(This is the first part of an article on Spiritual Disciplines. The second part will be featured in next week’s BTW)


In 1978, Richard Foster published a book entitled Celebration of Discipline – The Path To Spiritual Growth. 12 years later when the revised edition came out, it had sold over 200,000 copies. Today, 30 years on, the book is considered a classic in the area of Christian Spirituality.


What Richard Foster did was to recapture for Christians today the disciplines practiced by Christians in the past. The “past” for Christians today can be so vague and distant that we either do not understand what early Christians were writing about or we do not care to know. Foster gleaned from the writings of these Christians and introduce to us the insights and wisdom they had gained from their experiences and struggles of spiritual growth. So, for example, on the spiritual discipline of solitude, he quoted from the journals of John Woolman, a Quaker in the 18th century on controlling the tongue as well as from St John of the Cross, a 16th century Christian mystic about the experience of the dark night of the soul.


Most Christians who had read this book found it difficult and foreign. Born and bred within our own culture, we tend to be ego- and cultural-centric and tempted to think that our age is the most advanced, most knowledgeable about the Christian faith, even the most spiritual. We tend to judge other ages as less sophisticated.


Foster started his book with a scathing critique: “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”


The Christians of the past can speak to us and teach us simply because they lived in another time and stood outside our cultural milieu. Whatever our critique may be of the shortcomings and blind spots of their faith, through their writings, they likewise do the same of our times and our spirituality. But we can gain from their perspective only if we take the time to study and understand them within their context.


For as we consider what the Apostle Paul might say to us today about our preoccupation with wealth and health from his standpoint of being crucified with Christ, what might St Francis of Assisi, Thomas Kempis, Madam Guyon, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Kelly, William Law, Dietrich Bonhoeffer say of our spirituality today?


Celebration of Discipline is a landmark work by Foster. He was the first to explain in a cogent way the various spiritual disciplines in one book. He called the 12 disciplines listed in the book as classical and explained it this way: “They are not classical merely because they are ancient, although they have been practiced by sincere people over the centuries. The Disciplines are classical because they are central to experiential Christianity. In one form or another all of the devotional masters have affirmed the necessity of the Disciplines.”


The 12 disciplines listed in the book are divided into 3 main categories: Inward, Outward & Corporate Disciplines. The introduction chapter is the most important chapter. (I often told my students that they must read this chapter well, or else they will miss the whole point of the book.) For when the spiritual disciplines, the “door to liberation” are practiced with the wrong mindset and spirit, they become “the way of death.”


About 10 years after Foster’s book, Dallas Willard wrote the book The Spirit of the Disciplines ~ Understanding How God Changes Lives. (This book was the 1990 runner-up in Christianity Today’s Readers’ Choice Awards.”)


This book tackles the issue of why modern Christianity seemed to have lost her bearing on how to become like Christ. This is because the Church has “failed to take human transformation seriously as a real, practical issue to be dealt with in realistic terms.”


Willard wrote how in the 1970s when he was “forced to begin teaching systematically on the disciplines,” he had to admit that “what Christians were normally told to do, the standard advice to churchgoers, was not advancing them spiritually.” (p. 18)


He sees the answer in acknowledging that mere teaching and talking spiritually about the Christian life will not change people. Christian psychology helps. Recognizing that all talk must get down to bodily walk is crucial. In fact, it is here that he sees the value of the spiritual discipline.


“… the secret of the standard, historically proven spiritual disciplines is precisely that they do respect and count on the bodily nature of human personality. They all deeply and essentially involve bodily conditions and activities.” (p. 19)


He also sees that a practical, workable theology is needed to bring the spiritual disciplines down to ground level which is where we live out the spiritual life.


The book consists of 11 chapters. Only 2 chapters dealt with the spiritual disciplines. Chapter 8 covers the history and meaning of the disciplines and chapter 9 is a summary description of 15 spiritual disciplines which he grouped under the disciplines of abstinence and engagement.


His book thus complement Foster’s book. Foster introduced us to the spiritual disciplines and indirectly to the spiritual heritage of the Church. Willard analysed the state of contemporary discipleship (albeit western) and hit home forcefully that we need to take stock of what are amiss. Unless we practice the disciplines in the right spirit and understanding, then it is no wonder that contemporary expressions of the Christian faith today appear wobbly and powerless.


These two books are written by authors who themselves have dwelt long and wrestled hard with the subject matter that they write about. Read together, you can expect a good grounding if you want to seriously grow deeper in your walk with God through the spiritual disciplines.


Three other titles that we will review next week are: Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney (NavPress, 1991), Disciplines of the Holy Spirit by Tan Siang Yan & Douglas H Gregg (Zondervan, 1997) and Disciplines of Grace ~ From Spiritual Routines to Spiritual Renewal by T.M. Moore (InterVarsity Press, 2001). These books are part of the increasing list of publications on this subject following the increased interest in Spirituality. They do not break new grounds. They are also written from a particular slant and orientation: Whitney within a Navigator framework, Tan and Gregg incorporating charismatic lenses and Moore from an evangelical perspective.


Next week, as we review these three books, we will use one spiritual discipline (solitude and silence) to see how each of these authors contribute to our understanding of spiritual disciplines.


*All five titles are available at BGST library for loan


Spiritual Disciplines ~ A Comparative Review of Five Titles By John Chong Ser Choon

19 - 25 May 2008

Issue No. 20          

BGST This Week

Biblical GRADUATE school of theology

Text Box: Highlights

They gave an animated portrayal of the lifestyle of the Senegalese, the culture shock they experienced when they arrived over three years ago, how they discovered that the people are very relational, and how important it is to learn the heart language of the people in order to reach out to them. Their commitment to this ministry that God has called them was clear and evident. We thank God for their sharing amongst us.

We also spent some time praying for the twin Asian disaster in Myanmar and China.

Eber & Foong Chan


In last week’s chapel (May 14), we heard from Eber & Foong Chan Burger. They are missionaries serving in Senegal with SIM International.

Our speaker for next week is Mr Khamh Cung Nung, MTh student from Myanmar. Do come and join us.

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