When we come to Christ for the first time and experience His salvation, we become new creations. But as we learn, grow, and develop in our walks with Christ, we are being shaped, molded, and formed more into His image. Spiritual formation is a journey, a process of becoming more like Jesus.
We are formed through discipleship, through practicing spiritual disciplines.
At the root, the word “disciple” means to be a follower, to be a learner.
If you are a parent, why is it that you discipline your children? You discipline them to teach them, to train them, to help them become the best versions of themselves. Simply yelling at them and telling them not to do something “because I said so” is not true discipline, because they aren’t learning anything. True discipline is loving correction. True discipline is helping them understand why they should or should not do something that’s in their best interest.
“By discipline we learn – and whether as children or adults, without it we cannot grow into the kind of persons we ought to be. The word has come to mean the formation of habits and patterns of life, usually by repetition until they become a part of us.”
– Georgia Harkness, Disciplines of the Christian Life
Think about it this way – How do you become a great athlete, musician, or artist? It doesn’t happen overnight. It requires daily practice. It requires surrounding yourself with people who have the same goals and interests. It requires a lifestyle change. It requires making diet, exercise, practice, and training a part of your daily schedule and routine. It requires commitment – commitment both to your end goal, and to whatever it is that drives and motivates you.
“The Spirit of the Disciplines is nothing but the love of Jesus, with its resolute will to be like Him whom we love… A discipline for the spiritual life is, when the dust of history is blown away, nothing but an activity undertaken to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and His Kingdom.”
– Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines
Spiritual disciplines are those daily practices of our Christian faith. They are the diet and exercise of our Spiritual development, and they are essential for our spiritual growth and maturity. They include:
- Study of Scripture
- Silence, Solitude, & Secrecy
- Fasting & Prayer
- Fellowship, Confession, & Submission
- Service & Sacrifice
- Praise & Worship
Why is the study of Scripture such an important discipline for Spiritual formation?
1) Jesus began His earthly ministry by reading from Scripture
In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus begins His earthly ministry by standing in the synagogue and reading from Scripture. Prior to begining His ministry, Jesus was baptized and then led into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And how did He combat that temptation? By quoting Scripture. These are the first stories we have of the adult Jesus in Scripture. At this time He is estimated to be around 30 years old, approximately 3.5 years before His death and resurrection. Prior to this first entrance into public ministry, the last we had seen of Jesus was when He was 12 years old and His parents found Him in the Temple listening to the religious teachers and asking them questions. The early years of Jesus were largely hidden from Scripture, but in each of these early stories, we learn that Jesus must have spent a majority of time in His hidden years studying and gaining a deep knowledge and understanding of Scripture. As His disciples, we should make it a priority to follow the example He set for us.
2) Jesus is the Word of God in flesh
John 1:1-14 tells us that “In the beginning, the Word already existed. The Word was with God and the Word was God” and “The Word became human and made His home with us.” Jesus is God in human flesh. Jesus is God personified and dwelling among us. If we want to get to know the characteristics of God, we do so by looking at the life of Jesus. And if we want to get to know Jesus, we do so by reading the Word of God. There is so much power in His written Word. It is how we come to know God, it is how we come to know Jesus, and it is how we come to know ourselves.
3) All Scripture is Inspired by God and Useful
“The inspiration of the Bible does not mean that God dictated it, word for word, and therefore that its truth is unmistakable. The word ‘inspiration’ means ‘inbreathing,’ and in the Bible we find the breath of God’s Spirit for man’s invigoration as it comes through its human writers. Those who wrote the various portions of the Bible had a great sense of what God was doing in human life and history; yet they had their own prejudices and points of view as well. Inevitably, these crept into the record, so that we have in the Bible what Paul called heavenly ‘treasure in earthen vessels.’”
– Georgia Harkness, Disciplines of the Christian Life
Jesus is the Word of God in flesh, and just as Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, so is His Word. It was passed down through stories and written down by flawed human beings, but every word was inspiried by the the divine Word of God. As Andrew Wilson writes, “I don’t trust Jesus because I trust the Bible, I trust the Bible because I trust Jesus.” Our faith should be rooted in Jesus, and backed up by Scripture. All Scripture is useful and purposeful for our growth and development, and all Scripture should be used to bring us closer to Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:15-17 says, “You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (NLT).
What are some study traps to avoid?
1) Don’t just accept something to be true because it’s what you’ve always heard
So many people are following the faith of their parents and grandparents, and don’t understand why they believe what they believe. Study the Scripture for yourself. Seek the truth, and you will find it. Your relationship with God is personal. You get to know a friend truly and intimately by spending time with them, not by listening to gossip about them. It’s the same with Jesus. We get to know Jesus by reading the Gospel and studying His life. When you listen to other preachers and teachers and leaders of the faith, always make sure what you are learning is supported and backed up by Scripture. A solid knowledge of Scripture will help you to not be led astray by false prophets who use the pulpit as a platform to share their opinions and worldview or make a profit.
2) Don’t feel obligated to read the Bible cover to cover
Reading the Bible cover to cover is a great Spiritual practice, but what is your motivation for doing it? If you’re reading just to read, you’ll miss the meaning and mystery behind the words. Read with the intention of finding Jesus there, not to mark it off your “to-do” list. Truly dwell in His Spirit and reflect on the words. Don’t rush through them. Allow them to soak in and transform you.
