Why you should take discipline back from the Pharisees.


Note: this is an excerpt from a draft of a book I'm working on currently. If you'd like to stay in the loop as this project continues, sign up to be on the email list.

Your faith is the most important part of your life. It should drive every pursuit and fuel every passion. Knowing God and making him known is your purpose, and your daily walk with him gives you the sustenance to survive, thrive, and make an impact.

The importance of discipline

Having a rich and deep faith requires discipline. Unfortunately, it can be easy to dismiss the need for this discipline in your walk with God because it can be seen as Pharisaical. Jesus Christ spent much of his ministry on earth speaking strongly against the practices of the Pharisees. These religious leaders obsessively studied the law and had a reputation for putting a heavy burden on others to follow not only strict guidelines presented in parts of the Old Testament, but also regulations and requirements created by the Pharisees themselves. This group was rigid, overbearing, and often the recipients of Jesus Christ's righteous anger for their self-righteousness.

At one point, Jesus even says, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." The Pharisees did a great job tending to disciplines, but they did a terrible job investing in discipline for the right reasons.

When you think "quiet time," don't think "felt board"

Growing in discipline is one of the primary ways you grow in your faith. The Pharisees channeled their discipline toward their own advancement and toward gaining power over others. This application of discipline didn't deepen their faith because it wasn't ultimately channeled toward faith. They channeled it toward themselves. When you grow in discipline channeled in the right direction, however, you find yourself creating an environment to grow in your faithfulness and obedience to God. 

Time with God is often referred to as a "quiet time" in Christian culture. This staple of the Christian walk brings with it both positive and negative connotations. For some growing up in church, a "quiet time" may be synonymous with "boring" or "a tool of shame." The ritual meant to connect you with God on a regular basis became an expectation held over your head void of spiritual depth or clear purpose. In reality, a "quiet time" is nothing more than intentional time investing in your relationship with God. For you, however, it may be synonymous with felt boards in Sunday School class. 

By dismissing or diminishing the power of a "quiet time," you are missing out on an opportunity to grow in your faith. By recapturing and reframing this practice as simply time focused on your relationship with God, you will find its intended purpose. Things like sermons and authentic friendships are ingredients for experiencing deeper faith, but you must also have individual, regular time with God to complete the recipe.

Regular time with God will grow your relationship with Him as you study the Bible and spend focused time in prayer. These are two core elements of time with him. It is easy to make this ritual more complex than it needs to be. Study the Bible and pray, and do it almost every day. Do not let this be driven by a sense of earning God's love. Do it because you want to love God more and know about his unchanging love for you and the world. Even when you would rather do something else, do it anyway. Grow in your discipline to make time with God a priority. The best way to do this is to study the Bible and pray even when you do not want to do it. If you do this long enough, you will find you want to do it. You will find yourself experiencing deeper and richer faith.

The Bible isn't going anywhere

Many people put too much pressure on themselves to read large swaths of the Bible each day, or the entire thing in a year. This can be a good practice, but often leads to burnout and can be unsustainable in the long run. What is your motivation for reading so much at a time? If it is a calling or comes from a place of wanting to know the heart of God at a deeper level, the motivation and pursuit are beneficial. If getting through the Bible as quickly as possible comes from a desire for achievement, it can be less helpful in building your faith than you think.

You have your entire life to study the Bible. It is a collection of books that will not grow longer over time. Instead of skimming each day, consider going deep on a handful of verses. For long seasons, my daily Bible study has been reading about ten verses, writing them down in another way, and then recording their impact. One of the primary mistakes Christians make when studying the Bible is going wide without going deep. In Psalm 119, the writer says, " I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you." To store up the word means to spend time reflecting on it, to seek genuine and heart-level understanding. By simply seeing Bible study as a mental exercise, you neglect to practice what this same writer seeks just a few verses later in the same chapter, to "meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways." Focus and depth require your full attention. They also require you to redefine success in Bible study. Instead of seeing a benchmark as how much you can read, consider how deep you can go.

Step away to pray

In tandem with Bible study is a call to prayer. The Pharisees also prayed, but they often prayed for the wrong reasons. "And when you pray," Jesus says in the book of Matthew, "you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward."

Prayer is not a platform for acclaim. Prayer is a continual conversation with God. It is consistent listening, thanksgiving, rejoicing, and supplication. As is written in 1 Thessalonians, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." To pray without ceasing is to be in constant communication with God through both speaking and listening. Even still, establishing a discipline of regular, set-apart time for prayer contributes to stronger communion with Christ. Jesus Himself took time away to talk with the Father. At one point, he told his friends to “sit here, while I go over there and pray.” Even in a reality where he constantly spoke with his Father, he continued to separate himself for focused prayer.

This prayer does not need to be long. The prayer Jesus gives us as a model is only a handful of lines. The Pharisees prayed, but they prayed to be seen. Follow their example of practicing the discipline of prayer, but do it for the right reasons. Pray to know God's heart. Listen for his voice. Bring all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength to your conversation with him. Bring your anxiety, your depression, your doubts, your anger, your adoration, your questions, your petitions--bring your fullness into his fullness. Some days, this practice is like walking into a bear hug. Some days, it feels like talking to a brick wall. But in every day, you are working your spiritual muscles and making moves toward God in your relationship with him.

Not to earn, but to know and grow

As in other areas of life, regular training is important. Physical fitness is not possible for the long haul if you simply get up to try and run a marathon once a year. To be in shape means to continually and frequently exert yourself. Thinking about being stronger does not make you stronger. The same is true for your faith. Intentionally investing in your relationship with God is the only way to grow your relationship with God. If you live in a family, a subculture, or a friend group with Christians, this environment can be an easy substitute for your one-on-one relationship with Christ. It is challenging to get to know someone when you only spend time with them in large groups.

This is not a call to try and earn God's love. This is where the Pharisees missed it completely. Their rigid nature produced pride, a desire for fame, a love of power, and undue burdens on others. You can not do anything to make God love you more or less. At the core of a more regimented faith journey is, or should be, a desire to love God more and to learn more about his unchanging love for you and for the world. 

Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels