Category Archives: Discipline

The Discipline of Simplicity

Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. – Matt 6:33

Simplicity is to focus on the few things that are most important, and to place less emphasis on the many other competing things that are unimportant.

Simplicity is an inward focus that also results in a different outward way of living.  Both the inward and outward are important. If we claim inward simplicity but live complicated lives, we fool ourselves.  If we live outwardly simple lives without the inward reality, we become legalistic.  Inward simplicity is liberating.  Life becomes less anxious and less complicated.  It is freeing to let go of things and to be willing to share what we have with others.  It is nice to not have the need to show off.

Our culture is materialistic.  It encourages us to value ourselves based on what others think.  We are made to feel ashamed if we don’t have the latest TV, phone, car, or clothes.  Dave Ramsey rightfully observes that: “We buy things we don’t want with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”  A life focused on acquiring things is deadly to the Christian walk.  Jesus says you cant serve both God and money.  He says that blessed are the poor, and that where your treasure is is where your heart will also be.  The problem is that it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom first if we spend all of our time seeking more material things.

At the same time, God intends for us to have adequate material possessions, and he intends for us to have joy in life.  Extreme asceticism (forced poverty and denying all pleasure) is itself the wrong focus.  It is not simplicity.  Simplicity is to put possessions in their proper perspective.  It is to be content with what we have, to thank God for those things, and to be willing to share them with others.

Since simplicity is so visible, it is vulnerable to legalism and corruption.  “It is easy to mistake our particular expression of the teaching for the teaching itself.”  Simplicity is not comparing what we do to what others do.  Rather, it’s making Jesus our focus.  Seek God and his kingdom FIRST.  Then everything else will fall into its proper perspective.

Simplicity frees us from anxiety.  God has given us what we have, it’s his job to care for it, and he wants us to share with others.  What makes us anxious is believing that we have earned all we have, that we must hold onto it, and that it is for us, not others.

Foster gives ten examples of outward simplicity.  These are not “rules” (which lead to legalism), but general principles we can apply.  The outward is  accompanied with the inward.

1) Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.  Utility and durability are important.  Prestige is not.
2) Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.  An addiction is a compulsion you can’t control.  Refuse to be a slave to anything but God.
3) Develop a habit of giving things away.  De-accumulate.  Consider giving away something that you’re especially attached to.
4) Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.  Advertisers tell us that we need the latest and greatest.  What we already have usually works just fine.
5) Learn to enjoy things without owning them.  Go to the park or the library.  Enjoy the beach without feeling like you need beach property.
6) Develop a deeper appreciation for creation.   Go for a walk.  Listen to the birds.  Smell the flowers.
7) Be skeptical of buy now pay later plans.  Use extreme caution before going into debt.
8) Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain and honest speech.  Let your yes be yes and your no be no.   Avoid flattery and speculative matters.
9) Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others.  This could mean not buying something made by slaves.  It could also mean doing something menial that you expect someone else to do.
10) Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God.  It’s easy to become distracted, even by good things.  Don’t let it happen.

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[This blog post is part 5 in a series about the Christian disciplines, based on Richard Foster’s book  Celebration of Discipline. All quotes in this post (other than the Bible references) are from the book.  The series introduction is here.]

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The Discipline of Study

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. -Romans 12:2

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  As Christians we desire to be conformed into the image of God – to be obedient to Him and to become more like Him.   Our thoughts and ideas are formed in large part by what we pay attention to.   Paul says to pay attention to what is noble, what is true, what is right, what is pure, what is lovely, and what is admirable.  When we study, we are making a deliberate choice to pay attention to those things.

“Study is a specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction.”  Study is different than meditation.  “Meditation is devotional, study is analytical.  Meditation will relish a word; study will explicate it.”  Study includes books, but it is more than just that.  It also includes analyzing the world around us.

Study involves four steps: repetition, concentration, comprehension, and reflection.

Repetition is to “regularly channel; the mind in a specific direction, thus ingraining habits of thought.”  What we repeatedly think becomes habitual, it influences us.

Concentration is centering our mind on what we are studying.  It is focus with a purpose.

Comprehension is understanding.  It is knowledge of the truth, and as Jesus says, the knowledge of the truth will set you free.

Reflection is defining the significance of what we study.  It is seeing how what we learn relates to us and to the world.  It is learning to see things as they really are – as God sees them.

When we study books, we seek to understand them, interpret them, and evaluate them.  What is the author saying? What does the author mean? Is the author right or wrong?  We also consider our experience, remember other books, and discuss what we read.  How do our life experiences relate to and interpret what we read?  What books have we already read that help form our understanding for what we are currently reading?  What insights can we share and gain with others as we discuss what we have read?

