Spiritual Exercises 

Disciples of Jesus are committed to following Jesus and becoming like him in every area of their life. Unfortunately, many people think that being a Christian is about trying hard to be like Jesus. However, genuine spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wisely (1 Tim.4:7-8). Disciples enter into a life of training where they engage in a variety of spiritual disciplines or exercises.

Spiritual disciplines are like habits of effectiveness for the spiritual life, much like exercises are used to develop habits of effectiveness for other areas of life (sport, music or language). A “discipline” is an activity within our power that enables us to accomplish what we cannot do by direct effort alone. The effect of the practice is to enable people to do what needs to be done when and as it needs to be done.

Jesus addresses a number of important spiritual practices in the Sermon on the Mount, including giving (6:1-4), praying (6:5-15) and fasting (6:16-18). Care must be taken to ensure that our motive for these practices is not to receive applause from people. It matters why we do what we do. Our engagement in spiritual practices is not the measure of our spiritual maturity. The true indicator of maturity is growth in our ability to love God and people. The real issue is what kind of people we are becoming NOT the exercises or spiritual disciplines we may be engaging in. Practices such as giving, praying and fasting are important, not because they prove how spiritual we are but because God can use them to lead us in life.

Spiritual exercises are also not a way for us to earn favour with God. They exist for our sake, not God’s. They have value only as they help us to change and grow. They are a “means of grace.” They are activities that we engage in to open ourselves up to God’s transforming power. Always, the purpose is freedom and life. This is not a competition with others, which simply leads to spiritual death.

The Discipline of Secrecy 

In secrecy we abstain from causing our good deeds and qualities to be known. It involves doing a good deed while intentionally remaining anonymous. This is an important spiritual discipline recommended by Jesus himself. Jesus spoke about doing good deeds and making sure that no one finds out about them (Matt.6:1-6). Jesus’ point is that our very nature is often to try to impress others. He is teaching us that true spiritual maturity means that we don’t feel the need to congratulate ourselves because we’ve gotten something right. Jesus says that there is a reward that we forfeit when we neglect the practice of secrecy. Acts done to impress cease to have value as training for life in the kingdom.

When Jesus said to do these things in secret, he is not making a law binding for all times and places. He often prayed in front of his friends. Also, King David gave specific details about how much he gave for the building of the temple, and one result was that the people of Israel were motivated to give generously as well. Rather, Jesus was giving advice to people who had a problem that could hinder their pursuit of spiritual life. The discipline of secrecy exists to liberate those who are trapped by the desire to ‘be seen’ or to impress others.

Many people live in what we could call “approval addiction” – a bondage to what others think about them. They regularly compare themselves with others and find themselves becoming competitive with them. They live with a nagging sense that they aren’t important or special enough. They become envious of other people’s success. They keep trying to impress people all the time and are always worried that someone might think something bad about them (we call this “impression management” and it takes up a lot of human conversation). Their sense of identity, esteem and value is wrapped up in other people’s appraisal of their worth.

Obviously, affirmation and encouragement are good things and we should have a healthy appreciation for legitimate praise. However, there is a big difference between legitimate praise and showing off with the intention of impressing people. The practice of secrecy is Jesus’ gift to approval addicts. He is basically saying, “Every once in a while do something good and try to make sure no one finds out about it!” In doing so, you are giving up control of what other people think about you. Through secrecy we experience a continuing relationship with God independent of the opinions of others. We learn to rise above both the praise and the criticism of other people. We allow him to decide when our deeds will be known and when our light will be noticed.

A few practical examples include: praying for a person without telling them, making a generous anonymous donation to a ministry or needy person, committing a random act of kindness, or intentionally down-playing any position, expertise, accomplishments or knowledge we may have. This is not false humility but it is a way of reminding ourselves that our value comes from who we are as children of God, not our achievements or our reputation. It’s a good discipline.

The Discipline of Fasting 

In fasting we choose to intentionally go without something for a period of time (usually something pleasurable but not necessarily sinful). It could be food (in a variety of forms) or some other activity (TV, music, etc). Jesus assumes that his disciples will fast (Matt.6:16-18). Jesus himself fasted (Matt.4:1-2) and many other Bible characters did too.

Fasting teaches us a lot about ourselves. It quickly reveals how much we are dependent on the pleasure of eating. It also demonstrates how powerful our body is and especially our appetite! Fasting seeks to confirm our dependence on God by finding strength from him alone. After all, it is not food that gives us true life; it is God’s word to us (Matt.4:4). Life is much more than food (Lk.12:33) and our belly is not our god (Phil.3:19. Rom.16:18); rather, it is to be our servant (1 Cor.6:13).

Fasting is one of the more important ways of practicing the self-denial required of everyone who would follow Christ. Refraining from gluttony enables us to more easily restrain the desires of our sinful nature. Fasting develops self-control and therefore teaches moderation and restraint with regard to all our basic desires. Fasting affects all of our life and personality. We learn the value of contentment. Fasting is not an easy discipline but its practice can produce great benefits in our lives, especially when accompanied by time in prayer and other disciplines. Wise use of periodic fasting also has numerous health benefits as it cleanses our physical body.

Sample Discussion Questions 

  1. The apostle Paul tells us that spiritual growth occurs through a process and it involves both God and us working together (see Phil.2:12-13). What is our part in growing and maturing as disciples? How do we “work out” our salvation? 
  2. Paul also tells us that become godly (like Jesus) is a result of “training”, not of trying hard (see 1 Tim.4:7-8). Discuss the use of exercises or practices in areas such as music, sport, or learning a language. What relevance does this have to a disciple becoming “like Jesus?” 
  3. How powerful is the need we have for approval from other people and how does it affect us? What are some ways we can be free from this “approval addiction”? 
  4. Discuss the discipline of secrecy. This is not commonly talked about. How important do you think it is? 
  5. Have you ever fasted from food before? What was the experience like and how did it affect you? How can fasting contribute to strengthening our will and gaining control over our desires? What would it look like to include periodic fasting as a regular part of your life?
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