3) Don’t try to find a text in the Bible to justify your beliefs or actions
If you go to the Bible with that intention, you’ll probably find what you’re looking for, but you’ll also skew and misinterpret the words in the process. We read the Bible so it can transform us into the image of Jesus, not so we can transform Him into our image. We read the Bible to get to know the source of our salvation and find forgiveness for our sins, not to find justification for our sins so we can continue living life as we always have.
4) Don’t try to explain the mystery away
You will not understand everything in Scripture. As Aristotle said, “The more I know, the more I know how much I don’t know.” If there was no mystery to the Scripture, then it wouldn’t be miraculous. If we could explain everything in Scripture with scientific fact and human ability, then it wouldn’t be God. It wouldn’t be Holy, and Sacred, and Set Apart. Find delight and adventure in the ambiguity of Scripture. Find joy in the journey. Wrestle with the parts that confuse you, and use your questions to take you deeper into the meaning, and purpose, and truth behind the text.
5) Don’t take it lightly
Honor the Word of God and keep it Holy. It’s more than just a text. It’s more than just a historical document. It’s more than stories, and poems, and songs. People have died trying to keep this book out of your hands and out of your language. Other people around the world, even today, do not have the same privileges that we do. Don’t take that gift for granted. Don’t let it collect dust. Let it transform you. As the saying goes, “A Bible that is falling apart belongs to a person who is not.”
What are some study tips to practice?
1) Find an accountability partner
Find someone you can study with, share your questions with, and bounce ideas off of. Find someone who can share in your excitement of the Scripture, and someone who will hold you accountable to your study time.
2) Make Scripture a visible part of your daily life
Consistency and repetition is key for memorization. Memorization is important for when you need to recall verses to your mind and speak truth to yourself in times when you don’t have your Bible in front of you. Make it visible by putting it in places you see every day – on your phone screen, your computer screen, your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator, or the dashboard in your car. In Deuteronomy 6:6-9, the children of Israel were instructed to teach their children the words of God by talking day and night about them, binding them on their hands, wearing them on their foreheads, and writing them on the door posts of their houses as a reminder.
3) Set aside a fixed time to study
Make it a regular part of your daily routine. Choose a quiet time and place that works best for you. Get away from the noise and distractions for a while. Turn off your phone, prepare your heart, and sit attentively in His presence as you read and study.
4) Accompany study with prayer
Invite the Holy Spirit into your time of study. Seek Him. Worship Him. Ask Him to reveal Himself to you. Listen for His voice, and wait expectantly for Him to speak.
5) Focus less on technique, and more on the posture of your heart
Technique matters. How you study is important, but it’s just a means to an end. The end goal of why we study Scripture is to grow closer to Jesus and to be shaped more into His image. We read for formation, not just for information. The quality of our study is more important than the quantity of our study. Make the most of your time with Jesus by truly spending time with Him. Don’t rush through it. Take the time to listen, and respond, and allow yourself to be transformed.
6) View the Bible as a library of writings, not just as a singular book
We can’t read every book of the Bible in the same way. The Bible is a compilation of different genres, written by different authors, in different time periods, with different points of view. When we read the Bible with that perspective in mind, it truly comes to life and takes on the multi-dimensional shape that is representative of the Kingdom of God.
7) Study the passage within the full context
When reading a passage of Scripture, be sure to read the verses before and after. Get a Study Bible or read along with a commentary. When using a Study Bible, be sure to follow the references in the margins, read the footnotes after each passage, and read the introductions before each book. Learn as much as you can about the historical context, the geographical context, and the background of the author. The details will help make the difference in your understanding of the passage.
8) Pay attention to the details
Read slowly and carefully. Read out loud to help channel your focus if you need to. Pay attention to words and phrases that stand out to you. Ask yourself questions as you’re reading. Why did the author include this? Why did Jesus say this or do that? Where were they going? Where were they coming from? Study the words, the names, the cities and towns. Look up the definitions in the original language. Follow every rabbit trail that God leads you down. Every detail is there for a purpose. Every word was intentional and divinely inspired.
9) Make Jesus the center of your study
Everything in the Old Testament leads up to Jesus, and everything after the Gospels point back to Jesus. Read with that perspective in mind. He is the center of the story, and He should be the center of our study.
“So, if we find passages that seem somewhat dull and even boring, as we may in Leviticus and Numbers, or passages that seem a bit shocking by present standards, as in the polygamy of the Old Testament patriarchs or the cruelty of the wars of conquest, these things need not bother us. They reflect the human element in the Bible. What is divine about it is the message that comes to its climax in Jesus. Using Him as our standard, we can look at the rest with a fresh perspective.”
– Georgia Harkness, Disciplines of the Christian Life
10) Be sure to close the study with a time of reflection and response
Take it personally. Apply it to your life. If you have doubts or questions, ask God. If it compels you to worship, then worship. If it convicts you to make a change in your life, take action and make the change. Spend time in God’s presence once you’re finished studying. Don’t jump right back into daily life without allowing yourself the opportunity to soak in the truth. Feel what you’re feeling. Rest in the presence of His Word and be transformed by the power of His Word.