The most important book to study is the Bible.  Scripture says, “Your word I have put into my heart, so that I will not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11)  And, “All scripture is inspired by God, good for teaching, for reproof, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim 3:16).  The purpose of God’s word is to transform us inside.

There is a difference between Bible study and Bible devotion.  Study is focused on interpretation – what does the text mean?  Devotion is focused on application – what does the text mean to me?  Before we can apply scripture we need to know what it means.  What was the author’s purpose and intent?  Genuine Bible study is hard work, and it doesn’t always feel good.  It requires us to set aside significant time for the task.

When studying the Bible, read more than a few verses at a time.  Read a whole book in a setting, or several chapters at once.  Read it multiple times.  Often our Bible reading is short and fragmented.   By reading larger portions of scripture it is easier to follow the structure and flow of the book, and this helps us to better understand the author’s intent.  Don’t try to force scripture into preconceived categories, let it speak to you in a new way.

Along with studying the Bible, read classical Christian works.  Read C.S. Lewis, read Wesley, read Luther, read Augustine.

Study also includes the non-verbal, “the observation of reality in things, events, and actions”.  God’s creation speaks to us.  “The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12).  Listen to the birds sing.  Observe the beauty and intricacy of a flower.  Watch an insect at work.

Study also includes observing relationships between people.  Notice how often people must explain themselves to prove that they are right.  Notice how some people become unguarded and nit-picky when around their family.

Study yourself.  Why do you act the way you do?  What controls you?  What are your priorities?  What changes your mood from good to bad?

Study culture and trends.  What things does our culture lift up as valuable and important?  Are those things actually important?  How is culture changing?  Are changes for the better, or worse, or perhaps a little of both?  How is our culture in harmony with the gospel?  How is it at odds?  How can you use that knowledge to advance God’s kingdom?

In the end good study produces joy.  “Like any novice, we will find it hard work at the beginning.  But the greater our proficiency, the greater our joy.”  It is worth the effort.

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[This blog post is part 4 in a series about the Christian disciplines, based on Richard Foster’s book  Celebration of Discipline. All quotes in this post (other than the Bible references) are from the book.  The series introduction is here.]

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The Discipline of Fasting

Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it. – John Wesley

Many Christians do not fast regularly.  Often when we do, it’s for reasons other than seeking God.  Fasting has a bad reputation.  Our culture is hedonistic when it comes to food.  We have plenty, and feel entitled to eat when we feel like it.  And sometimes we have a vulgarized view of fasting, because it was abused during the middle ages by those who took it to the extreme.

But there is a Biblical place and Christian precedent for fasting.  Jesus fasted regularly, and he spoke of fasting as something that was expected (“When you fast…” Matt 6:17).  The most famous example of fasting was when Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness.  Other scriptural examples include: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, and Paul.  Many famous Christians have fasted as well – including: Augustine,  Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, Spurgeon, Finney, and others.

Fasting in the Bible typically means to abstain from all food (but not water) for a period of time, for the purpose of seeking God’s face.  Scripture also gives examples of a partial fast.  Daniel did this when he abstained from meat, wine, and delicacies for a period of three weeks (Daniel 10:3).  A few time in the Bible an absolute fast (both food and water) is described.  Esther asked her people to do an absolute fast for three days when Haman was plotting against them (Esther 4:16).  Absolute fasts were not the norm, and were usually for a short period of time.  They were always a desperate measure to seek God’s mercy.

Although scriptural fasting typically means to abstain from food, there are a few examples of things fasted besides food.  As part of the Nazarite vow, there were certain things that were abstained from during the duration of the vow – such as wine, cutting hair, and touching dead things (Num 6:1-27).  Paul also considers the idea that married couples can abstain from sexual relations for a short time for the purpose of prayer (1 Cor 7:5).

Fasting is usually a private matter.  It is between you and the Lord.  The only people who should know  are those who must know. If you fast for the purpose of impressing others, that will be your only reward (Matt 6:16-18).

Although fasting is typically private, it can be done corporately.  This is especially the case when a group of people of one mind want to ask God for mercy and healing.  The whole city of Nineveh fasted (even livestock) after Jonah warned them of their pending destruction (Jonah 3:6-9).  John Wesley records in his journal in 1756 that the king of England asked for the entire country to pray and fast in order to avoid a threatened invasion from France: “The fast day was a glorious day…every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face.  Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.”  In a footnote Wesley wrote: “Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.”

