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You asked for a sermon on Spiritual Discipline


1 Corinthians 3:10-15 


1] It was always the last thing we did in the gymnasium, when we were so tired we could barely remain upright. We stood with our feet together, looked at a spot on the wall, and then rotated our head in as wide a circle as we could, over and over, all the while concentrating on that one spot on the wall. At first we all became dizzy and lost our balance. Gradually we were able to keep standing and keep looking at that spot in front of us, regardless of our dizziness.

We were boxers in training. The coach told us that the point of the exercise was to have us trained to keep looking at our opponent instinctively after we had been staggered by a blow and the lights were going out and we were dizzy. “This little exercise will keep you alive one day”, he told us, “and you will thank me that I insisted you do it.” He was proved right. The day came for all of us — and came more than once — when the training we had undergone kept us looking at our opponent after we’d been hit and the ring was reeling and we had to get through the round.

Boxers aren’t the only people who get “rocked.” Everyone does – which means that Christians do too. One day temptation hurls itself upon us so violently that we can only call it assault. Another day misfortune hits us when we aren’t expecting it at all. Or disappointment sickens us like a skyscraper elevator plummeting out of control. The worst blow of all, the body blow that can leave us in terrible pain, conscious yet helpless, is betrayal: there is no blow like betrayal.

It’s plain that Christians need training. The apostle Paul calls it “training in godliness”. (1 Tim. 4:8) From his exposure to athletic contests he has seen how important training is for athletes. He refers several times in his epistles to the rigorous preparation which the boxer and the wrestler and the runner undergo. “They can’t afford to be soft or self-indulgent or ill-prepared”, he says; “Does anyone think that Christians can afford to be?”

You have asked for a sermon on spiritual discipline. You want to know why training in godliness is necessary, for whom it is necessary, and to what end it is undertaken. You want to know why we have to keep at it until that day when, says Peter, we are crowned with that “crown of glory which never fades”.


2] Perhaps it all sounds a bit too intense for you, even a bit grim. Training in godliness isn’t grim, but it is intense, and it is necessary. Why is it necessary?

Because of our fallen human nature, in the first place. Christians are those in whom the “new creature in Christ” and the “old creature in Adam” war with each other. To be sure, Christians are those who are “born of the Spirit”, in the vocabulary of the New Testament. As Jesus Christ embraced us in his grace we embraced him in faith. We were reconciled to God, given a new standing before God, and given a new nature as well — or as scripture speaks of it, a new heart. None of this is mere pietistic verbiage. We are possessed of a new name and a new nature. Nevertheless, as Martin Luther liked to say, the old man, the old woman, doesn’t die readily, doesn’t die without a struggle; the corpse twitches. We mustn’t forget that Jesus instructs disciples — disciples — to ask for forgiveness every day, just because sin still clings even to disciples. To say that Christians are identified before God as new creatures isn’t to say that the old creature has disappeared; while the old creature isn’t our identity, it is a twitching corpse which can still trip us up.

When I was younger I thought that my depravity was relatively slight, was always in sight, and was therefore easy to keep at bay. Much older now, I am sobered upon being confronted with the arrears of sin that remain in me. As sin-riddled as you have undoubtedly found me to be, can you imagine how I’d look if I were devoid of spiritual discipline? Spiritual discipline will be needed for as long as you and I are Spirit-born children of God whose identity in Christ is contradicted by the hangover of our sinnership. Then spiritual discipline will be needed until we are released from the conflict. Please don’t tell me that all of this sounds too intense. Paul insists that without the most intense training the athlete will find himself disqualified.

Spiritual discipline is needed, in the second place, not only because of what remains “in here”; it is necessary in the second place because of the spiritual conflict which rages “out there”. Let us make no mistake. Our Lord insists that he came to wrest the creation out of the grip of a spirit-opponent whose range is nothing less than cosmic. In the words of the apostle John, he came to “destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8) To no one’s surprise, then, throughout his public ministry Christ is opposed. To be sure, he’s opposed by political authorities, religious authorities, family, friends, and even disciples. At bottom, however, regardless of the form in which opposition comes to him or the quarter from which it comes, he’s ultimately opposed by the evil one himself. He contends with his foe for every inch of ground that his foe has illegitimately occupied. No occupier retreats willingly; an occupier must be routed. In other words, Christ’s ministry is unrelenting conflict.

Now Christians are those whom the master has enlisted. We are soldiers of Christ, as the NT is unashamed to say. But what use is a frontline soldier who has never been trained? Not only what use is he; how long is he going to last?

