If the Gospel Changes Us Organically, Why ‘Spiritual Disciplines’?

One of the issues I deal with in Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (chp 12) is why spiritual “disciplines” are necessary if the gospel changes our heart organically. Or, in other words: if the gospel primarily aims at changing our hearts, why is the Bible still so full of commands? Don’t “commands” imply that we are being forced to do what we don’t want to do?

Spiritual disciplines are not at odds with gospel-centered change. Spiritual disciplines are like wires that connect us to the power of the gospel. Wires have no power in themselves, but they connect you to power.

Furthermore, God has made us so that in doing certain things we learn to love them. Think of it like an appetite: when you indulge an appetite, you may satisfy it in the short run, but in the longer run your appetite grows. When you overeat, you develop a greater, not lesser, desire for food. The more you work-out, the more your desire to work-out grows. The more you walk in the gospel, the more you love the gospel.

What we do with our bodies affects how we feel in our hearts. Jesus said that was true in relation to our money: where we put our money, our heart would follow (Matthew 6:21). That means that we grow in generosity not only by meditating on the gospel, but by giving our money away. As we do, our heart will follow. Don’t try to be more gospel-centered than Jesus.

Here’s how C. S. Lewis described it, with almost a premonition of the excesses of the gospel-centered movement:

“[T]hough natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings. . . . The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less. . . . [W]henever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more, or, at least, to dislike it less. . . . The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he ‘likes’ them: the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on-including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.”

~C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The following is a satirical piece by a student of C.S. Lewis from a book called Cold War in Hell. One demon is talking to another about how to lead Christians astray:

“My dear fellow, the more human beings think and talk religion, the better, in our eyes – always provided that they don’t do anything about it. The cultivation of the religious spirit and of abstract religious interests develops a man’s individuality and nourishes his self-reliance; the very qualities we most value down here. But actual membership of a church, with the practices it involves, is disastrous. You see, institutional religion causes people to do things. They not only do things: they incur obligations and, in a variety of degrees, cultivate a certain respect and obedience to authority. In other words, the will submits and the individuality is inhibited-disciplined, as they would say above. This is fatal. It plays into the hands of the Celestial Powers and their Satellites.”

“I think I begin to understand.”

“I should hope you do. It’s simple enough. If a man cultivates a vague religious spirit in solitude, well enough. If he talks religion, still that is safe. But if he goes to church, an act of the will is involved. If he joins in public prayer and worship, he associates himself with a body bigger than himself; to that extent he submits his individuality to a corporate activity carried on under authority. Can’t you see that all this is simply obedience, which saps the independence of the free individuality? Worse still, the churchman probably recites creeds; and however perfunctorily he does it, still there is the act of the will formally committing him. You would be astonished to know what an elementary level of self-committal qualifies a man for the good favour for the Celestial Powers. They have been so unbalanced by our movement and its repercussions, that they seem to set store by nothing except submission.

“Churchmen of one kind win celestial favour because they commit themselves firmly to the authority of an Institution, binding themselves week after week in formal acts and solemn rites. Churchmen of another kind gain celestial favour for a very similar reason, because they commit themselves so firmly to the authority of a book, binding themselves daily to its injunctions. And the Celestial Powers are incredibly stupid. They seem incapable of stopping to ask themselves, ‘Does this man really mean what he’s doing? Or does this man really understand what he’s reading?’ No, they just clap their hysterical hands and say, ‘There’s another will operating in the right direction. There’s submission. The rest is easy. The rest we can do.'”

An idea, previously half understood, dawned upon me with new clarity and force. And I saw the Affidavit for what it was.

“I gather,” I said, “that the Celestial Powers are really concerned about formal observances and also about formal declarations.”

“Ludicrously so. The formal affirmation of obedience and submission-or, of course, the formal affirmation of spiritual independence and self-reliance-counts far too much in their eyes. The quality of the conviction behind it all they neglect. The result is that we get all the really sincere souls down here: all the people who were too honest to commit their minds and wills without the support of their inner feelings. The people who were humble enough to wait and see, possessing their own souls in patience, tolerantly non-committal about matters of faith and practice-all these the Celestial Powers reject by the dozen. And, of course, this absurd policy must be counted a complete post facto justification of our rebellion.”

There was no doubt Jaffer’s fervour on this topic. And this fervour was itself instructive. Indeed it explained so much, that I was bewildered at the thought of the many judgments I should have to modify and correct. For one thing, it cast an entirely new light on the nature of Hell’s inhabitants. Small wonder they were not recognizable as the world’s criminals and down-and-outs. They were simply the people who had never made the first movements of self-committal. Then again, I was astute enough to recognize here a corroboration of much that Lamiel had said, which had seemed at the time too sweeping or too dogmatic. He also had emphasized obedience. Indeed, that was why I was here, learning too late that the issue between Heaven and Hell was at heart summed up in the question of submission.”

~Harry Blamires, Cold War In Hell

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