–Winter of 2007
Serious saints who aggressively pursue the growth of their faith often struggle with maintaining the proper balance between discipline and dependence. It is easy to slip into the extreme of either approach. The extreme side of discipline is to overemphasize the role of what we do and to minimize what is done for us in and through Christ. This position is characterized by the mentality of striving. It emphasizes knowledge, rules, rededication efforts, and human activity while virtually ignoring God’s grace extended through the enabling power of His Spirit. Its emphasis on what-do-I-need-to-do can lead to the bondage of legalism. The extreme side of dependence is to overemphasize God’s role in our spiritual development to the neglect of any human initiative. This position is characterized by a Jesus-did-it-all passivity. It stresses experience, the supernatural, and the person of the Holy Spirit to the neglect of human endeavor. The one side rolls up its sleeves and says, “God helps those who help themselves.” The other side responds with, “It’s all by grace.”
The biblical answer is that spiritual formation is both human and divine. Kenneth Boa stated it succinctly when he said that “discipline should work in concert with dependence, since grace is not opposed to effort but to earning.” Paul places these elements back to back in Philippians 2:12-13: “So then, my beloved, …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Paul makes it clear that working out our salvation is not the same as working for it. He is also careful to balance this with the fact that God is active within us, accomplishing what all our learning and labor cannot.
What Christian history proves is that fallen human beings, even the redeemed ones, tend to seek the way of least resistance. This means that most of us are more inclined to follow the extreme path of dependence rather than the path of a rigorous pursuit of developing holy habits. While it is true that dependence is critical and that the life of Christ within us is achieved not by human effort but by divine enablement, it is also true that there is no growth in the Christian life apart from discipline and self-control (I Timothy 4:7).
The New Testament teaches us that spirituality is not instantaneous or haphazard, but is developed and refined. Paul’s letters are filled with commands to believe, obey, walk, fight, reckon, hold fast, pursue, draw near, and love. He uses the metaphors of an athlete, a soldier, and a farmer to illustrate the disciplines required for growth. The point he is making is that the principles and precepts of the Word of God are brought to life in us only when they are deliberately put into action and daily practiced. This, of course, requires human choice and disciplined behavior.
For years I have longed to be able to sit at the keyboard of a grand piano and create beautiful music. But my desire to do so has never been matched by the willingness to put in the countless hours of study and practice to make it happen. Likewise, there is a certain depth of soul and spiritual life that will only come to those who follow the path of disciplined spirituality.