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Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life

Book Review

By Christian N. Temple

Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, By Donald S. Whitney, Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress. (c) 1991 by Donald S. Whitney. 249 pages.1 This book is available from Books-A-Million.

It should be obvious to most Evangelical Christians that there is an innumerable availability of Christian-living books available today. Walk into your local Christian bookstore and you will be immediately overwhelmed with the plethora of titles dedicated to walking the Christian Life. The how-to and self-help books are in the largest majority in the Christian Life section, and a person must search long and hard in order to find any title not intended for self-help or self-esteem, but rather set aside for developing the disciplines of the Christian Life.

What disciplines, one may ask, are required of the Christian? Isn’t this the age of free grace and Christian liberty? Why should the Christian be interested in developing disciplines in his walk with Christ? Simply put, the Christian who does not pursue a disciplined walk with the Lord is not really walking with and following after Him at all, but rather walking away from Him. Oswald Chambers wrote:

"Do you also want to go away?" (John 6:67). What a penetrating question! Our Lord's words often hit home for us when He speaks in the simplest way. In spite of the fact that we know who Jesus is, He asks, "Do you also want to go away?" We must continually maintain an adventurous attitude toward Him, despite any potential personal risk.2

Clearly, if we do not wish to "go away" from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we must understand the need for the proper discipline in our life. Donald Whitney, the assistant professor of spiritual formation at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a well-structured, clearly applicable and easily understood book addressing the issues of proper discipleship training in the life of the believer. The title of the book is Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and is published by NavPress of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Dr. Whitney earned his D.Min. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity school, and served as a pastor for 19 years prior to his position at Midwestern. Whitney has also written How Can I be Sure I am a Christian? (NavPress, 1994) and Spiritual Disciplines Within The Church (Moody Press, 1996.)

The basic tenet in this book is derived from 1 Timothy 4:7; "Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness" (NASB). The entire book is an "effort to apply [this verse] in practical ways."3 Whitney strives to give us a basic framework for disciplined Christian living throughout the 13 chapters in his book. Chapter 1 gives us the major reasons for seeking a disciplined life. While many may feel that discipleship leads to a loss of liberty (to be sure, the liberty to sin, which interferes with our relationship with Christ must be given up) Whitney reminds us that freedom is not the opposite of discipline, but in actuality the final reward of discipline.4 While the initial implementation of discipline may be difficult, its reward is in its gradual assimilation into one’s life, so that discipline becomes the normal daily practice and a joy unto itself, rather than a tedious chore. This in turn leads to the ultimate joy; a closer relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Chapters 1 through 12 then, cover each of the author’s suggested disciplines: Bible intake (chapters 2 and 3), prayer, worship, evangelism, serving, fasting, silence and solitude, journaling, and learning. Chapter 13 wraps it all up under the title Perseverance in the Disciplines. Each chapter concludes with two or three life application questions and the author’s answers. Space limitation prevents the review of each chapter, so the most "important" in the reviewer’s opinion, will be mentioned.

Chapters 2 and 3 cover the issue of Bible intake. With the gluttony of available Bible translations and study versions on the market these days, it is nevertheless true that evangelicals largely neglect Biblical intake outside of a 5 to 10 minute daily devotional. Today it seems that every conceivable type of Bible study is available in the church or for home. Inductive studies, small group studies, large group studies, thematic studies, Biblical character studies, men’s studies, women’s studies, and on and on. While there is nothing inherently wrong with studying the Bible in this manner, Whitney reminds us that the oldest and still most effective means of studying God’s Word is to read it. Of all the methods devised to study the Bible, simply reading it and meditating on what you have read is still the most beneficial and edifying method of all.

Whitney cites several ways to go about reading the Bible, such as having a designated time to read, reading it everyday (he suggests using a good daily Bible reading plan) and most importantly. meditating on what is read. In Chapter 3 the author spends considerable space writing about the benefits of Biblical memorization, another discipline which was regularly practiced in the past, but for the most part is largely ignored in most homes today. The reviewer hazards to guess that the large number of available Bible versions is partially responsible for this—which version should I memorize? Whitney discusses how Bible memorization helps to strengthen our faith, assist in witnessing and counseling and serves as a means of understanding God’s guidance, when His Word is ready on the tip of our tongue.

Chapter 4 covers the always-difficult subject of prayer. Perhaps no other discipline is as difficult to maintain as is a regular prayer life. The author tells us that we are to pray because God expects us to pray, and cites many New Testament verses commanding us to pray. The author states (correctly, in this reviewer’s opinion) that prayer is neglected because "the problem is primarily one of a lack of discipline: Prayer is never planned, time is never allotted for praying."5 He then gives us some effective guidelines for establishing prayer in our lives. One common-sense idea is that praying daily (practicing) leads to a better prayer life. In prayer, like athletics, practice enhances performance.

