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St. Mark’s

What are spiritual disciplines?

By Rev Gav

When we are young we grow physically and get bigger (and if you are a parent you know just how frustrating and expensive that can be!) and as we get older we also grow mentally, both intellectually and emotionally, however, we are also designed to grow and mature spiritually, but what does this mean?

To grow spiritually means to become more like Jesus — to see the world with God’s eyes, be God’s voice, and to respond with God’s hands. As we are created beings our physicality, our mentality, and our spirituality are all connected, inseparable, and affect each other, therefore spiritual growth shapes how we think — our thoughts, our moods, and our emotions — and it may even have an impact on our physicality.

Physiologists and Psychologists have tools to measure our physical and mental health, but how can spiritual health be measured? Just as with our physicality and mentality, there are nine measures of spiritual health and these, found in Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, are called the fruits of the Spirit. They are:

  1. Love
  2. Joy
  3. Peace
  4. Patience
  5. Kindness
  6. Generosity
  7. Faithfulness
  8. Gentleness
  9. Self-control

Imagine, for each of the nine fruits, there is a scale from 0 to 10. Take ‘love’ for example, where 0 is completely unloving and 10 is completely loving. Where would you rank on the scale? Are you loving all the time and in all circumstances and with all people, including yourself? Jesus scored 10 on every one, and it is our goal to also score a 10 for each one! Who doesn’t want to be completely loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled?

We are individually precious and of great value to God who wants to see us grow and develop as his or her children. In the same way that an earthy Mother is concerned with our physical and intellectual growth, our heavenly Mother is also concerned with our spiritual growth — who we are and who we will become, therefore we practice actions that lead to spiritual growth. Three of these ‘spiritual disciplines’ taught by Jesus are praying, fasting, and giving, and it is worth noting that Jesus does not say, “If you pray..” but “When you pray…” Jesus expects us to engage with all three.

When we pray, fast, and give, we do so not for the sake of others but for our own sake. This is why Jesus reminded us that we should not be hypocrites or actors. In other words we should not be making a display of these things before others, but do these things in private or in secret. Our praying, fasting, and giving should be between us and God, and to describe the benefit this has for us, Jesus likened them to storing up ‘treasures in heaven’.

The point of praying, fasting, and giving, is not that we will store up treasures in heaven, to be rewarded one day in the future when we die. No, our reward is in the here and now. Think of the word heavenly as meaning ‘spiritual’. In other words the heavenly treasures that we store are spiritual treasures — spiritual transformations that take place in our hearts. And because they are between us and God, and only between us and God, we do them in secret.

The teaching of Jesus is countercultural because we live in a culture where to ‘be seen’ is the goal and we post our pictures and updates on our personal social profiles, on TikTok and Instagram, putting things ‘out there’ rather than investing and putting things back into ourselves.

Therefore, firstly, we pray in secret, to God, who, as Jesus reminds us, knows what we are going to pray even before we pray it. You might then ask, what then is the point of prayer? And the answer is, because it changes us. Spending time in prayer draws us closer to Jesus which in turn transforms us, helping us become more like God.

Secondly, we fast in secret. Now, fasting isn’t something popular in our culture, although health professionals are now advocating the benefits of intermittent fasting from food or undertaking vigils such as ‘dry January’. Fasting is the act of denying yourself something as a proof of dedication to God. It is a way of saying, “God, I put you first, above my own personal needs or wants.” It should be between just you and God. Yes, it may be food or drink, but it could be anything. Make it your own small pact between you and God that no-one else knows about.

And thirdly, we give in secret. Giving of course has great benefits to those to whom we give, but Jesus reminds us that our giving, when done privately, has a direct spiritual benefit. The act of giving transforms us and changes us and is one of the ‘spiritual disciplines’ that helps us become more like God.

As I write this we are still in the season of Lent, and it is traditionally a time of self-reflection — a time when we look at ourselves and compare ourselves with Christ. We ask ourselves how loving and joyful are we, whether we have complete peace, whether we are always patient, kind, and generous, whether we are faithful and gentle, and whether we have self-control. We need to be brutally honest with ourselves and about our failures and shortcomings, but more than that, during Lent we re-dedicate our lives and make a commitment to those things that make for spiritual growth — to pray, to fast, and to give in secret, and to allow the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to complete her work in and through us.