Monday, July 16, 2007

Getting My Spirit in Shape

Lessons Learned from Biblical Spirituality with Don Whitney

by Doug Smith

Our bodies are not the only component of us that needs exercise. Our spiritual lives can sometimes become too flabby and weak as the result of a lack of discipline in our lives. Recently, I was privileged to get the benefits of several weeks of a spiritual workout, the most intense part being the time I had at a modular course at the Midwest Center for Theological Studies in Owensboro, Kentucky last month. Dr. Don Whitney taught Biblical Spirituality to a group of eager students. Dr. Whitney is a seminary professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and several other books. He also offers many helpful resources (including bulletin inserts) at the Center for Biblical Spirituality website

The course was book-ended by lectures on 1 Timothy 4:7 and 1 Timothy 4:16, commencing with the implications of the Bible's command for us to exercise (or discipline) ourselves for the purpose of godliness and closing with the sober warning that we pay close attention to our lives and our doctrine. The lectures covered a number of the Biblical Spiritual Disciplines. Dr. Whitney emphasized the fact that these are Biblical Spiritual Disciplines. Since the Bible has everything we need for life and godliness, the Bible contains all the exercises (disciplines) needed for us to grow spiritually. Any practice that promises spiritual growth but that has no basis in God's Word (such as the example he gave of labyrinth walking) is not a Biblical Spiritual Discipline, and, therefore, is not needed by the Christian.

The Bible gives us many exercises for godliness and this course covered several of them: the importance of Bible intake, meditation (which focuses on better understanding Scripture so that one may live in obedience to God), prayer, family worship, fasting, silence and solitude, how to approach the Lord's Day, and keeping a journal. These exercises help us to have time with, and grow to be more like, Jesus Christ. We were given the Biblical basis for all the Spiritual Disciplines covered and much practical advice for practicing them.

Our reading assignments also drove home the importance of the Spiritual Disciplines. We were assigned four books: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Roger Steer's George Müller Delighted in God, and Dr. Whitney's Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.

The entire course was quite helpful. All of these disciplines are important. But three things have left a stronger impression than the others.

1) The importance of keeping a spiritual journal

Journaling is not explicitly commanded by Scripture, but it is demonstrated. The book of Lamentations and many of David's Psalms are forms of journals. Church history, while not our authority, confirms for us the value of journals for preserving a record and growing in godliness. Many of the Christians known for their godliness, such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, kept spiritual journals where they recorded their struggles and progress. David Brainerd's journals have been an encouragement to the missionary cause.

I was impressed with the fact that if I do not record my thoughts and many of my experiences, my children will have no way of knowing about them. I know very little about most of my ancestors because I have no access to any record of their lives or thoughts.

Keeping a journal also helps me chart my spiritual growth. I can look back over what I have written and see how I am progressing in my spiritual life. This motivates me in the other Spiritual Disciplines. It gives me a place to record insights from Scripture and to reflect on what God is doing in my life and what I am learning from Him.

My journal gives me a place to pour out my heart. Writing helps me by providing an outlet for expressing things that I might not be able to express to just anyone.

Dr. Whitney made sure that we understood that keeping a journal did not require daily entries, although we should write with regularity if we want to keep it as a practice. He also emphasized that the right way to do a personal journal is whatever is best for that person. For some it may be typing, but others may do better handwriting it. Even a weblog could have potential for serving as a journal (just to clarify: I make far more entries to my personal journal than to my blog, so they are not the same thing for me). There is no set amount of words one needs to write each time; short entries and long entries may both be appropriate.

2) The delight of silence and solitude

One of our assignments was to spend at least four hours in silence and solitude before the Lord. In other words, we needed to get away from other people and distractions so we could focus on the Lord. We were to spend time praising Him in song, reading His Word, praying through Scripture, meditating on Scripture, journaling, and reading a devotional book of our choice (I chose Joseph Carroll's How to Worship Jesus Christ). We were to do no sermon preparation or studies for class.

This was a time of great refreshment. I wish I could have spent more time this way, and hope to be able to take extended time for silence and solitude at least every several weeks. Much of my time dealt with how worthy our God is of praise. I prayed through Psalm 29 and meditated on Revelation 4:11: "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created." I spent some time in Revelation 4 and 5 (especially verses 9-14), mainly because of the devotional book dealing with those chapters. I ended my time listening to "Worthy Is the Lamb" and "Amen" from Handel's Messiah and thought about how the glory of that music is nothing to compare with the praises we will give and hear in Heaven for our Lord Jesus Christ. This was a little taste of heaven on earth for me.

3) The blessing of praying through Scripture

Prayer has been an area in which I have struggled much. I have often been frustrated with wandering thoughts. My mind has drifted onto things other than what I was supposed to be focused upon. Sometimes I have felt like I was in "autopilot" mode, praying but not engaged in thinking about what I was saying to God. Praying through Scripture has helped combat these tendencies.

I had heard about praying through Scripture, but had not made it a practice. I came away from the lecture on this topic with a different approach to prayer and a renewed desire to pray. Dr. Whitney shared – very simply – how to pray through passages of Scripture (particularly Psalms) line by line, turning the words of the Bible into praise for God and requests for ourselves and others. This helped me deal with much of the drudgery, coldness, formality, and frustrating repetition and wandering of mind I have suffered from in prayer. It should be no big surprise, but my immediate reflection was that this is like having a real conversation with a real Person (and God is real). I was struck by the realization that we don't have to think of everything to say when we pray. Praying Scripture lets God initiate and carry the conversation – He sets the agenda. He speaks in the Word, we respond in prayer, then He speaks and we respond, and so on. I still have much growth to do, but praying through Scripture has been of more help to me spiritually than anything else I am conscious of.

A spiritual workout was very helpful to me, but I realize that getting in shape does not keep one in shape. There must be continual exercise. Even so, I must continue to practice Spiritual Disciplines. I have to contend with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Each is a formidable enemy to my soul. It is a battle. A soldier must be trained and conditioned to face the conflict, and this course was a great help in reminding me of those things I need to be doing regularly to stay in shape spiritually, so that I may be strong in the Lord and grow to be more like Christ.

If you are interested in more information about these things, I strongly recommend to you Don Whitney's books Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (chapters covering 10 spiritual disciplines in detail) and Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Spiritual Disciplines for the Overwhelmed (bite size chapters covering various aspects of the Spiritual Disciplines). Also, be sure to visit the Center for Biblical Spirituality at

UPDATE (12/20/07): Here are links to some audio very close to what I was privileged to hear -

From Omaha Bible Church:

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