Although Christians should always practice the spiritual disciplines, many choose to jumpstart their efforts at the beginning of a new year. A Bible reading plan, a prayer guide, a strategy for limiting social media, or an intentional effort to share the gospel more—all these are good things. Even if you don’t like making New Year’s resolutions, hopefully you’re planning to continue practicing the spiritual disciplines in the coming year. Whatever the case, it helps to pursue them in the right way.
I want to offer three cautions regarding bad approaches to spiritual disciplines. There’s much more to say on this topic, but hopefully these cautions will serve as encouragements to pursue Christ-likeness in ways that are biblical and wise.
1. Do not practice spiritual disciplines to get on God’s good side.
No amount of praying, Bible reading, witnessing, or fasting—or any other discipline—has the power to change your standing before God. Those who are in Christ are declared righteous and cannot be separated from God’s love (Romans 8:31–39). If we forget about God’s grace in preserving us, then the result will be burnout, discouragement, or some form of works-righteousness. Striving to grow in the spiritual disciplines is important, to be sure, but it shouldn’t be the kind of striving that comes from fear or anxiety. Spiritual disciplines should flow from our love for the One who has given his own Son to rescue us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). It will put wind in your spiritual sails to recall that God’s saving mercy has been lavished on you, a sinner deserving of his judgment, and that the ability to pursue spiritual disciplines is itself a gift from God.
2. Do not avoid spiritual disciplines out of fear of legalism.
While spiritual disciplines can turn into a form of mere moralism, they don’t have to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with putting forth effort to grow in godliness. Words like train and discipline aren’t un-Christian. In fact, Scripture tells us to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7), and Paul spoke of disciplining his body to keep it under control (1 Corinthians 9:27). We must be intentional if we want to obey Paul’s charge to Timothy to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22). This kind of effort is fueled by God’s grace, of course, but growing in Christ-likeness doesn’t happen by sitting on your couch and hoping for a surge of joy to overtake you. That’s not how God has designed it. We are commanded to “run with endurance” as we look to Jesus (Hebrews 12:1), and this takes some spiritual exercise.
3. Do not treat spiritual disciplines as an all-or-nothing pursuit.
Some Christians pull the plug on a spiritual discipline simply because they’re not meeting their goals. They begin a Bible reading plan with gusto, but then when work gets hectic or deadlines start piling up at school, they stall out. After missing a few days, they get frustrated and stop reading altogether. But think about it: wouldn’t it be better to read through most of God’s Word in a year rather than quitting in late February? Remember, the ultimate goal is not to complete a Bible reading plan or to pray for fifteen minutes a day; those are means to an end. The ultimate goal is to grow in your love for God. Expect temporary setbacks and occasional resets, and ask for God’s grace to move forward and grow. Spiritual maturity isn’t built in a day, or even a year.