Fasting is not a commandment.  Nowhere does scripture make it obligatory. As Christians, we are free.  If we fast, we ought not to do it as a tradition or compulsion, but  as something that God through his Spirit gives us a desire to do.  While it is not commanded, it is pretty clear that Jesus proceeds on the principle that Christians will fast at certain times.

The primary purpose of fasting is to center ourselves on God, to worship him and to listen to him.  When we fast, we wait to hear from God. If He speaks to us, we obey and do what He says. Charles Spurgeon wrote: “Our seasons of fasting and prayer at the tabernacle have been high days indeed; ever has Heaven’s gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer to the central glory.”

Fasting has a secondary purpose – it will reveal the sins that control us.  Foster writes, “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit for the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately…Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realize that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in the knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ.”

Fasting reminds us that it is not food that sustains us, it is Christ.  “We are sustained by the word of God.”  In reality, fasting ought to be a time of joy,  not somber misery.  Fasting is an opportunity to center on Christ, for him reset our priorities, for him to show us what is important and what is not.

Fasting is not just giving up food.  It is giving up food and replacing the time normally spent in preparing and eating with something better – more time with God.  Fasting goes hand in hand with prayer.  It can also include extra time reading God’s word, worshiping him, and serving others.  Fasting can be particularly helpful during a time of intercessory prayer for another person.

How do you fast?  Here are some practical tips (from Foster’s book) of what to do and not do:

  • Don’t beat yourself up if you fail when fasting. Ask for God’s help, and try again.
  • Don’t try to stock up with a big meal before fasting. It is better to work into it with light meals of fruits and vegetables.
  • Start with a short fast of just a meal or two “…it is wise to learn to walk well before we try to run.”
  • Drink lots of water.
  • During a long fast, the first few days will be the most difficult. You will feel hungry. The body is like a child, and needs to be put in its place. The body will be ridding itself of toxins, you may have bad breath for a day or two. If you fast caffeine you may have withdrawal headaches.
  • As you fast, you will see a progression from the superficial aspects of fasting to the more rewarding ones. You will go from congratulating yourself to reflecting on Christ, to surrender and prayer.
  • “By the sixth or seventh day you will begin to feel stronger and more alert. Hunger pains will continue to diminish until…they are only a minor irritation.”
  • “Anywhere between twenty-one and forty days or longer…hunger pains will return. This is the first stage of starvation…the fast should be broken at this time.”
  • When you end an extended fast, do it gently. Your digestive system will be out of practice. End the fast with a small meal or two, and with healthy and easily digested foods.

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[This blog post is part 3 in a series about the Christian disciplines, based on Richard Foster’s book  Celebration of Discipline. All quotes in this post (other than the Bible references) are from the book.  The series introduction is here.]

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The Dicipline of Prayer

I know of no better thermometer to your spiritual temperature than this, the measure of the intensity of your prayer. – Charles Spurgeon

“To pray is to change.  Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.  If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a characteristic in our lives.  The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ…When we pray, God slowly and graciously reveals to us our evasive actions and sets us free from them.”

Prayer is not about us and our selfish desires. It is about God teaching us to see things from his point of view.  Prayer is learning to have the heart of God, “to desire the things that God desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”

Prayer was central to those in the Bible who knew God.  Jesus always was speaking to his Father.  The apostles gave themselves continually to prayer (Acts 6:4).   Throughout the history of Christianity, the giants of the faith have been characterized by a life of prayer. Martin Luther wrote that “I have so much business that I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.  John Wesley wrote that “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.”  William Penn wrote of George Fox that “above all he excelled in prayer”.

Those examples in the faith can discourage us.  After all, we probably don’t pray three hours a day like Martian Luther did.  It helps to realize that prayer is a learning process.  It is something that we grow deeper in over time as we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us.  Foster gives the example of a marathon runner.  Most of us would not be able to run a marathon today.  However, if we trained over a period of time, we would be able to better run the race.  It is like that with prayer.  If we continually allow God to move in us, we can expect to pray with more authority a year from now than we do now.

We are often taught by society that the future is set, that it cannot be changed.  Whatever will be will be.  That outlook discourages meaningful prayer.  Part of learning to pray with authority is to realize that our prayers can and do change the future.  “The Bible pray-ers prayed as if their prayers could and would make an objective difference.”   “Certain things will happen in history if we pray rightly.”  That is both liberating and sobering.

