Breaking the status quo takes practice

Read first – Simple obedience: Taking a first step

4.2 The role of spiritual practices in discipleship

While it has been argued that to be a disciple of Jesus is to follow his teachings and example, one must be careful not to focus exclusively on that which pertains to the Jesus’ ethics and in so doing ignore the fundamental role of spiritual habits and practices throughout his life and ministry.

As Dallas Willard notes, “if we take note of and follow Jesus in what he did when he was not ministering or teaching, we will find ourselves led and enabled to behave as he did when he was ‘on the spot’”.[1] If one is to take seriously the example of Jesus, one cannot neglect the fact that Jesus was regularly engaged in such spiritual practices as prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, practices which led into transformative, missional encounters with those in need.

In order to remain in a posture of readiness from which the disciple can hear and respond to the call to follow Jesus, it is important to adopt these – and other – practices and habits which have been developed over time by those who have sought to reorient their lives according to the Way of Jesus. For, as Brueggemann asserts, “discipleship fundamentally entails a set of disciplines, habits and practices that are undertaken as regular, concrete, daily practices.”[2]

These practices have been defined as “things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world,” and can include such things as “honoring the body, hospitality, household economics, saying yes and saying no, keeping Sabbath, discernment, testimony, shaping communities, forgiveness, healing, dying well, and singing our lives to God.”[3] These – and other – practices are to be “constituent elements in a way of life that becomes incarnate when human beings live in the light of and in response to God’s gift of life abundant.”[4] They are rooted “in a world created and sustained by a just and merciful God, who is now in the midst of reconciling this world through Christ. (They) address needs that are basic to human existence as such, and they do so in ways that reflect God’s purposes for humankind.”[5] Finally, when disciples engage in such practices, they “are taking part in God’s work of creation and new creation and thereby growing into a deeper knowledge of God and of creation.”[6] These practices are therefore fundamental aspects of discipleship in that they reorient one’s day-to-day life so that they become more in tune with the divine-human conversation and God’s intended purposes for that which he has created. Through these practices, disciples reverberate the redemptive and loving work of God and offer to the world a clearer picture of the rhythm and beauty that is the Way of Jesus.

The challenge for the disciple is that these practices are, in Brueggemann’s words, “not very exciting or immediately productive”; but, “like the acquiring of any new competence, [these practices] require such regimen, not unlike the learning of a new language by practicing the paradigm of verbs, not unlike the learning of piano by practicing the scales … not unlike every intentional habit that makes new dimensions of life possible.”[7] As John Swinton helpfully articulates, “by constantly employing them in our day-to-day experiences, by picking ourselves up when we fail to achieve them, and by persevering when they appear pointless, practices become habits.”[8]

As a result, these practices begin to define “the natural way that a person will respond to a particular situations”; therefore, “when engaged in regularly, Christian practices cease to become things that we simply do; instead, they become vitals aspects of who we are.”[9]  Whereas Jesus’ spiritual practices, teachings and mission flowed out who he was and is as both truly human and truly divine, followers of Jesus, through the process of engaging in these practices, can “increasingly become on the inside exactly what we are on the outside, where actions and moods and attitudes visibly play over our body, alive in its social context.”[10] In short, these practices, over time, “make following the master-teacher possible and sustainable.”[11]

Discipleship, therefore, “entails a) a resolve to follow a leader who himself has costly habits, b) in order to engage in disciplines that disentangle us from ways in which we are schooled and narcotized into new habits that break old vicious cycles among us, drawing us into intimacy with this calling God.”[12]

In order to follow Jesus, one cannot continue living in accordance with the status quo; tangible steps of obedience that move the disciple out of old and into new ways of living must be taken, and these steps are shaped by fundamental practices that develop within us a posture of readiness from which the call to follow Jesus can be answered in meaningful ways.

It is important, however, to frame the importance of spiritual practices and habits as not solely individual endeavors for the sake of personal transformation, and in so doing reinforce the mistake of individualizing one’s belief in Jesus and the salvific ‘benefits’ thereof. This is not to suggest that one’s salvation is tied into their ability to successfully engage in Christian practices.

Willard qualifies it in this way: “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”[13] To engage in these practices is to put in the necessary effort to be engaged in the process “of learning from Jesus Christ how to live in the Kingdom of God now, as he himself did.”[14] A link must be made, therefore, between more reflective and personal practices and those that Brueggemann refers to as “neighbor practices”[15], ones that demonstrate the reality of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

“Engagement in alterity is accomplished through daily, concrete neighborly practices of self-giving generosity, respect and affirmation”[16]; this is what it means to live in the Kingdom in the here and now, as Jesus did. Practices such as generosity, service, compassion and forgiveness are, according to Brueggemann, “profoundly countercultural in a society that is deeply lacking in the elemental ingredients of common humanness” and “amount to a deep challenge to dominant assumptions in our culture.”[17] Therefore, “to become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.”[18]

A follower of Jesus must be aware of the fact that discipleship involves active participation in the present realities of the world; the adoption of spiritual practices and habits must not be undertaken solely with a view to personal transformation, but rather with a keen sense of the call to embody a different way of living, within the context of community and for the sake of the other.

[1] Ibid., 30.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship: The God Who Calls, The God Who Sends,” in The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 107.

[3] Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass, “A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 18, 19.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 107.

[8] John Swinton, Raging With Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 84.

[9] Ibid., 84.

[10] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2007), 15.

[11] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 107.

[12] Ibid., 95.

[13] Willard, The Great Omission, 61.

[14] Ibid., 61.

[15] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 108.

[16] Walter Brueggemann, “Vision For a New Church and a New Century, Part II: Holiness Becomes Generosity,” in The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 192.

[17] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 108-109

[18] Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Discipleship as a Craft, Church as a Disciplined Community,” Christian Century 108, no. 27 (1991), 884.

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