You that You are loving and compassionate, and care about each trial I face. I wait expectantly for the right response to take. I trust You."

  1. Fourth, in other words, we need prayers that are bathed in faith and in God’s promises.

Her priorities will not last

vv. 41-42—"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

What does this say to us?

Martha teaches us the need to choose essential priorities and give our priority attention to them. Therefore, if there is a conflict between essential priorities and secondary priorities, then we know what to do, what action to take. We will not become worried and upset about many things, but will give our best attention to what matters most.

Let's put that principle to the test. How many believers think spending time with God is a priority? How many struggle finding the time to do it? What’s the reason? Is it that it really isn't a priority? Or is it that like Martha, they are distracted by lesser priorities?

The solution to many of our problems is to choose as a priority to be silent before God and to listen and enjoy His presence.

v. 39—"She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said."

Ps. 37:7—"Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes."

There are so many times when silence is especially appropriate, e.g. after we have had an especially busy day, or when we contemplate who God is and what He has done. One night George Whitfield, the great 18th century evangelist, preached with such power and evidence of God working in people's lives, that he could scarcely speak anymore because of his sense of awe. "After I came home," he wrote in his journal, "I threw myself upon the bed, and in awful silence admired the infinite freedom, sovereignty, and condescension of the love of God." Yes, there is a time when we should say nothing because silence provides the soul with scope and opportunity to ponder God’s greatness.

Silence is also a mark of true friendship. Someone has said: "A love which has no silence, has no depth to it." For instance, observe a loving mother watching her children play. Or watch a young woman and man look into each other’s eyes at the wedding altar. Their eyes say more than words.

The reason silence can be so deep and helpful is because of what we hear. As a fog horn is usually only heard in the early morning, or late at night when everything is silent, we hear what God is saying and doing in our lives only when we are silent.

With the value of silence in mind, what will bring these verses closer to home? What will help the distracted today? What will help the restless, the hurried? Here are three things to help you set aside time with Christ. They come from Luke 10:38-42. I want you to circle three phrases:

  1. "Mary has chosen"—she chose to set aside pressing demands to spend time with Jesus.
  2. "What is better"—this means Mary’s choice was based on her discernment of what was more valuable.
  3. "Mary. . .sat at the Lord's feet listening to what He said." She learned the value and discipline of listening. These three phrases help shed some light on why we don’t give God more time.

First, we don't choose to spend time with God.

We simply lack the inner direction and the will to decide how to use our time. Why is that? Our appetite for God is too small, thus we choose to watch TV, read a book, etc. Sometimes we mistakenly believe our worth is measured by activity. As activists, we might even believe that spending large blocks of time alone with God is lazy, or calloused to the world’s needs. Interestingly, however, in reviewing the Scripture, we see just the opposite.

For example, twice God directed Moses away from needy people for 40 days—Ex. 34:24. Jesus also began His ministry when the Spirit led Him into the wilderness for 40 days—Matt. 4:1-2. His greatest challenge at the beginning of His ministry took place in the solitude of the desert. Sadly, "important" activity sometimes becomes a diversion from the greatest challenges and victories waiting for us in solitude.

Second, we don’t have a good idea of what it means to seek first the kingdom of God.

We don't have the discernment, like Mary or Jesus, to choose what is more valuable or better for us. As we watch Jesus, however, we have to be impressed with His single focus on doing the will of the Father—Luke 2:49. It was that devotion that enabled Him to choose the best from many good opportunities. When our hearts are set on the kingdom, our worries, distractions, and secondary priorities will slowly move to the background.

Third, we misunderstand the place of spiritual discipline in our lives—Matt. 16:24.

"We should know that a spiritual life without discipline is impossible. Discipline is the other side of discipleship. The practice of a spiritual discipline makes us more sensitive to the small, gentle voice of God"—Henri J.M. Nouwen.

What is spiritual discipline? Meditate on the following statements:

A spiritual discipline is the concentrated effort to create some inner and outer space in our life where obedience can be practiced.

Through a spiritual discipline, we prevent the world from filling our lives to such an extent that there is no place left to listen.

A spiritual discipline sets us free to pray.

The practice of spiritual discipline makes us more sensitive to the small, gentle voice of God and spiritual opportunities, e.g., Mary.

A spiritual discipline puts us at the feet of Jesus to listen to Him and to commune with Him. A spiritual discipline, therefore, becomes a step to building a friendship with God.