Since prayer is a learning process, we will sometimes fail as we learn to pray.  That’s okay, the main thing is to pray.  Do it!  We are free to ask questions of God and to seek his guidance on how to do it.  We can experiment.  One thing Foster did was to make note of every reference in the Bible on Jesus’ teaching about prayer, and paste those references on sheets of paper.  The exercise shocked him, because he found out that his experience in prayer did not line up with what Jesus taught.  He writes: “Either the excuses and rationalizations for unanswered prayer I had been taught were wrong, or Jesus’ words were wrong.  I determined to learn to pray so that my experience conformed to the words of Jesus rather than try to make his words conformed to my impoverished experience.”

Foster notes that when Jesus prayed for others he never concluded the prayer with “if it’s your will”.  Nor did the apostles or the old testament prophets pray that way.  “They obviously believed that they knew what the will of God was before they prayed the prayer of faith.”  There is a proper place for praying for God’s will, such as when we want to know God’s heart, or when we pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.  But there are other times where we know what God’s will is.  In those instances we are to pray confidently, remembering his promises.  Sometimes praying “if it’s your will” can be a cop out for our lack of belief.

Realizing that prayer is a learning process helps us to keep from dismissing it as something that doesn’t work.   Foster gives the example of a TV that doesn’t function.  If you turn on the TV and it doesn’t power up, you don’t then assume there is no such thing as a working TV.  You check if it’s plugged in, and use other troubleshooting techniques.  The same is true of prayer.  If our prayers don’t work, we should troubleshoot rather than assume there is no such thing as prayer.  “Perhaps we are praying wrongly, perhaps something within us needs changing. Perhaps patience and persistence are needed.  We listen, make the necessary adjustments, and try again.  We can know that our prayers are being answered as surely as we can know that the television set is working.”

To pray is to be in contact with God.  When we are in him, his life and power flow through us into others.  If we are not connected to him, nothing will happen with our prayers.  All other praying is meaningless words (Matt 6:7)   Prayer is in large part listening to God.  Intercessory prayer starts with listening to God.  When we quiet ourselves and listen more to him, that is when we can begin to pray for others.

Listen to God first in the small things.  It’s our tendency to pray for the hardest things first – like for God to heal someone from blindness or cancer.  But God also works in the small physical issues – like healing an ear ache or a cold.  When we see God working in the little things, our confidence in him grows.  “Success in the small corners of life gives us authority in the larger matters.  If we are still, we will learn not only who God is, but how his power operates.”

When praying for others our biggest problem is usually not a lack of faith.  Rather, it is a lack of compassion. Truly and deeply caring about others often makes the difference in how effective our prayers are for people.  Having compassion for someone while you are praying is evidence that God is calling you to pray for them.  Compassion characterized every healing that took place in the New Testament.  “If we genuinely love people, we desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and that will cause us to pray.”

Prayer doesn’t need to be complicated.  Jesus teaches us to ask like a child asks his father (Matt 7:9).  When my little boy asks for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he knows I will give him one.  He doesn’t worry about my character, he knows I will provide for him.  “Children do not find it difficult or complicated to talk to their parents, nor do they feel embarrassed to bring the simplest need to their attention.  Neither should we hesitate to bring the simplest requests confidently to the Father.”  Children are also good at imagining the way things should be.  We can pray like that too – allowing God through the guidance of the Spirit to show us the way things should be – people healthy, marriages healed, parents loving their children.

Pray for your church, pray for the time when you worship together.   Your pastor needs your prayers.  Often pastors can sense when people are praying for them, and when they are not.  Pray for God to heal sexual deviations.   God created our sexual drives, and he can heal them.  If you have children, pray for them and with them.  Pray for their protection, and for God’s blessing upon them.  Pray that God will give you insight and compassion for every person you meet.  If you believe that God loves every person, you can also have confidence that he is working in every person.

Pray against evil.  Our enemy the devil is like a prowling lion, looking for who he can devour (1 Peter 5:8).  Pray for God’s protection for you and for others.   Remember, you are saved and protected and given authority over evil by the blood of Christ.

Don’t wait to pray until you feel like it.  Prayer is a discipline, and remembering to pray requires diligence.   Just like learning a new musical instrument, prayer takes practice.  And pray all the time!  We can set aside a specific time to pray, but we can also do it throughout the day, as we do our daily tasks.  As we listen to God, he will remind us.

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[This blog post is part 2 in a series about the Christian disciplines, based on Richard Foster’s book  Celebration of Discipline. All quotes in this post (other than the Bible references) are from the book.  The series introduction is here.]

