In Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (1991), Don Whitney provides a thorough and thoughtful catalog of the many possible and prescribed disciplines of the Christian path. He provides not only the scriptural parameters and warrants for the various disciplines, but also clarifications and instructions, quotes from historic and contemporary teachers, and importantly, challenges to the reader to begin. It is obvious that Whitney is uninterested in providing merely an intellectual understanding for the reader, but rather, instruction and motivation to act on the disciplines.
Whitney begins with our motivation – what should keep us motivated to pursue disciplines that go against our tendencies towards sloth and slumber? His Biblical solution is the Pauline injunction to his disciple Timothy, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). But is personal godliness and virtue enough of a motivation? Whitney explains that godliness brings deep personal peace, and prepares us for the day of judgment when we must give an account to God. The latter theme reappears when Whitney later discusses good use of our time as a discipline, but for now, he wants to get us moving. As a final and perhaps most attractive motivator, he discusses how disciplines lead us to freedom – not only the freedom from fleshly addictions and other time-wasters, but the freedom to perform well in the activities that matter and give us joy.
Whitney begins his catalog with the various inner disciplines of transformation in the Christian life, those involved with the scriptures and prayer, and their nexus, meditation. Scriptural disciplines range from simple listening to or reading the scriptures to various means of internalizing the scriptures, including memorization, methods of rumination, and active intellectual study. In all of these, Whitney counsels us to remember the goal – transformation through a spiritual encounter with God himself, not just intellectual intake of information. Slower is often better. Additionally, he recommends that in all of our daily study, we move from understanding to application, looking for ways to obey or apply the text. Real spirituality is not mere knowledge, but application and action.
Of particular note is his mention of George Muller’s discovery that prayer is much more fruitful after meditation on scripture, rather than before. For many of us who have sat down to pray having no motivation or content, Muller’s recommendation can be as transformative for us as it was for him:
Formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer…but what was the result? I often spent [up to an hour] on my knees before deriving comfort [from God]…often having suffered much from wandering of mind….I scarcely ever suffer now this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental fellowship with God, I speak to my Father…about the things He has brought before me in His precious Word. It often astonishes me that I did not sooner see this point. (pp. 75-76)
In addition to the inward disciplines of scripture intake and application with prayer, Whitney lists the outward disciplines of the Christian life – evangelism and service. Regarding evangelism, Whitney aims at the two biggest impediments to individual “casual”, ie. lifestyle evangelism – lack of preparation, and lack of method. Whitney does not discuss any practical means of preparing, such as writing up a personal testimony tract, or buying tracts for distribution, or getting trained in basic apologetics content and methods. However, he does suggest a few methods for sharing the gospel in everyday life, including spending regular time with unbelievers instead of cloistered in Church and its activities, inviting coworkers or neighbors to an occasional meal with the goal of listening and prayerful conversation, and regularly asking people, “Can I pray for you?” I would add that carrying passive conversation-starting props, such as spiritual books (that we are actually reading or studying, not just carrying as props!) is a great way to share the gospel. But to do the latter with integrity, we must, of course, be truly pursuing the spiritual books and life we are presenting.
Regarding service as a spiritual discipline, Whitney identifies this as a necessary component of the Christian life and acknowledges that for some of us, service is an easier discipline than evangelism. He remarks that the two major groupings of spiritual gifts in the scripture, speaking and serving gifts, make either evangelism or service easier and more natural to us, so we should not feel guilty if we are more geared towards one or the other, though we should endeavor to do both. As with all the disciplines, Whitney reminds us that our motives must be love for God and man, and prods us towards practical commitments and preparation at the end of the chapters.
For the last third of the book, Whitney returns to inner disciplines, including worship, fasting, solitude, journaling, and study. His discussion of journaling is interesting because it is perhaps the one discipline that is extra-biblical, not being mentioned directly in scripture, yet of tremendous spiritual value to saints across history. I found his admission that sometimes journaling with a word processor can be useful to get a plethora of thoughts and words out faster pleasing, in that he wasn’t condemning it just because it was modern or faster. However, he did admit that handwriting involves a sometimes more meditative process of recording.
Helpfully, Whitney ends with a call to perseverance, reminding us that sometimes disciplines can be dry and seem unfruitful. He asks us to prepare ourselves to struggle at times to keep our disciplines, and to engage with other fellow travelers of faith to keep from abandoning our disciplines.
In this relatively short book, Donald Whitney has covered the basics of the Christian spiritual disciplines in moderate detail that does not overburden the reader with information, yet provides sufficient detail for immediate and practical application. His consistent emphasis on and challenges to implement each discipline can seem overwhelming, but starting with just one new discipline seems doable, and Whitney provides sufficient perspective and motivation to start. His plentiful quotes from Christians of the past are often very helpful, and his personal interjections regarding his own difficulties and practice provide ample perspective and encouragement to begin with confidence. I would have liked, however, a few more practical suggestions for both evangelism and service, and perhaps a survey of some of the formal methods of prayer such as the ACTS or SOAP methods, as well as an example of praying through the Lord’s prayer. Also missing is the role of mentoring and discipleship, a subject that might deserve some more attention when discussing disciplines. Perhaps corporate disciplines, with discipleship as a core principle, could be described as a means of supporting and maturing in Christian faith. In addition, the more advanced disciplines of interfaith dialog and apologetics might be explored as disciplines. However, as a book of basics, this book is tremendous. If you were to create a short list of books worth re-reading and mastering, this would be one.