 

What does Scripture indicate will be the result of our practicing spiritual disciplines? Here are three examples:

  1. When Moses met with God on Mt. Sinai, God gave him deep and specific insight into His will, His thinking, His values, and His instructions for healthy living: the law—Ex. 34:6-10.
  2. When Jesus spent 40 days alone in the wilderness, He won spiritual battles that lay the foundation for His public ministry.
  3. When David was confronted by Nathan that the son born to him and Bathsheba would die, he spent seven days on his face fasting, praying, and asking God to spare His child’s life (2 Sam. 12:22-23). When the child died, David’s response showed that time with God had adjusted his heart and developed his receptivity to God’s will. He worshipped God, v. 20, and comforted Bathsheba, v. 24.

How about our lives? What can we expect as we practice spiritual disciplines? Let’s take a test.

As we choose to rest in Him, i.e., to be in His presence, we will see worry dissipate, our priorities get in line with our Lord’s plans for us, and our activities focused and prioritized.

In summary then, as we look back at Luke 10:38-42, what might be the solution to the following problems?

Problem
Solution
If your preparations are distractingPractice His presence, and trust His care
If your prayer is selfish
You need to ask for God's solutions and not demand your answers. You need to make sure your prayers reflect an accurate view of God.
If your priorities won't lastPrioritize what is best—what will last for eternity

Application Questions: How to Practice Silence/Solitude

  1. How would you define solitude?
  2. Why did Jesus need solitude?
  3. Why is solitude such a rare commodity in Christian life today?
  4. Why do you think the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert in Matthew 4:1-11?
  5. Take a few minutes to sketch out how you would build solitude into your life. (If you are in a small group, share your strategy with that group, as well as the particular struggle you believe you’ll face in establishing solitude in your life.)
  6. In what sense is silence a spiritual discipline?
  7. What relationship, if any, do you see between silence and prayer?
  8. What makes silence such a difficult discipline in our world?
  9. If you have spent extended periods of time in solitude, silence, and prayer, describe your experience in a journal or with a small group. What was easy about it? What was difficult? Did you have more inner or outward distractions? How did prayer fit into your solitude and silence? Share the most significant learning experience you have had in structured solitude.

How to Practice the Disciplines

  1. If you had to list 3 or 4 essential elements for the development of the spiritual life, what would they be?
  2. Which word describes your Christian lifestyle—distracted, or directed? Why?
  3. In the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42, which sister can you best identify with?
  4. One writer called "busyness" a demon. In what sense is he right, and in what sense is he wrong?
  5. Discuss how busyness has become a 20th century god. Relate this to your life goals.
  6. Describe some concrete ways one can escape the compulsion of busyness.
  7. Is it wrong to be busy? Why?
  8. Which of these presents the greatest problem to the development of your spiritual life?

Lack of time
Distractions—inward or outward
Demands
Consistency
Discipline

 

  1. Which feeling below comes closest to describing your first reaction when you hear the phrase "spiritual disciplines"—guilt, frustration, delight, or ambivalence? Would your answer have been different when you were a new Christian? Five years ago? What are some of the reasons Christians have negative feelings about the disciplines?
  2. Which disciplines are most important to practice regularly? Why? Should a Christian feel guilty for missing a quiet time? Why or why not? Tell why you think so few practice the following disciplines?

Memorizing Scripture
Writing in a spiritual journal
Setting aside several hours to spend time alone with God
Telling an unbeliever how to become a Christian
Fasting

 

  1. In general, how would you describe your practice of the disciplines: Usually consistent, tend to go in spurts, not what it should be. Why is it so difficult to practice the disciplines faithfully? When you have been able to practice the disciplines faithfully, what has helped you to be consistent? How can we practice the disciplines consistently without falling into legalism?
  2. From the following list of disciplines (Bible reading, Bible study, prayer, fasting, serving, fellowship, giving, worship, evangelism), indicate which discipline best fits each category below.

 

The discipline that most helps me grow spiritually:
The discipline I most enjoy:
The discipline that is hardest to practice consistently:|
The discipline I understand the least:
The discipline I think is subject to the greatest legalism:

 

Summary:

 

  1. Are we supposed to enjoy the disciplines?
  2. Why do you think so many people have difficulty sharing their faith regularly?
  3. Although fasting is often mentioned in Scripture, we seldom hear teaching advocating it. Why do you think fasting is practiced so seldom today?
  4. Do you agree that worship is subject to the greatest legalism? Why?