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The Discipline of Meditation

Only to sit and think of God,
Oh what a joy it is!
To think the thought, to breathe the Name
Earth has no higher bliss
-Frederick W. Faber

Do you want to be in God’s presence? Do you desire to know him, to hear his voice, to fellowship with him, to listen and obey him? Meditation is listening to God’s word, thinking about his law, and remembering again and again what he has done. “Blessed is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” (Psalm 1:2). “Christian meditation is the ability to hear God’s voice and to obey his word.”  Hearing God is also a call to obedience.  It does us no good to hear if we do not also obey.

Jesus often meditated. He set aside time to be alone with his Father. He listened, communed, and followed the will of his Father. He modeled a relationship for us. “What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart”.

Christian meditation has little in common with meditation of the eastern religions.   “Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind.”  Eastern meditation is an attempt to escape from the physical realm and to lose one’s personal identity.  Christian meditation is an encounter with the living God who makes us whole.  Christian meditation is creating space that allows God to remove confusion around us, and to replace that confusion with a rich relationship with himself.

Deep down it is frightening to talk directly to God.  He is holy, and we are not.  It’s hard to trust him, it’s intimidating to be in his presence.  We usually prefer to hear from God second hand – through a mediator – just like Israel preferred Moses to talk to God on their behalf.  We think that by speaking to God “second hand”, we won’t really need to change our lives or who we are.  But, “to be in the presence of God is to change.”

Desiring to talk to God requires grace from God in the first place.   As we receive his grace, the fire in our heart grows.  We increasingly desire to know him, to hear him, to obey him, to be in his presence, and for him to change us.

Learning to meditate requires setting aside some time to do it. At the same time, our whole day matters.  Paul  says “to pray without ceasing.”  We can’t compartmentalize.  If most of our day is frantic and without thought of God, it will be difficult to think of him for the few minutes that we do set aside.

What about location and posture?  When meditating, try to pick a spot that is free of distraction.  Turn off the TV and the cell phone.  Focus on God.  When the weather is nice, consider going outside.  Pick a posture that works for you, that’s comfortable, and that helps you to center your attention on Christ.

Meditate on scripture.  Allow God to speak to you through his written work.   Scripture meditation is different than exegesis or study. It is ruminating on a scripture passage (reading the passage slowly, several times, thinking deeply about it).  Sometimes it might include memorizing the passage.  Ask God to personalize his word for you – to show you how he wants to apply it in your life.  Pick a passage of scripture and internalize it.

Another kind of meditation is to “center down” (a Quaker term).  Be quiet before God.  Give your cares to him.  Receive from him.  “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

Another kind of meditation is to enjoy God’s world.   Be amazed at his creation.  “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1). “Give your attention to the created order. Look at the trees, really look at them. Take a flower and allow its beauty and symmetry to sink deep into your mind and heart.”

Another kind of meditation is to think about current events.  This could be called “prophetic meditation”.   “Hold the events of our time before God and ask for prophetic insight to discern where these things lead. Further, we should ask for guidance for anything we personally should be doing to be salt and light in our decaying and dark world.”

Remember as you meditate that it is a learning process.  Don’t get discouraged, don’t give up.  God wants you to know him better.  He is  in the process of drawing you to himself.  Let him do it.

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[This blog post is part 1 in a series about the Christian disciplines, based on Richard Foster’s book  Celebration of Discipline. All quotes in this post (other than the Bible references) are from the book.  The series introduction is here.]

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The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster

One of the books that has had a positive impact on my relationship with Christ is: The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster.  If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it.  If you have read it, it’s worth reading again! Over the next few weeks I plan to read the book again, and then to do a blog post on each of the disciplines mentioned. The book is available on Amazon [link], and parts of it are on scribd [link].

Anyone can practice the disciplines.  The only requirement is a longing for God.  Do you want to know God better and deeper?  The disciplines are for you.  Their purpose is to draw you closer to Jesus, and to enable him to work more effectively in your life.  The central goal of the disciplines is to help you seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

The moment we make our focus the disciplines themselves (instead of Christ), they becomes hindrances.  They can lead to legalistic pride, and can change our focus to self work instead of God’s grace.  But, if our purpose in studying and applying the disciplines is to allow Christ to better work in us, they can lead to an amazing and fruitful relationship in him.

The disciplines Foster writes about are:

The Inward Disciplines
meditation
prayer
fasting
study

The Outward Disciplines
simplicity
solitude
submission
service

The Corporate Disciplines
confession
worship
guidance
celebration

If you are like me, you may have a negative reaction to the idea of one or more of the above. Give them a chance. I hope you enjoy the series, that it clears up misconceptions, and that it challenges and motivates you to seek a deeper relationship with God.

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