During the last war there were two aspects to the training of a submarine commander. One aspect was becoming schooled in the technicalities of submarine warfare: when to launch a torpedo, how close to the target one should be, what to do in assorted emergencies. The second aspect was much more subtle; it was more of the order of intuition. This aspect was more a matter of equipping a submariner with a sixth sense: whether to surface or remain submerged; whether to fight or flee; whether to wait for moonlight or wait for cloudcover. The first aspect, the technical aspect, could be learned out of a book and learned quickly. The second aspect, however, the subtle, intuitive, life-and-death aspect was much harder to come by; it couldn’t be learned out of a book, and it took far longer to acquire. At the beginning of the war inexperienced submarine captains had time to learn the latter aspect. Towards the end of the war there was no time. Not having acquired the subtle intuitions that a submarine commander needs to survive, these fellows didn’t survive; neither did the crews entrusted to them.

So it is with the Christian life in the midst of spiritual conflict. It’s easy to acquire a Christian vocabulary, easy to gain a rudimentary grasp of Christian doctrine. But it takes far more time, far more diligence to gain a spiritual sixth sense; to intuit whether what has been thrust in front of us is an opportunity to be seized or a danger to be avoided, whether what is proposed in the document before the official board is kingdom-building or kingdom-destroying.

Since keeping company with Jesus Christ means that the venue of his ministry is the venue of our ministry, and since the venue of his ministry is ceaseless spiritual conflict, then we need spiritual discipline. Without it shall be of no use to him; without it we shan’t even survive ourselves.

Spiritual discipline is needed for a third reason. The world in which we live is a tough place. The world resists truth, resists righteousness, resists integrity, resists honesty; the world, I have found, perversely resists even love. The world is populated by billions of people, every one of whom is fallen; which is to say, the world seethes with concentrated self-interests, clamouring, competing self-interests, even cut-throat self-interests.

I was asked to attend a meeting in support of a non-profit housing organization that was to build a facility to accommodate eight (count them: eight) head-injured adults. The people to be accommodated would be recovering from head-injuries sustained chiefly through automobile accidents and industrial accidents, as well as through the occasional athletic mishap. The injured would be housed in the facility for approximately six months; after that they would be able to function without special provision.

I went to the meeting. Many people went to the meeting. No doubt in other contexts they would appear decent, considerate, even moderately compassionate. But not on this night; on this night they were determined that the head-injured of Mississauga could freeze to death before they were going to be housed in “our” neighbourhood. If you had ever doubted that the world is a tough place you wouldn’t have been doubting at the conclusion of that meeting. Some people implied that those who have suffered head-injuries (concussions) are slobbering ogres or rapacious molesters around whom no one is safe. Others said that whether dangerous or not, head-injured people are unsightly and would detract from the handsomeness of the Streetsville neighbourhood. Whereupon I asked these people if they thought they could spot a concussion walking down the street. I wasn’t thanked for my question. The woman beside me complained bitterly that the increased traffic would be a huge nuisance. “Increased traffic”, I remarked, “there are only eight people to be accommodated, and none of them is allowed a driver’s licence!” She turned on me in her fury: “So what if they can’t drive. Would you want them living on your street?” One of Mississauga’s councillors had called the meeting. He spoke in support of the scheme. A few days after the meeting a representative from the housing organization told the councillor that since the housing organization had already spent $75,000 on preparatory work, it had to know, before it committed any more money, whether the councillor was going to support the scheme formally at city hall as he had supported it informally at the neighbourhood meeting. “Not only am I not going to support it”, the councillor said in the most startling about-face, “I am going to bury it!”

The Christian life, Christian service, every aspect of our discipleship; it all unfolds in a world which is tough, even treacherous. Spiritual discipline is needed if we are going to do anything besides give up.

I’ve already anticipated the fourth reason for spiritual discipline: to forestall discouragement and capitulation. It mustn’t happen! It won’t happen only as long as we have anticipated it, prepared for it, and stand equipped by the training or discipline which keeps us looking ahead even when we have been rocked.


3] Then in what does spiritual discipline consist?

The first item is prayer. John Calvin was fond of saying, “Prayer is the chief exercise of faith.” He’s right. Prayer is the chief exercise of faith. God commands us to pray. Faith recognises the command of God and is eager to obey him. Not only does faith recognise the command of God; faith understands the command of God, faith knows why prayer is the chief exercise of faith, knows why God can impart to his people through this exercise what he can impart in no other way, knows that God wills only our blessing. Then God’s people must pray consistently, pray habitually, pray believingly.

Even if we were slow to understand that what God commands he commands only for our blessing, it would still be difficult for us to overlook the example of our Lord himself. He prayed, and prayed, and prayed some more. He prayed in marathon sessions before major developments in his life (e.g., the calling of the twelve). He prayed with others in public in the synagogue where he worshipped every Sabbath. He prayed alone on countless occasions. The written gospels depict him going away to a “lonely place a great while before day”, in the words of the gospel-writers, in order to be alone and to pray. What our Lord knew to be essential we can’t pretend to be optional. Since prayer is the chief exercise of faith, believing people are equipped chiefly through prayer.

