"like learning competitive baseball"?

I've been hearing a lot about "the spiritual disciplines" lately. Someone was pressing a book on it into my hands a couple days ago (though I didn't really want it). And I remembered recently reading an article about a popular theologian who has a book out about the spiritual disciplines—solitude, fasting, prayer, confession, study, etc. I'm quite familiar with the practice of these, from my background with monastic spirituality, but it seems they are coming back into vogue.

As I thought about this, I was reminded that the popular theologian was the one I wrote about last week, who was labeled a "workaholic" by his wife. That made me suspicious. And there certainly seems to be some connection between the self-focused drive to work and the appeal in the "spiritual work" of these religious practices. That was always a problem in monastic practice as well. When I looked back at the article, I even found this disclaimer (by a reviwer of the spiritual disciplines book):

It's important to see that this program of renewal has nothing to do with "works righteousness"... justification is still entirely by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But sanctification is another story. Mortification of the old self and vivification of the new one take not only God's gift, but also our effort.
That didn't do much to ease my concern about a work-oriented spirituality. And earlier the review says that the author "tells us that learning to enjoy God forever and to participate in his big project is entirely like learning competitive baseball or the violin or Italian... the only way to get joy out of them is to work at them."

It is notable that Jesus spent very little energy promoting spiritual disciplines. He was even frequently criticized for seeming to undermine the spiritual disciplines in wide practice at the time. By "breaking" the sabbath, for instance. Or eating well (so that some even called him a glutton). When asked why his disciples didn't fast, Jesus answered that they couldn't fast when the bridegroom was with them. He also didn't teach them prayers (as other spiritual teachers did) until they specifically asked him.

This is not to say that such practices have no value; I think they do. But Jesus does not seem to promote them as most religious teachers did then, and as religious teachers do today. Jesus offered something greater than the sabbath or fasting.

Thinking more about this while baking bread this morning, I came to the conclusion that I think the problem with the "spiritual disciplines" approach goes deeper than the misdirected emphasis on our own effort and work. It's not just work-focused, but self-focused. It feels much like the "self-help" craze of a few years back. Spirituality and spiritual practices are presented as the means to become the person you want to be, and specific practices are offered so we can get to work on it right away. So the focus is on our own unfulfilled needs and desires and what we can do to change our lives. We can't do this by ourselves, we are told, we need God's help, but: "Mortification of the old self and vivification of the new one take not only God's gift, but also our effort." And then all the instructions are about our part of the process.

Now that I think of it, the value of this approach may be mortification after all. When we come to the end of all our efforts and still find ourselves woefully short. When the focus on ourselves shows us how unlike Jesus we really are. And how helpless we are to change that.

The difference I see in Jesus' teaching, is that he shifted the focus from ourselves (and our own spiritual achievement) and directed our attention to himself. Despite what these authors suggest, Jesus did not preach a rigorous program of spiritual disciplines. Every spiritual discipline of his time had to submit in his presence. What Jesus said to the one who wanted to know God was, "follow me." Not just to learn techniques and practices from him, but to fixate on him, need to be near him, have to set aside everything that keeps us from him. Consciousness of ourselves, our own weaknesses or strengths, our own efforts, all this becomes nothing. All that we see is him. He—God's gift—is everything.

The book I was given listed sixty-two spiritual disciplines to be aware of and put into practice for a vibrant spiritual life. Jesus simply presented himself. "Follow me."