Chapter 6 covers the discipline of Evangelism. Evangelism is not often thought of as a discipline, (possibly because evangelism is not often thought of, at all!). However, discipline is extremely necessary if evangelism is to be effective and consistently practiced. If prayer is the hardest discipline to maintain, then evangelism is certainly the hardest discipline to begin. Probably no other discipline creates such terror in the Christian as that of evangelism. Whitney gives us three rules of evangelism. First, evangelism is expected. The author states "All Christians are not expected to use the same methods of evangelism, but all Christians are expected to evangelize."6 Also, evangelism is empowered. Whitney tells us the power of evangelism is not ourselves, but is the Holy Spirit.

Christians fear failure in evangelism, which to most means rejection of the Gospel. But that is not failure; not faithfully sharing Christ is true failure. We are not called to convert, we are called to share the Gospel. Conviction and conversion is the work of the Spirit. Success is measured by how faithfully we share the Gospel, not by how many notches we put on our evangelical gun belt.

Lastly, Whitney shows us that evangelism is a discipline. "Evangelism is a natural flow of the Christian life."7 One of the best pieces of advice Whitney gives for initiating a witness opportunity, especially with strangers, is offering to pray for them. This can often turn the conversation quickly to spiritual matters, presenting an opportunity for a Gospel presentation. This reviewer has found this to be true, especially in e-mail correspondences, which tend to be much less threatening encounters.

In chapters 7 through 8 Whitney covers the previously mentioned and more esoteric disciplines of serving, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, journaling and learning. It is in this section where the author stumbles slightly over the understandably more difficult disciplines, such as stewardship and fasting. In chapter 7, Whitney states this sobering message:

Spiritual gifts are for using in service. If God didn’t intend for your gift to be used, there would no longer be any purpose for your life. Why would God allow us to live beyond any usefulness to Him? In His wisdom and providence He has gifted each believer to serve and kept each of you alive to serve.8

This is a hard statement, yet important. Too many believers live as if they are here to be a blessing to God, rather than to serve God. We must all remember that we are called primarily to be a blessing to others.

Overall, this book is well written and applicable to the Christian walk. The reviewer agrees with the disciplines chosen for this book. There is no more important discipline than consistent, meditative and prayerful intake of God’s Word. Without this, the other disciplines are not possible. People, particularly Americans, always want a foolproof "system," and the previously mentioned types of Bible study programs appeal to different needs. Yet simple daily reading of the Bible remains the most effective means for learning its content. Also the chapters on prayer and silence are very meaningful and convicting. As far as silence, who hasn’t noticed the overwhelming "noise" of silence, once all peripheral noise has ceased? For those who have been raised in the extra-sensory stimulating 1960 – 1990s, silence is viewed almost as an enemy. Yet we can never hear the Lord’s still small voice until we turn off the noise of the world and get alone with Him. Perhaps noise is Satan’s greatest regularly used weapon.

This book is not without its problems, however. Especially in his chapters on stewardship and fasting, Whitney stumbles through some inconsistencies, contradictions and mild legalism. In an effort to stress the importance of well-spent time, the author makes the following statement:

Do you realize that whether you experience unending joy or eternal agony depends on what happens in moments of your life just like this one? What, then, is more precious than time? For as a small rudder determines the direction of a great ocean liner, so that which is done in time influences eternity.9

While there is no doubt that the actions we perform in "time" have eternal consequences, implicit in this statement is the perception that our actions determine our eternal destiny, rather than our faith in Christ, or lack there of. While it is certain this is not the author’s intended meaning, similarly careless statement are found within this book. In the same way, sprinkled throughout several chapters are admonishments that one cannot practice these disciplines unless one is right with Christ, i.e., first saved. (page 155 and others.) while this is assuredly true, this evangelical preaching seems to be unnecessary and out of place in a discipleship book written for believers.

Also, Whitney, in an extensive section on the principles of giving, tells us that our giving is "a tangible indication of how much faith you have that God will provide your needs."10 Agreed. Yet when discussing fasting, the author states, "Of course, some people, for medical reasons, cannot fast."11 The reviewer is led to ask, why not? Isn’t fasting "a tangible indication of how much faith you have that God will provide your needs" as well? Certainly we can trust God with our physical, medical needs as much as with our financial needs.12

There seems to be an inconsistency in Whitney’s definition of tangible faith. Also when discussing giving, the author seems to limit proper Biblical giving strictly to finances and not to the giving of time, resources or gifts. Yet when discussing fasting, the author concedes that it "does not always deal with abstinence from food."13 Abstinence from other activities, like people, media and sleep qualifies as well. Whitney seems to be inconsistent in his application of stewardship and fasting. These disciplines are more closely related than they may appear.

