A lot of the reading and teaching I do focuses on helping people to practice the spiritual disciplines. Most Christians don’t know how to pray or read the Scriptures (or have been taught to do it in a way that doesn’t fit who they are). Most haven’t practiced fasting or solitude and silence at all, and aren’t even convinced they’re good for you. So there is definitely a place for helping God’s people learn about these practices and how to integrate them into their lives.
But are the disciplines a “more-is-always-better” thing, or is there an opposite mistake to be made? Temptations often come in pairs, pushing us to extremes of either neglect or overindulgence. When it comes to the spiritual disciplines, clearly the temptation of neglect is to avoid practicing them, stemming from ignorance (lack of awareness or knowledge about them) or sloth (lack of motivation to do them). But is there a temptation of overindulgence for the disciplines, and if so what does it look like?
One candidate might be the temptation to do the disciplines right. Some people obsess over execution, slavishly following the steps and format of a discipline that they were taught. This can arise from a neurotic desire to be a “good boy/girl”, or from a desire to master this technique to add it to your toolkit of spiritual technologies (i.e. ways of getting the things you want). In either case, the false self is enlisting the discipline in its never ending campaign to make the world safe and pleasant for itself.
This is why a spiritual director will occasionally offer the surprising suggestion to set aside a spiritual discipline for a season. In your current state, the discipline is actually not bringing life to you, so it is better to lay it down until further heart-work is done to render it safe for you to use.
Dallas Willard mentioned in a lecture that the disciplines are not meritorious, but rather therapeutic. That is, you don’t get points for doing them a lot, in the same way that taking medicine that you don’t need is at best useless (and often will actually damage your health). Rather, they are distinct ways to open your heart to God to be transformed, that you undertake for a while and then set aside when their work is complete. Certain classic practices, such as prayer and reading Scripture, are life-long, but in certain seasons you may take up a specific form of that practice as a spiritual discipline (like examen or lectio divina).
To many of us, the temptation of overindulging in the spiritual disciplines is not a problem. We’re struggling just to make time for the few disciplines we do practice. But as you advance in the Christian life, this temptation can come upon you before you know it. Have you ever wanted to read a new book or attend a seminar on prayer so that you’ll finally figure the practice out and get it “right”? Have you ever returned to an annual retreat or book of the Bible where God spoke to you powerfully before in an effort to get Him to “do it again!”? Have you been tempted to practice a spiritual discipline in a way or at a time or place that was inappropriate, perhaps in order to keep your devotional plan intact? These are all temptations of overindulgence for the disciplines.
Remember that the point of all the disciplines is to connect with God, to abide in the Vine (John 15). Where they are doing that, they’re life-giving. Where they are interfering with that, they are death-dealing. Be aware, and stay between the boundaries.
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