Developing a Disciplined Life

Kyle Norman
Spiritual disciplines are how we go about living as a disciple. Yet, have you noticed every author, writing about the spiritual disciplines, has a unique list of disciplines they speak of, not to mention a completely different number of disciplines? One author may articulate twelve classic disciplines evenly distributed in three categories; another will speak of sixteen disciplines parsed between two categories; still another out-stretches them all by listing seventy-five disciplines in seven categories!
Have you asked yourself: Why such deviation?  How can we make sense of such lists?
Developing our Christian lives, rooted in engagement with spiritual disciplines, involves more than simply adopting a list we find in a book. Simply learning a list will not help us become closer to God.  If we are to be committed to discipleship, we must be committed to engaging in spiritual disciplines in an authentic and sustained manner.
Take the twelve disciples, for example. They spent three years with Jesus learning how to build their lives around him.  Of course, there were lessons to be learned and concepts to think about; by no means is the life of faith anti-intellectual. Yet, fundamentally, Jesus showed his disciples how to live. Thus, he challenged them with such statements such as: “Why do you call me Lord, and not do what I say” (Luke 6:46) and “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matt. 11:29).  This three-year school of discipleship focused on how to live life in relationship with Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Developing a disciplined life is essential for a robust, active, and passionate faith-life. Disciplines are not about becoming super Christians, but about learning how we can interact with the Spirit in our lives. While spiritual disciplines play a part in this they do not constitute the goal of formation.  At the heart of a disciplined life is a life lived with Jesus. 
If we want to develop this type of life, there are 3 key components we need to recognise.
1.      Disciplines are personal. 
We can make two errors when thinking about the disciplines.  One is to mistakenly think that spiritual disciplines do not fit into regular life. The disciplines, it could be assumed, are best experienced by professional religious people –nuns, monks, deacons, or priests.  That is, if one is blessed with oodles of time to devote one’s self to silence and solitude, then such disciplines are wonderful.  But if one has a job, or a crying baby in their arms, well then, there is little point.  In other words, we mistakenly believe that the disciplines are so narrowly defined that they could not possibly apply to us.  And, because disciplines do not apply to our individual life situation, we simply do not even try to develop a disciplined life.
The second error we can make is to assume that we must perform the disciplines perfectly.  While we may see the value of a disciplined life, we mistakenly believe it must look a certain way.  Often, this means we attempt to match the grand experiences of spiritual masters.  We spiritually burn ourselves out as we attempt to force ourselves into a spiritual life that just does not fit with us.   
Disciplines are personal. Everyone is called to live a disciplined life as is most beneficial for us.  William Law states that one of the greatest benefits of our devotional life consists in rightly adapting our prayers to the difference of our state, and the difference of our hearts. We are all called to live out our relationship with Jesus, through the practice of spiritual disciplines, yet we must discern (and discern creatively) as to what this specifically means for our unique lives.  
Another way to put this is to say that we engage in the disciplines we can, not the ones we cannot.  Jesus does not want us to spiritually exhaust ourselves trying to force a discipline that does not fit well into our lives or temperaments.  In developing a disciplined life, we look at the dynamics of our personal lives, searching out how to best connect with Jesus, easily, and seamlessly. 
2.      Disciplines are practiced over time. 
It can be so easy to forget this important truth and therefore overly pressure ourselves to do things perfectly right from the start. We may jump into a discipline too fervently, such as attempting to pray for 3 hours each morning or deciding to read the entire Old Testament in a single sitting.  Or we find our experience does not match our expectations.  For example, we attempt to sit it in silence for five minutes but find that our mind just goes racing. When these attempts fail, as they are bound to do for us all, we too often judge ourselves.  We mistakenly believe we are failing in our spirituality because the specific discipline was not experienced as perfectly as we have seen it described. 
Take, for example, the classic work “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence. In this book, Lawrence talks about being conscious of God’s presence during each moment of the day.  While we might read this and get inspired, we may easily twist it and think that such conscious awareness is instantaneous.  We may say to ourselves; “well, that’s what I need to doI should be able to do by the time I am done reading this book!” In our zealousness, we fail to realize that Brother Lawrence is open about the fact that he had been attempting such an awareness for over 30 years!  What is more, even when he was writing his letters, he did not consider himself a master at it.  Our disciplined life is not about mastering a skill.  It is a way of life that can only be truly uncovered over time.
It is great to be enthusiastic.  It is even okay to attempt to stretch ourselves.  But we must remember that spiritual disciplines are entered into as a point of learning and growth, not mastery or perfection. Jesus said to the sleeping disciples in Gethsemane: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt.26:41).  There is truth to this.  If we do not recognise the contours of our own limitations, we may inadvertently set ourselves up for failure.  When must remember that we grow with, and in, the disciplines.   The disciplined life can only be truly understood from the standpoint of a lifetime.
3.      The disciplines lead you to joy. 
The reason we develop a disciplined life is to live our lives in an active, and interactive, connection with Jesus, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  That is the point. Disciplines open us to the presence of Christ’s spirit in our lives, and this should be a joyous thing. Richard Foster begins his book on the spiritual disciplines by saying the “Joy is the keynote of the Disciplines” (Foster 2). If any of the disciplines, are not working to lead you into a joyful connection with God, then something, somewhere, has gone amiss.  That is not to say the discipline is inherently bad, or it may not be useful to someone else, but it may not be what you are needing.  The result of any discipline ought to be the joy of the Lord.
Joy is the keynote of the disciplines, not ease.  Often, a discipline is developed in our lives in response to a particular area of growth. The Spirit will bring about a gradual understanding that there is something about our spiritual lives that needs to be addressed.  Jesus desired that his joy being would be in us, and thus our joy would be full.  If we get a hint that there is something sapping the joyful spirit from within, spiritual disciplines become the way that we begin to work what needs to be changed.
How might we start?
If we wish to develop a disciplined life, where do we begin? Is it as simple as picking a random list of disciplines?  While there are great some resources available, I might suggest that a good place to start would be take up the way of life as described in Acts 2:42. This passage depicts the practices of the newly baptised Christian community emerging out of the Pentecost experience.  Scripture records that this dynamic community of faith “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ Teaching, The Fellowship, The Breaking of the Bread, and the Prayers.”  These four disciplines became the pillars upon which their Christian lives, and the very Christian community, was built.
Take up each pillar and examine how you may engage in each discipline this coming week. Ask yourself: Where will I engage in the Apostles Teaching?  When will I engage in prayer? What happens if a regular expression of one of these four pillars is unavailable on a given week?  For example, if you cultivate the discipline of Fellowship on Sunday mornings, what happens if you cannot gather with the community on a given Sunday.  Do you skip fellowship for the week, or do you search out other ways to cultivate this habit? 
This is the dynamic of disciplined life.  It calls us to integrate our faith into the deep inner-workings of our lives.  It is not just about what we do, it is about why we do certain practices, and whom we do them with.  Taking up disciplines for a week or so can be an amazing experience.  To take up a discipline for four or five months will inevitably create positive effects for our faith. To live a disciplined life over the course of years, well… that will completely transform your life.
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. New York, NY.    HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.

Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of Christian community, and the role of spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found at