On this edition of Truth in Love, Dr. Lambert talks with Dr. Don Whitney about spiritual disciplines Christians can undertake in the New Year. He defines spiritual disciplines and talks about ways Christians could start doing the spiritual disciplines in their life.
Lambert: As we move towards the New Year many people are starting to think about making commitments and changes as they want to grow in the areas of discipline. One area of discipline that people are concerned about is food, another area of concern for many Christians is the one of the spiritual disciplines. To help us think this matter through we have invited as our guest this week to be Dr. Don Whitney. Dr. Whitney is the author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, and the brand new book, Praying the Bible. He is also the professor of Biblical Spirituality and the Associate Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Whitney, we are glad you are here with us and I want to ask you, what are the spiritual disciplines?
Whitney: Well, first let me say thank you; it is an honor to be on your podcast. Second the spiritual disciplines are those practices found in the Bible which promote closeness to Christ and conformity to Christ; both an inward and outward conformity to Christ. Those disciplines are both personal and interpersonal; those that we practice alone and those that we practice with others. For example, we are to pray alone, that is a personal spiritual discipline. We are to pray with the church, that is an interpersonal, corporate, congregational spiritual discipline. We are to get into the Word individually, that is a personal spiritual discipline. We are to hear the Word read, taught, preached with the church. Spiritual disciplines are those personal and interpersonal practices found in the Bible which promote closeness to Christ in our experience and conformity to Christ in heart and life.
Lambert: We’re at a season in the year, leaving one and entering another, where a lot of Christians are feeling pressure to want to grow in the spiritual disciplines. Maybe they are looking back on the last year and they are saying they didn’t read the Bible that much or they haven’t been that busy in prayer; at least as much as they want to be. Help us understand what causes that problem. Why is it that some people have difficulty remaining committed to these disciplines?
Whitney: Well, in essence it is the lack of discipline. Largely what I am saying is there is the lack of intentionality; there is no plan, there is no schedule. It falls into the category of, “Well, when I have time I will do this, that, or the other, read the Bible, or pray…” Of course our lives are so busy that the time just doesn’t happen. So without intentionality, without discipline, without a plan, these things are not just going to happen. That is the main thing; having some disciplined organizational plan by which we can practice, and it may be as simple as, “Ok, one of the first things I’ll do in the morning when I get up is read the Bible and pray.” That sort of intentionality, not some strict structured approach because there will always be the factor of time; that’s the biggest problem for most people. If they were on vacation and they do have more time, they don’t pick up spiritual disciplines when they are on vacation, so even when they do have time the discipline is not there.
Lambert: So, we want to really help folks, people are listening to this and maybe they are ready to say, “Hey I want to make some changes here” but they don’t know where to start. Help us know what we could do, some easy things we could begin to change to implement a plan to have more of the spiritual disciplines in our life this year.
Whitney: Alright let me just address for sake of time the personal spiritual disciplines. The two most important of spiritual disciplines are the intake of the Word of God and prayer; in that order. It is more important for us to hear from God through His Word than for God to hear from us in prayer. But in my experience – and I have about twenty four years pastoral experience, about fifteen in one particular church, in addition to twenty one years as a professor – there is an almost universal problem with both of these most important spiritual disciplines.
Let me talk about the intake of the Word first. This problem is true for even our most devoted daily Bible readers, they will take the Bible and read a chapter, they may read three chapters, however much they read they close their Bible and almost immediately if pressed they would say, “You know, I don’t remember a thing I’ve read.” People will say to me, “Well, you know, I have never had a good memory, I never had a good education, or I never had a high IQ.” Well those things may be true, but that is not why people don’t remember what they read in Bible. The reason – because I have some 22 year old geniuses in my classes at the seminary who have the same problem – is not with their ability, it is with their method.
Reading alone was never intended to be the primary means of absorbing the Scripture. Reading is the exposure to Scripture; that is a starting place. Meditation is the absorption of Scripture. It is the absorption of Scripture that leads to the experience with God and the transformation of life that we long for when we come the Bible. My belief is that it is not that people can’t meditate on Scripture, they just don’t. They maybe don’t know how, they have never been taught, and you can’t expect people to do what they have never been taught to do. But it has got to be doable; anything God invites all of His people to do – mainly to profit from the Word of God – has to be doable by people who don’t have a great education, who don’t have a high IQ, who don’t have a great memory. So my contention is it is not that they can’t meditate on Scripture, they just don’t. I think that is the greatest devotional need of most every Christian. If it were within my power to change the devotional lives of every Christian on the planet, it would be right here with meditation on Scripture. So in terms of a practical step for your listeners, the single most important thing I could encourage them to do is to meditate on Scripture.
But I know there are people listening, “You don’t get it professor. I am working two/three jobs to make ends meet. I am a single parent and God as my witness the best I can do most days is chisel out ten minutes of my day for the Word of God. Sometimes I have to stand by the bedside to do that, if I read when I go into bed it is not going to happen. God as my witness that is the best I can do. Now what I hear you saying is that’s not good enough; you can’t just read the Bible for ten minutes, you have got to meditate on top of that. So what you are saying? I’ve got to spend another ten minutes? I don’t have ten more minutes, didn’t you hear me?”
Well this is good news: if you only have is ten minutes, don’t read for ten minutes. Read for five minutes and meditate for five minutes. Far better to read less if necessary and remember something than to read more and remember nothing. So my general rule is just about every day read big, meditate small. Read a big section, a whole chapter, three chapters and then come back and meditate small, one verse, one phrase. If people will do that they will remember what they read and if they remember it that means they can do what Joshua 1:8 says to do and Psalm 1:2; that is meditate day and night. You can’t do that if you don’t remember it.
