Sometimes changing the label for something can make a big difference. A couple of examples before I introduce the one that I want to focus on in this post:
Example 1 – Teaching preaching over the years, I have shifted from talking about “illustrations” to explicitly describing what is needed: “explanations/proofs/applications.” Identifying what you are trying to do helps you avoid filler material that has the vibe of an illustration but doesn’t achieve anything specific. Why not call it what we want it to achieve? Even in our thinking, this can help our precision as communicators.
Example 2 – As parents, we want our children to learn to serve and contribute to the functioning of our home. It is good for the family, and it is good for them too. But the standard label used is “chores.” Oh dear. Who would want to do a chore? So, we grabbed a label we saw someone else using. “Contributions.” You have to do a chore, but you get to make a contribution. It is just a label, but it does make a difference.
Ok, so what terminology tweak am I thinking about in this post? Well, it is the strange world of Christian “disciplines.”
The language of disciplines gets used in quite different wings of the Christian church. There are the dutiful disciplines of the more intellectually shaped branches of the church. The disciplines here tend to relate to attendance, reading, learning, etc. Then there are the ascetic disciplines of the more experientially shaped branches of the church. Here you will find more focus on the disciplines that relate to self-denial, solitude, fasting, etc.
In reality, much can be said in favour of all the disciplines on both sides of the church. This is why much is said in their favour. But can we stop and question the label for a moment? “Discipline” is the language of the exercise class, the language of the academy, and the language of performance in work, sport or the arts … but is it really the language of relationship?
Discipline and Relationship
Undoubtedly, much effort is expended in a relationship, and that effort will look disciplined. If you were to spy on my marriage, you would see disciplined actions on my part. There are specific jobs in the home that I repeatedly do: locking the doors, putting out the garbage, etc. And yet, if you asked me about my practising of the marital disciplines, I would wonder what you are saying. I put the garbage out in a disciplined manner, but I don’t see it as a discipline. I spend time on dates with my wife, but I don’t see that as a chore.
Many spiritual disciplines are good things: reading the Bible, spending time with God, fasting in order to pray, getting away from the busy distractions of this world, etc. I don’t want to question these things, but I do question the label. Would you promote them as “Christian chores” in your church? (If you would, perhaps that says something about your view of the Christian life!) I would not. I prefer to remove the overtones of duty and effort from the label so that the label is free actually to describe the goal.
The Goal of Disciplines
What is the goal in performing a discipline? Relationships do require disciplined effort, but they rarely thrive under the language of discipline and effort. For instance, your spouse will not feel so warm towards you if you hand over the flowers or chocolate, while referencing your effort and discipline. “I hope you like roses. I needed to do my weekly thoughtful-gift-discipline, so I got you these.” Please don’t say that; it won’t help. And if you do say that, it will shape how you view the giving of future gifts. The goal of the “discipline” is not a have-to but a get-to. The goal is not your successful accomplishment of the “discipline” but the communication of love to your significant other. And as you lean toward this other person, you will find your heart warmed and drawn towards them.
So, what can we call the spiritual disciplines that will remove the overtones of “chore,” the focus on “self,” and the assumption that it is my performance that will lead to life change? What can we call the spiritual disciplines if we are actually talking about growing in a relationship?
Finding An Alternative Label
It can be hard to choose an appropriate alternative label to replace a well-established one. My mind goes to several possibilities. Are we talking about spiritual reminders, encounters, re-introductions, heart-warmers, match-making, or exposures? I am seeking a term that makes it clear that the activity is not an end in itself, but a way of inclining my heart towards Christ in such a way that my heart might respond in faith and love towards him. I cannot control my heart’s responses, but the Bible does speak of guarding the heart from negative influences and inclining the heart towards God’s good influence. Each term listed could have unhelpful connotations. How about for now, until we agree on a better term, we use “spiritual heart inclination”?
I need spiritual heart inclinations in my life because when I spend time in God’s Word, worshipping, praying, or with God’s people, I am leaning into the relationship that I have with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. This “leaning in” will not be successful because I am responsible and repeat the exercise. It will be successful because my heart is warmed by the wonderful one I am exposed to in the process.
Instead of starting my Bible reading with the thought, “I need to be responsible and get through my chapters for today,” I can start with the prayer, “I need to respond to a glimpse of your heart as I incline my heart toward you, O my God, and I so need to see you in your Son today – I want to see you, please….” The first is the self-concerned declaration of disciplined intent. The second is the inclining of the heart towards the One who can inspire that inside-out transformation I so desperately need.
It is not the discipline of reading a certain number of chapters that will change me any more than the regularity of simply visiting a restaurant that will achieve connection in my marriage. The inclination of my heart toward Christ in his Word (or my wife in the restaurant) will allow a response to be stirred within me.
May our lives be disciplined in our responsiveness to Christ, but may the label of discipline never again feel appropriate for our connection with Him. Spiritual heart inclinations, or a better label you suggest in the comments, that’s what we need. Because it is not about me but him. It is not about my responsible effort but my response to Him. And spending time with the lover of our souls is no chore but a privilege.