Practicing the Disciplines of Jesus

It’s dark, early in the morning. Jesus has arisen before dawn to pray. The evening before, Jesus healed the sick and demon possessed. He was gaining so much popularity that the entire town of Capernaum came out to see the miracle worker. He went to bed exhausted but arose early to pray. In the meantime, many people were looking for Jesus. Simon, one of his disciples, and some other companions went looking for him. “Jesus, everyone is looking for you!” (Mark 1:37). This wouldn’t be the last time that Jesus would go off to pray by himself.

The work Jesus was doing was very important and meaningful. But he didn’t do this work apart from time with his Father.

Our world seems to be getting busier and busier, louder and louder. It seems that more and more is demanded of us, whether it’s work, where we spend our free time, or with whom we spend our time. Even if we spend a lot of time with people, helping them or healing them, we are prone to burnout. This is why Jesus broke away from his busy schedule to take time with God.

You might be thinking, “Well, it’s easy for Jesus to break away and pray—He’s the Son of God!” But the Gospels present Jesus just as prone to the same things that burden us and make us weary. So how do you find rest in a busy, noisy world? By committing time focusing our minds, hearts, and souls on God through spiritual disciplines.

What Are Spiritual Disciplines?

You might read the word “discipline” and cringe a little. But spiritual disciplines are not a set of rules or boxes to check off. To be sure, they can become that. But like any other discipline—working out, training for a sport, or practicing a musical instrument—the fruit of that labor tastes sweeter and more satisfying as time goes on. Think of a time when you trained for something: it may have been difficult to get going, and there may have been times you felt like quitting, but as you maintained the discipline, whatever it was that you were training for became second nature.

The fruit of that labor tastes sweeter and more satisfying as time goes on

The desire to pursue a spiritual discipline isn’t rooted in merely trying to please God (though this is certainly an aspect of it, as 1 Thessalonians 2:4 says we try to do), make him love you more, or anything like that. It’s designed to help you lean even further into the abundant love God has for you, to cherish the things he cherishes, and to rest in who he is and who he says you are. Spiritual disciplines help reorder our priorities and bring even more value to the things that we already do.

Why Are They Important?

Jesus did them.

  • Matthew 4:2 says, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry.”
  • Mark 1:35 says, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”
  • Luke 5:16 says, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
  • Elsewhere in Scripture, it says, “Oh how I love your law! I meditate on it day and night” (Ps. 119:97).

Next, they reveal what really matters in life. Another way to say it: they help prioritize parts of our lives. Over time, we begin to be more grateful for the things we have in our lives.

They also help us determine God’s will. The more we take time to pursue God through spiritual disciplines, the more we may see more clearly what God has designed us for.

What Are Some Disciplines to Encourage?

Monastic orders such as the Benedictines or Dominicans practiced what is called Lectio Divina (Latin for “Divine Reading”). While it might seem dusty and foreign, this is an approach to Bible reading that is intended to quiet the body. It includes four parts: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. There is no right or wrong way, no certain length of time required for each. The idea is to instill quietness and rest. I’d recommend trying Lectio Divina individually and with your family.

How does it work? Before you begin reading a passage, take five to ten minutes to quiet your mind and soul. Pray that the Holy Spirit would help calm your body, turning yourself over fully to God.

Let’s say you want to reflect on Psalm 23. You can start by either reading the full psalm or a section of it. You can read your chosen section several times. As you read, pay attention to what words are sticking out to you. Once you’ve read through the verse a few times, meditate on the words or phrases that grabbed your attention. For example, let’s say the phrase “You are my shepherd” stuck out to you. By meditating on this phrase, you let yourself into the text and allow God to speak directly to you. Through meditation, you might realize that “you are my shepherd” is sticking out because God cares for you and deals tenderly with you.

After you’ve done this, you pray. In prayer, thank God for revealing a truth to you and for speaking through his Word to you. Finally, contemplate further on the words that stuck out. This part, also known as contemplative prayer, is called by some a “silent prayer.” Instead of prayer as dialogue with God, think of this as prayer through contemplating the truths of God in Scripture.

I would encourage making time for this at least once a week. It quiets your body, invites the Holy Spirit in deeper, and shapes your mind and heart simultaneously.

A few other practices you could consider are journaling and fasting. Journaling is a great way to get the knots of the mind unwound, to see things that are bothering us written down, and to offer them to God. One of the purposes of journaling is also to be honest. God knows our hearts and minds, and journaling helps us to become more aware of what we need to pray through.

God knows our hearts and minds, and journaling helps us to become more aware of what we need to pray through

Fasting is another well-known discipline. Jesus fasted for forty days before being led into the wilderness in Matthew 4. Paul and Barnabas, after appointing elders, prayed and fasted and committed them to God in Acts 14. We might typically think of fasting as being food-related, but it doesn’t need to be. Since the idea behind fasting is to remove something important from your life in order to grow closer to God, I would highly encourage a technology fast. You might even go so far as to delete certain apps from your phone. Other types of fasts include fasting from food (you might do this when a big decision is being considered), sugar, and caffeine.

Spiritual Disciplines as a Family

The journey of incorporating the spiritual disciplines is not a lone wolf adventure! It is meant to be done in community. One of the best places to start is within the family unit. Consider the following examples:

  • Take a Sabbath together. This means turning off or silencing phones, avoiding yardwork or other work, playing board games, watching a movie, or doing whatever is relaxing for your family. The idea is that you spend time together with the express purpose of relaxing. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was given to us to allow for rest (Mark 2:27)
  • Read through the Bible in a year together. Pick a plan that works for you and go through the readings for each day. You could also all read the assigned reading separately and come together later to talk about it.
  • Take a tech fast. You could incorporate this in your Sabbath. Take all the phones in your family, put them in a basket, turn computers off, and go outside.
  • You could also try Lectio Divina as a family. Have a family member pick a verse and go through the steps together.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to imitate him as we train ourselves in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). The spiritual disciplines are one way, through God’s grace, that we experience transformation through various habits, with the goal of loving God and others.

Steve Wierenga holds an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Moody Theological Seminary. He is currently working on a Th.M. at Denver Seminary in Old Testament studies. Originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Steve currently resides in Littleton, Colorado with his wife Rachel.