A morning run, an hour of reading at bedtime, a weekly gathering with friends — over time, our habits and routines impact our lives and play a role in forming the kinds of people we are.
Throughout the constant changes that life brings us — in seasons, in sudden events — we often rely on routines and habits to see us through. It makes sense to reflect on the practices we engage in daily, weekly, or at other regular intervals to see if they align with who we want to be. As Christians, by God’s grace, our spiritual habits and practices can contribute positively to our growth and formation in Christ.
It’s important to remember that spiritual practices, such as prayer and worship, aren’t about earning our salvation. Rather, engaging in such practices creates intentional spaces for us to receive God’s grace in our lives.
The goal of engaging in spiritual practice is straightforward — to become more Christlike.
Spiritual disciplines are often most beneficial when they are done with regular commitment.
Just as physical disciplines, like eating healthfully or exercising daily, help our bodies, spiritual practices help nourish and strengthen our souls. In 1 Timothy 4:7-8, Paul exhorts Timothy to “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
What are spiritual practices?
While the Bible doesn’t offer a single list of spiritual practices that every person should develop, it does provide examples, many of which Jesus Himself engaged in while Jesus was on earth.
Jesus modeled studying Scripture, praying, worshiping, fasting, engaging in fellowship, spending time in solitude, giving, serving, and making disciples, among others.
Historically, spiritual practices have also been part of the church. We read in Acts 2:42 that
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of
bread and to prayer.” The practices of early Christians developed over time, particularly through Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodoxy. Practices such as examen (a type of contemplative prayer) and lectio divina (“divine reading” in Latin) are now also used in some Protestant churches.
Spiritual practices are sometimes placed in different categories. For example, according to
Zondervan Academic, “Richard J. Foster develops a threefold typology of inward disciplines
(meditation, prayer, fasting, and study), outward disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission, and service), and corporate disciplines (confession, worship, guidance, and celebration). Dallas Willard divides the disciplines into two classes: disciplines of abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and disciplines of engagement (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).”
Benefits of regular spiritual practice
The reason for us to pursue spiritual practices is in obedience to and in love for Christ. Benefits to our health and well-being are additional blessings to us from God. As we grow in Christ-likeness, we are likely to find ourselves feeling better not only spiritually but physically and emotionally as well.
Ross Oakes Mueller, Ph.D., is one of several PLNU psychology professors to study how our
habits and practices influence our moral character. In psychology parlance, this is often referred to as “relational generativity” or “generative care.”
“Generative care is both the motivation and the capacity, not just care about someone, but to care for another in such a way that you catalyze their growth or their ideal self, and they, in turn, contribute to your own growth,” Oakes Mueller explained.
Along with fellow psychology professor Michael Leffel, Ph.D., Oakes Mueller has studied how
practices in specific areas affect physician-patient interactions. They are currently conducting similar research involving undergraduate students as well as pastors. They have found interventions such as mindfulness and gratitude practices tend to positively affect people’s behavior toward others.
For example, their recent research with students indicates that mindfulness practices may make a difference in how students interact with their friends. The study involved tracking change over time in students who engaged in mindfulness practices and in their friends.
“For those who grew in their capacity to be mindful and be more present, they had friends who said this person has grown in how they care for me,” Oakes Mueller said.
How to start
For many people, some traditional Christian practices come more naturally than others. An
introvert, for example, might feel more comfortable with personal prayer than in a large
fellowship setting while an extrovert might feel that serving others comes more easily than
spending time in meditation. Regardless of where we start, it can be helpful to develop multiple practices, both within and outside of our natural comfort zone.
For internal practices, someone might start with daily prayer or Bible reading. They also might reflect during exercise or take time for solitude and silence in nature. For outward practices, a person might spend time in service to others by volunteering or helping friends and neighbors.
Communal practices might include attending worship services, joining a small group, and
participating in the Lord’s Supper. The more we engage in these practices, the more we open our hearts and minds up to the work of the Spirit.
In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dilliard famously notes, “How we spend our days is, of
course, how we spend our lives.” If this is true, then spending our days in God’s Word, in service to Him, and with his people means we are spending our lives the same way.
“Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
With the help of the Holy Spirit, spiritual practices can help us to love God and others as He