Slightly troubling as well is his hermeneutic in a couple of Biblical expositions. In evaluating Jesus’ fast for forty days and nights in Matthew 4:2, Whitney states that since the body can’t live more than three days without water, Jesus must have drank some during this time, though not stated in the passage. Yet when discussing Moses’ fast in Deuteronomy 9:9 and Elijah’s fast in 1 Kings 19:8, he states that their fasts without water required "God’s supernatural intervention into the bodily processes and are not repeatable apart from the Lord’s specific calling and miraculous provision."14 Surely Whitney is not saying that God "supernatural intervened into the bodily processes" of Elijah and Moses, but not into the Lord Jesus’? Implicit here, although not intentioned, is that Elijah and Moses are at least equal to Jesus, a fact surely not to be overlooked by those who wish to claim less than total deity for Christ.

Lastly, as with all how-to books, there is the risk of appearing legalistic; that unless all of these disciplines are accomplished one is not walking the Christian life. That is certainly not the author’s intent, yet it is a risk when listing steps required for discipleship. However, this type of book is much needed in our day of easy believism and cost-less discipleship. Too often modern Christians adhere solely to the promises of Ephesians 2:8-9 (NKJV): "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, {9} not of works, lest anyone should boast." Forgotten nearly completely is Christ’s admonishment: "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." (Mark 8:34 NKJV).

Despite some minor flaws, this is a much needed book in Evangelical circles today. It reads crisply, addresses key discipleship issues, and is very convicting in areas such as prayer, stewardship and evangelism. This book is recommended to be read by every Christian who desires a closer walk with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Footnotes:
1 Whitney, Donald S., Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress. (c) 1991 by Donald S. Whitney.
2 Chambers, Oswald, My Utmost For His Highest Devotional, Internet version, found at http://www.gospelcom.net/rbc/utmost/devo/03-09.shtml
3 Whitney, page 16.
4 Whitney, page 24. Quoting Elisabeth Eliot in Christianity Today, November 4, 1988.
5 Whitney, page 69.
6 Whitney, page 100.
7 Whitney, page 106.
8 Whitney, page 125.
9 Whitney, page 133.
10 Whitney, page 144.
11 Whitney, page 160.
12 Editor’s note: On this point I have to agree with Whitney, not the reviewer. There are some medical conditions, like diabetes, for which fasting is not advisable. It is no more a lack of faith that prevents a diabetic from fasting, than it was that gave them the diabetes in the first place. In other words, this writer does not believe people get sick because they have a lack of faith. Similarly, people’s physical limitations cannot necessarily be overcome by having faith. Many, such as myself, struggle and suffer daily with health problems and their limitations. To say it is a "lack of faith" that is causing our physical disabilities is unwarranted and can cause undo guilt in the already suffering person (Gary F. Zeolla).
13 Whitney, page 160.
14 Whitney, page 162.


Follow-up

> Hi Gary:

Thanks for posting the review.

[You wrote in footnote #12:]
"Editor’s note: On this point I have to agree with Whitney, not the reviewer. There are some medical conditions, like diabetes, for which fasting is not advisable. It is no more a lack of faith that prevents a diabetic from fasting, than it was that gave them the diabetes in the first place. In other words, this writer does not believe people get sick because they have a lack of faith. Similarly, people’s physical limitations cannot necessarily be overcome by having faith. Many, such as myself, struggle and suffer daily with health problems and their limitations. To say it is a "lack of faith" that is causing our physical disabilities is unwarranted and can cause undo guilt in the already suffering person (Gary F. Zeolla)."

I thought that statement might cause me some trouble!

To be sure, some conditions are not advisable to fast under, and lack of faith does not cause disease nor prevent its cure. Still, I have known people who have been on maintenance medication, which has had undesired side-effects, and they got off of them and went to the Lord in prayer. They then began to feel better than before. Also, I have a friend who has had multiple operations in the past for benign brain tumors, and has had another one return. The doctors recommended another operation (they get riskier each time) and he opted instead to pray for healing as well as to undertake a new healthy diet. He is much improved and the tumor keeps shrinking.

My intent was not "To say it is a 'lack of faith' that is causing our physical disabilities" but was rather an attempt to point out what I viewed as a disparity in Whitney's statement. My meaning was, if we can take our finances, jobs, etc. to the Lord we most certainly can trust Him for our health as well. (Sometimes "good health" is not getting any worse; I myself suffer from painful trigeminal neuralgia, am on maintenance medication and suffer slightly at times, but I am trusting that this is a thorn in my side and God is keeping me from getting worse.)

If I have caused any undo guilt in your health situation, I make my humblest apology.

YBIC,
Chris
11/7/1999<

Thank you for the clarification, and apology more than accepted.

Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life
 is available from Books-A-Million.

The above book review was posted on this Web site November 7, 1999.

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