Lambert: What’s the difference between reading and meditating?
Whitney: Reading is just your eyes passing over verse one for two seconds, then it takes your eyes two seconds to go past verse two, and your eyes two seconds to go past verse three. You can read a thousand verses like that, but what do you ever remember that you look at for two seconds? Almost nothing. That is why people can read a lot and remember nothing. Meditation, therefore, would be to come back and to linger on one of those verses or phrases for even thirty seconds. Certainly that is not long, but that is fifteen times longer than they would normally look at that verse. Just one minute of thought on one verse is thirty times longer. People will find it amazing how just one minute of meditation on a verse can cause it to stick in their minds.
Now let me make a distinction between meditation and daydreaming. Just to fold your arms and look at the ceiling is daydreaming; maybe you start thinking about the verse but then you start thinking, “Wow, we have got to paint the ceiling.” I think there is a place for daydreaming somewhere in the Christian life; we don’t have to be on task every moment with our minds. Our minds can relax just like our bodies need to relax, but that is daydreaming not meditation. With meditation you are thinking of something: the things of God, the Word of God. In my spiritual disciplines book I have seventeen different methods of meditation on Scripture that anybody can do. There is no one way to do that; just some way to help your mind focus on the text of Scripture for thirty, sixty seconds or longer can be very simple. That is meditation.
Lambert: That is very helpful. That’s the discipline of Bible intake, what about prayer?
Whitney: With prayer I also believe there is an almost universal problem; it is true from almost the very beginning of the Christian life of most people in my experience. The problem looks like this; they will try to pray but when they do pray, they will say the same old things about the same old things. When you have said the same old things about the same old things about a thousand times, you know how it feels to say them again? Boring. When prayer is boring you don’t feel like praying because you are about to do something and you know it is going to be boring. You don’t feel like doing it and when you don’t feel like praying you don’t pray with any fervency or consistency. People will grind it out for five to seven minutes with their minds wandering most of the time and they will suddenly realize, “Wait a minute, where was I? I haven’t’ been thinking of God for several minutes.” They will come back to that mental script they have in their head that they have repeated so many times, but because they have said it so many times their minds almost immediately wander away from it again. Five to seven minutes then feels like an eternity and they feel like a second rate Christian. They say, “Something is wrong with me, I guess. Prayer shouldn’t be this way but frankly it is. I am a second rate Christian.” My contention is unless there is some significant sin issue that they aren’t facing, confessing, or confronting, the problem is not them. Again, the problem is their method; people say the same old things about the same old things.
Now to pray about the same old things, Heath, is not the problem because our lives tend to consist of the same old things. When I do this at a conference, I will say, “If I send you all to go and pray for ten minutes and give you no instructions, you would all pray about the same six things. You would pray about your family in one way or another, your future; some decision that is before you, your finances; God’s provision for bills and so forth, your work or your school work; that place where you spend most of your waking hours – of course you are going to have that on your mind. You are going to pray about your church; your ministry or some Christian concern, and then you are going to pray about the current crisis in your life. If those six things dominate your prayer life, cheer up, you are normal. Those six things are your life. How much of your life has no connection to your family, future, finance, work or school work, church or ministry, and current crisis. Thank the Lord those things don’t change dramatically very often.
So put all that together. You are going to pray about your life, these six things are your life and these six things don’t change dramatically very often. You are going to pray about the same old things most of the time, that is normal. The problem is that we say the same old things about the same old things. Simple, permanent, biblical solution to that – it’s got to be simple if God’s people all over the world are to pray, God has children of all ages, all educational levels, all IQ levels – I believe is when you pray, pray the Bible. Pray through a passage of Scripture. The best place I think is the Psalms.
So, for example, if a person were to pray through the 23rd Psalm it would look like this; they would read the first verse, “The Lord is my shepherd.” You might pray something like, “Lord, I thank you that you are my shepherd. You are a good shepherd. You have shepherded me all my life. O Great Shepherd, would you shepherd my family today, guide them into the ways of God, guard them from the ways of the world. I pray that you would make my children your sheep; may they love you as their shepherd like I do. Lord would you shepherd me in this decision I have to make about my future. Do I make that move or do I not? I pray for shepherds at the church, shepherd them as they shepherd us.” Basically whatever comes to mind when you read, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Then when nothing else comes to mind or your mind begins to wander, you go to the next line, “I shall not want.” You pray about needs in your life or you pray about someone you know who is in want and you go through that line by line until either you run out of time or you run out of Psalm.
So if you have four hours, like I require my students to do once during the semester, you never run out of anything to say, you just turn the page. If you have four minutes this works, you just don’t get as far. Here is the key, when you pray the Bible like that you never again say the same old things about the same old things. You don’t need any other book and you don’t need any notes. Just you, the Holy Spirit, and your Bible. Talk to God about what comes to mind. It is so simple anybody can do that.
On the cross Jesus prayed two Psalms. Acts 4 when they prayed and the place was shaken, they were praying Psalms. George Mueller, considered by many the greatest man of prayer and faith in the history of the church – I have my students read his biography – he said he struggled for ten years in prayer until he started praying the Psalms. It is so simple, so transformational and I would commend that to anyone at the beginning of the year as a great time to change your prayer life; just open your Bible and talk to God about what is in the passage.
If you would like more information about Dr. Don Whitney’s ministry or his new book, Praying the Bible you can visit him at biblicalspirituality.org