How (and Why) Spiritual Disciplines Work

The kingdom life which Jesus offered is accessible to all, but it is not entered fully without a serious and active intention.   It takes the kind of intention that would lead one to sell all they own to buy a field with a pearl in it.  The disciplines are means by which an individual opens themselves to the transforming grace of God, and they cultivate holy habits of mind and body.[i] 

As disciplines, they are indirect means toward a goal that cannot be directly apprehended.  The goal is a whole self subject to God.  Spiritual disciplines are simply those “special activities through which we present our bodies as a living sacrifice”[ii] so that we can live in “more effective cooperation with Christ and his Kingdom.”[iii]

A life full of spiritual disciplines is not necessarily a spiritual life, since disciplines
indicate our weakness rather than our strength.[iv]  Instead, the spiritual life is love in action.

The aim and substance of spiritual life is not fasting, prayer, hymn singing, frugal living, and so forth. Rather, it is the effective and full enjoyment of active love of God and humankind in all the daily rounds of normal existence where we are placed. [v]

Yet, the spiritual disciplines are nonetheless indispensable.  The activity of the disciplines may not constitute Christlikeness, but realizing Christlikeness in large part depends on them. Willard’s central claim in The Spirit of the Disciplines rests on this belief. 

…we can become like Christ by doing one thing—by following Christ in the overall style of life he chose for himself…by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced…[vi]

The effects of the disciplines are more than skin-deep as they actually restore wholeness to the broken relationships between the various dimensions of the human person, giving “our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves.”[vii]

Conversion, as typically understood is merely the primary conversion of the will.  The mind and body still must be converted; transformed from darkness to light.[viii]  Engaging our bodies in this continuing conversion is “a large part of our share in the process of redemption.”[ix]

Foster expresses the dilemma: “Willpower will never succeed in dealing with deeply ingrained habits of sin.”[x]  We might not be able to will joy directly, but we can will skipping.  One cannot become grateful by merely exerting their will moment-by-moment in effort to feel and act grateful, but one can regularly meditate on the richness of life.  One cannot become patient by trying to be patient, but one can learn to release outcomes to God in prayer.  One does not become loving by mere effort, but one can make a habit of speaking a kind word. 

They’ve just released the newest Karate Kid movie, and something drew me to watch the original a few weeks back.  This classic 80’s flick is a picture of apprenticeship and makes a stunning illustration of the role of disciplines as indirect means for pursuing new competencies. 

As you watch the clips below, try substituting Jesus for Mr. Miagi, yourself for Daniel-son, spiritual disciplines for washing, waxing, sanding and painting and Kingdom-living for Karate. If you’re able, click or copy/paste these links into your browser and watch the short clips below, one at a time.

Daniel put on the motions of Karate.  His muscles (body) were strengthened and his reflexes (mind) trained for Karate.  Mundane chores made Daniel free to fight.  In a similar way, the spiritual disciplines (rather mundane in and of themselves) free us to live in the kingdom, and embed the motions of the spirit within our bodies where sin once dwelt.[xi]  Liberation from slavery to sin is the purpose of the disciplines[xii] and “every discipline has a corresponding freedom.”[xiii] Loosely, the disciplines of restraint free us from sins we pursue, and the active disciplines help us overcome the sins of omission.[xiv] 

Below I’ve listed a number of illustrative virtues and one or more disciplines that might be used to cultivate it, or eliminate its opposing sin. 

Joy:  The discipline of celebration is the willful turning of the mind to what is good and delightful, especially in community, and it gives birth to joy.[xv] 

Kindness:  We learn the kindness of generosity by embracing the discipline of simplicity.[xvi]

Goodness:  “Service enables us to say “no!” to the world’s games of promotion and authority.  It abolishes our need (and desire) for a “pecking order.””[xvii]

Faithfulness: Through study we become filled with the truth of God’s character and his action in history and are emboldened to live as if it was indeed so.

Peace:  Prayer, the true multi-purpose discipline, is especially effectual in developing peace as Paul knew.[xviii]

Gentleness:  Solitude attunes us to others and silence teaches us not to use our words as weapons of coercion.[xix]

Self-control: Fasting makes us aware of and frees us from the desires that control us.[xx]


[i] "God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us." Celebration of Discipline, 7.
[ii] The Spirit of the Disciplines, 251.
[iii] The Spirit of the Disciplines, 156.
[iv] The need to practice disciplines points to our weakness not our strength. (Spirit of the Disciplines, 138)
[v] The Spirit of the Disciplines, 138.
[vi] The Spirit of the Disciplines, ix.
[vii] The Spirit of the Disciplines, 86
[viii] The Spirit of the Disciplines, 86.
[ix] The Spirit of the Disciplines, 30. 
[x] Celebration of Discipline, 4. 
[xi] Romans 7:23
[xii] Celebration of Discipline, 2.
[xiii] Celebration of Discipline, 111.
[xiv] The Spirit of the Disciplines, 176.
[xv] Celebration is the heart of the way of Christ. Celebration of Discipline, 190.
To elicit genuine celebration joy must work itself into the ordinary fabric of life of our daily lives.  …some people live in such a way that it is impossible to have any kind of happiness in their home, but then they go to church and sing songs and pray “in the spirit,” hoping that God will somehow give them an infusion of joy to make it through the day.  …But God’s desire is to transform the misery, not bypass it. Celebration of Discipline, 193.
[xvi] “Simplicity sets us free to receive the provision of God as a gift that is not ours to keep and can be freely shared with others.” Celebration of Discipline, 85.
[xvii] Celebration of Discipline -127
[xviii] “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
[xix] “One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless.  We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others.  If we are silent, who will take control?  God will take control, but we will never let him take control until we trust him.  Silence is intimately related to trust.” Celebration of Discipline, 101.
[xx] Celebration of Discipline, 48.


  1. What role does the Holy Spirit play in this? (John 16:7-15, etc.) How does one follow this notion of disciplines without succumbing to the wrongful belief that it is in one's own power to change?

    Thank you for your insights.

  2. Anonymous - it's a fair question, though I'm not sure your reference is all that relevant. I'm struggling to pin down an answer, but here are some thoughts.

    We are hopelessly doomed to follow the trajectory set by our wills...which apart from the initiating work of God are oriented toward self-destruction.

    We have to admit, though, that it is in one's power to change if only from a person of good character to a person with a decayed one. The reverse is not equally true.

    God's gift of human freedom does mean that all humans have *some* ability to change...we participate in actualizing the intentions of our will. But the transformation of the will is beyond our direct control. Only God can soften a heart.

    Either we must say that non-Christians cannot change (because they do not have God) or that when they do change it is due to the common grace of God that reaches to all.