My last semester in seminary I took a course titled “The Integration of Psychology and Theology”. It was one of the best courses I took in seminary and has since been valuable in my pastoral work. The class opened me up to the way different academic disciplines related to one another. Not only did psychology and theology have things to say to the other, every field of study benefits from integrating insights from other disciplines. For example, the study of literature benefits from a fuller grasp of the history surrounding the piece’s author and audience. Studying science better enables theologians to articulate God’s work in the world. And I could go on and on with more examples, just as you could fill in your own.
But not only do academic disciplines benefit from integration, spiritual disciplines do as well. The spiritual disciplines include (not exhaustively) reading, studying, memorizing, praying, fasting, giving, serving, worshiping, silence, and solitude. Spiritual disciplines are as John Wesley says, “means of grace,” which guide us in spiritual growth. Richard Foster helpfully describes the disciplines as employing “indirection” for the purpose of growth. For example, if you want to better know the scriptures, to internalize their meaning and live with a constant awareness of God’s word, you can’t just decide that suddenly one day this will be the case. But a discipline, like memorization, can help you reach the place you desired over time. It is a means by which God’s grace goes to work in your life for growth.
The main claim I want to make here (pardon the rather lengthy introduction to get around to it) is that we ought to see the spiritual disciplines in relation to one another, rather than in isolation. In other words, you don’t need to do one at a time, or one here and one there, but look for ways that the disciplines can work together. Let’s consider the season of Lent in the Christian Year, which begins today (Ash Wednesday). Lent is a season consisting of forty days leading up to Easter. It serves as a time of preparation for Easter through calling us to repentance and entering the space of Jesus’ suffering and death. We simply can’t appreciate the resurrection like we should without acknowledging Christ’s suffering and death with some sustained focus.
Traditionally, Lenten disciplines include prayer (marked by repentance), fasting, and giving. But again, these need not be done separately, but in harmony. Isaiah 58 illustrates this. After the Lord exposes Israel’s fasting practices as empty and shallow, he directs them towards the kind of fast that he desires (vv 6-7, ESV): “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” God calls for fasting coupled with sharing and giving. The Israelite practice of alms-giving flows out of fasting: the two are connected, integrated, and thus become more fruitful.
So consider the areas of growth you want to see in your life. Or better yet, invite the Holy Spirit to bring to your awareness present deficiencies by praying like David in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” Then, consider which spiritual disciplines God can use to direct you towards growth in those areas. Or you can go with the season of the Church Year, and practice the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving. As you fast from something (coffee, dessert, meal, dairy, etc) let that space opened up in your life by the absence of this thing be filled by communion with God. Then, take the money you saved by not purchasing that item for the Lent season and give it to the needy (there are many ways to do this, including giving to a local church benevolence fund, a compassion ministry that feeds the hungry like Convoy of Hope, or a neighbor you know who is struggling financially).
I pray that the integration of these means of grace in your life will draw you into a deeper relationship with the Lord Jesus and will connect you in more meaningful and healing ways with your neighbors, community, and world. And may all of this be to the glory of God alone, “who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace,” and will “comfort our hearts and establish them in every good work and word” (2 Thess. 2:16-17).