“Celebration of Discipline”: Introduction – When Disciplines become Law

In the previous instalment, we saw how virtues like the Fruit of the Spirit becomes our nature, and how it becomes easy to do them, when we start living out the disciplined grace… the Spiritual Disciplines, which God has given us.

The Spiritual Disciplines, as we have seen, are intended for our good. They are meant to bring the abundance of God into our lives. It is possible, though, to turn them into a set of soul-killing laws in themselves. Law-bound Disciplines brings death. (Foster, 1989 (First edition: 1980))

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus teaches us that our righteousness has to go beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees were no small thing. They were totally committed to following God – even more than many of us are prepared to do! The factor that was central to their righteousness, was externalism. Their righteousness consisted in the control of external things, and that often included the manipulation of other people. (Foster, 1989 (First edition: 1980))

The extent to which we have gone beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, is seen in how much our lives show the internal work of God in our hearts. This internal work of God will have external results, but the work is still internal. It is easy, though, in our zeal for the Spiritual Disciplines, to turn them into the same external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. (Foster, 1989 (First edition: 1980))

When the Disciplines becomes law, they are used to manipulate and control people. We take explicit commands, and use them to imprison others. This deterioration of the Spiritual Disciplines result in pride and fear. Pride takes over because we start to believe that we are the right kind of people, and that we are in fact even “perfect”! Fear takes over because we do not want to lose control. (Foster, 1989 (First edition: 1980))

If we want to progress in the spiritual walk, we must lay down the everlasting burden of always needing (and wanting) to manage others. This drive alone, more than any other thing, will cause us to turn the Spiritual Disciplines into laws. Once we have made a law, we have a new “externalism” with which we can judge those who measure up (to our standards). Without laws, the Disciplines are primarily internal works. It is not possible to control an internal work. When we truly believe that inner transformation is God’s work and not ours, we can put our passion to want to control others and to set others straight, to rest. (Foster, 1989 (First edition: 1980))

We must be aware of our tendency to latch onto a word and turn it into a law. The moment we do this, we qualify for Jesus’ stern pronouncement against the Pharisees in Matthew 23:4 (God’s Word): “They make loads that are hard to carry and lay them on the shoulders of the people. However, they are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

In this regard, we have to remember what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:6 (Phillips Version): “We deal not in the letter but in the Spirit. The letter of the Law leads to the death of the soul; the Spirit of God alone can give life to the soul.”

As we move into the inner world of the Spiritual Disciplines, the danger of turning them into laws always exists. Fortunately, we are not left to our own human devices. Jesus Christ has promised to be our ever-present Teacher and Guide. It is not hard to hear His voice. It is not hard to understand his direction. If we begin to calcify what should always remain alive and growing, He will tell us. We can really trust His teaching. If we are wandering off towards some wrong idea or unprofitable practice, He will guide us back. And if we are willing to listen to our Heavenly Father, we will receive the instruction we need. (Foster, 1989 (First edition: 1980))


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