Remember, you have asked for a sermon on spiritual discipline; not a sermon on ethical rigour or intellectual strictness or psychological resilience. To be sure, spiritual discipline includes all of these, but they, of themselves, will never equip us spiritually. Then if spiritual discipline is what we need above everything else we must pray. Apart from it our Lord himself would plainly have had no ministry, even no life. We cannot do without the very thing that he knew to be his lifeline.


(ii) The second item in spiritual discipline is self-honesty; utter self-honesty. The older I become the more sobered I am at humankind’s capacity for self-deception. As soon as we are tempted, our most rigorous logic becomes the most rigid rationalisation. The logic is still there, all right, but now the logic serves our self-justification. The very thing we were counting on to safeguard us against the seduction of temptation now reinforces the seduction. Thinking that our logical rigour would safeguard us against being dragged into sin, our logical rigour now prevents us from being argued out of sin. Our capacity for self-deception is bottomless.

No doubt you have a question to put to me: if self-honesty is essential, and yet our capacity for self-deception is bottomless, how are we are going to arrive at the self-honesty we need? We shall arrive at it with the help of two instruments. One is scripture. Scripture is the normative witness to Christian faith and life. Scripture is the normative witness to what we must believe and what we must do. Scripture is also a mirror. When we look into it we begin to see where and why and how we have deceived ourselves with respect to our faith and our discipleship. Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch woman who survived Ravensbruck, a women’s camp that few survived; Corrie managed to smuggle a small pocket-bible with her when she was incarcerated. She read to her fellow-inmates night-by-night, and expounded the text as well. After a while a woman who wasn’t a believer (or at least who hadn’t been when she was incarcerated) said to Corrie, “That book of yours; it is the only book that tells us the truth about ourselves.”

A friend spoke to me of the Air Canada pilot he invited to his cottage for a weekend. The pilot, of course, was on holiday. Holiday or not, right after breakfast the fellow took out his pilot’s and read it for half an hour. He had already mastered it or else he’d never have qualified as a pilot. He had passed an examination in it every year for years. Still, he steeped himself in it every morning. He wanted to keep his instincts razor-sharp in the event of any unusual development. He knew that an in-flight emergency had to be met with instincts trained by relentless study. Now no one is going to say that the pilot is neurotic; no one says he’s obsessive-compulsive; no one even says he’s nervous. All his passengers are glad that he spends half an hour every morning, even on his holidays, with the book he knows inside-out anyway.

For years I have endeavoured to do as much with scripture. Does anyone here want to call me neurotic or obsessive-compulsive or even nervous? Knowing my heart as well as I do, I know that unusual spiritual assault or temptation can be met only with spiritual instincts that have been kept razor-sharp. Only the scripture-normed and scripture-shaped pastor is going to help a congregation. Only the scripture-normed, scripture-shaped Christian is going to help the world.

The second instrument by which we penetrate our self-deception is the company of Spirit-sensitive friends. For years I thought I had privileged access to my own heart and mind. I thought I necessarily knew more about myself, invariably knew more about myself, than anyone else could know about me. When it was suggested that this was not the case I became very defensive and insisted that it was. It was only after much embarrassment and much anguish that I came to admit that there are some settings in which other people know me far better than I know myself. In such settings these people have something to tell me about myself which I should be a fool to ignore; and a fool not chiefly because in ignoring them I shall embarrass myself, but rather because I shall endanger myself. For this reason I shall always need, as you will too, one or two or three soul-mates who are spiritually sensitive, spiritually attuned; friends who are willing to tell me truth about myself to which I am blind; friends from whom I can hear this without knee-jerk defensiveness.

The last item in spiritual discipline is service, especially service in a venue that appears to contradict the truth of God and the reality of his kingdom. Three decades ago the students of the Oxford University Humanist Club hung a huge banner over the doorway of a theological college: “For God so loved the world that — last year 37,000 thalidomide babies were born”. A low blow? Not really. There are developments without number that appear to contradict the truth of God. Why shouldn’t these be drawn to our attention? Spiritual resilience has to be tested; it has to be tested in the midst of developments that appear to contradict the God for whose service our discipline is preparing us.

Such testing will always be essential. A military unit can train and train and train some more. Yet as necessary as training is, no amount of training can substitute for combat experience. The soldier really becomes a soldier only when he’s under fire. Spiritual discipline bears fruit and proves itself fruitful when we are under fire. We are then of even greater usefulness to God in the service of that world which he will not abandon however much it may contradict him.

You asked for a sermon on spiritual discipline. Our enthusiasm for such discipline is the measure of our seriousness as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.


                                                                     Victor Shepherd

March 1999