Habits—we all have them. Christian or non-Christian, everyone follows certain patterns or practices in life. Some of these practices are natural and easy to maintain, such as eating and sleeping. The human body needs nourishment and rest in order to function properly and if a person neglects either, the body sends a signal that it needs to eat or rest. If one does not pay heed to that signal, in time, he or she will become weak, sick or irritable. In either case the person will function at a less-than-optimum level.
In life, we also develop other habits. We may not feel as driven to them as we are to food and rest but they have found their way into our lives. Some of these habits are good and some not so good. They develop over a course of time based on the choices we make. These habits show what we value. For example, a person may develop the habit of always being on time for work. This individual plans their time well and allows extra time to compensate for unforeseen circumstances. They do this because they value being on time for work. This discipline enables them to receive a full paycheck at the end of the week because they have not missed any time. It may not always be convenient for this employee to maintain this discipline but they do it anyway. On the other side, some people are late for everything. They are late for work and for church. No matter what the event is they cannot seem to get there on time. This is often due to their own choices and lack of planning. It seems that being on time is not a priority for them.
In this issue of Christian Trends, we look at Christian disciplines. Some Christians may bristle at the word ‘discipline’. This could be because they associate the word with something unpleasant, something that they do not like or want. If truth be told, most people do not like discipline. This is true of children, students, and employees. Discipline is administered in order to get people to do things that they should do, but don’t want to do.
This negative thinking about ‘discipline’ can carry over to the subject of Christian disciplines. However, a person who thinks this way fails to see something important: disciplines are not ends in themselves, they are means to an end. They have purpose. If we cultivate these Christian disciplines with a proper attitude we will benefit from them. In fact, the extent of our participation in them will in some measure determine what kind of disciples we will become.
These disciplines can help bring us closer to God. If, on the other hand, we do not develop the Christian disciplines, we are by default developing other habits, ones that will not bring us closer to God. Our lives demonstrate whether we value being closer to the Lord or not.
Since our subject is Christian disciplines, we will focus our attention on the New Testament. In its pages we find a number of such disciplines. These are the things that believers are to give themselves to on a regular basis—prayer, fasting, Bible reading, fellowship, evangelism, and participation in communion. All of these were regularly practised by the first-century Christians.
A cursory reading of the biblical texts reveals that there are some passages in which we find accounts of individuals participating in these practices and others in which the biblical writers instruct the people to do these things. Church leaders and church members practised them alike. This alone shows us their importance. These disciplines should also be practised in the church today. They should be evident in both our individual lives and in our community life as Christians. Our spiritual needs are the same as those of our brothers and sisters in the first-century and the solutions are also the same. Let us now take a brief look at the some of the Christian disciplines.
Prayer: The early believers grasped the importance of prayer. We know this because we find them praying corporately on a number of occasions. They prayed for a number of days before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12–14; 2:1–4). The people who became believers on the day of Pentecost also gave themselves to prayer (Acts 2:42). The early church prayed when they faced persecution (Acts 4:24–31; 12:5, 12). Prayer was not unique to the church in Jerusalem; we find that the church in Antioch also prayed (Acts 13:3). The believers from the city of Tyre prayed on the beach with the apostle Paul (Acts 21:5). Scripture also gives us examples of individuals praying. Paul prayed for the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:36), Peter and John prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14–15), Paul and Barnabas prayed for the elders they appointed (Acts 14:23), and Paul and Silas prayed in prison (Acts 16:25). Prayer directly connects us to God.
Fasting: There are fewer references to fasting in the New Testament than there are to prayer, but fasting is mentioned. We see evidence of fasting in the church in Antioch where it was accompanied by worship and prayer (Acts 13:2–3). In the next chapter of Acts we read about Paul and Barnabas fasting, here too it was coupled with prayer (Acts 14:23). It is worth noting that in both of these cases fasting preceded the beginning of a significant ministry. The believers in Antioch fasted before Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were sent out to minister. And Paul and Barnabas fasted when they appointed elders in a number of churches. Those appointed as elders began a significant leadership ministry in the church.
The Bible: The importance of the Word of God in the life of a believer was established early in the life of the church. We see evidence of this in a number of texts. After Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, we learn about one of the things that the new believers did, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42 NIV). After the church in Antioch was planted in Acts 11, Barnabas and Saul (Paul) spent a year teaching the people there (Acts 11:26). A few chapters later we read that Paul had daily discussions with the believers in Ephesus for two years. These took place in the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9–10). In addition to the examples mentioned above, which show the early churches receiving extensive teaching, we also have texts which stress the value of Scripture in the life of the believer. The apostle Paul told Timothy its value (2 Tim. 3:16–17) and urged him to declare the Word (2 Tim 4:2–4). As Christians we benefit from reading, studying, meditating on, and memorising Scripture.
Fellowship: Being in relationship with other Christians is also a vital discipline for believers to maintain. Again, citing Acts 2:42, we see that the early believers gave themselves “to fellowship” (NIV). Their life together was important. This was not an isolated incident. We find the church gathering together at other times as well (Acts 4:23; 12: 5, 12; 13:1–3). This is as it should be because the church is a body (Rom 12:5). In addition to the examples of believers gathering together, Scripture also gives us a directive regarding this: Hebrews 10:25 tells us that we are not to give up gathering together as some have developed “the habitof doing” (NIV). The recent pandemic has presented some challenges regarding fellowship but in this modern age there are electronic and digital means by which many people can interact with one another. People can connect through phone calls, emails, text messages, and video conferences. It is important for believers today to interact with each other in order to share their spiritual gifts with one another (1 Cor 12:7) and encourage each other (Heb 10:25).
Evangelism: When a person becomes a Christian they believe in the good news; they believe that Jesus Christ died to pay for their sins. When this happens they receive not only redemption but also a responsibility. They are to share the message that they received; they are to share the gospel with others. Jesus said that this message would go into all of the world (Matt 24:14). In fact, He specifically gave instructions to His followers in order to make sure that it does (Matt 28:18–20; Mark 16:15). The apostles shared the message (Acts 2:22–39; 5:42; 13:16–41) but others, regular church people, did as well (Acts 11:19–20). Believers today should also be prepared to share the message. There are still a lot of people who have not heard, or have not believed the gospel. The apostle Peter tells believers that they should, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15 NIV).
Communion: The two most commonly recognised ordinances in the Christian Church are baptism and communion. Baptism is a one-time event. A person is baptised after they put their faith in Jesus Christ. We see this happen in a number of places in the New Testament (Acts 2:41; 8:38; 19:5). Communion, however, is to be an ongoing practice. That being said, the Bible does not tell us how often we are to partake of it. The important thing is that when we do observe it we remember the one who purchased our redemption and how much it cost Him. The communion service presents us with a vivid reminder of what Jesus did for us. Through the elements of bread and wine (grape juice) we see a visual representation of His sacrifice on our behalf. He gave His life for ours. This is a truth we cannot afford to lose sight of.
Christian disciplines are important and yet many believers struggle to practise them. Why is that? There is more than one answer to this question. One reason is time. We all have many responsibilities and are busy, and because of this the Christian disciplines can sometimes get crowded out. Another reason is that we have an enemy who opposes us. He would like nothing better than to impede our spiritual progress. A third reason is that we sometimes don’t feel like practising the disciplines. We are not in the mood. But none of these reasons will keep us from practising the disciplines if we make them top priorities. Hopefully, as you read the other articles in this issue your heart will be stirred to a greater appreciation and practice of the Christian disciplines. They can do much to enhance our spiritual lives and draw us closer to God.