Episode 081: Spiritual Disciplines with Don Whitney
It’s safe to say that one of the major reasons for the general lack of zeal and fervency among evangelical Christians today is because of the lack of spiritual disciples in our lives. What are spiritual disciplines? Things like Bible reading, prayer, fasting, solitude, intentional corporate worship – these are all ways for our spirits to engage with God. Back in ’91 a pastor/professor named Don Whitney wrote a book called Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. In it he explains the need for the spiritual disciplines and then how we can do them. Don graciously joined us this week to talk about the disciplines. I ask him a bit about how we are to understand them, and I also ask what specific spiritual discipline is lacking most among evangelical Christians today. Oh, I should also say that our conversation reveals one of Don’s “unique” collections and hobbies.
Who’s Our Guest?
Don Whitney has been Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY since 2005. Before that, he held a similar position at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO, for ten years. He is the founder and president of The Center for Biblical Spirituality. Don lives with his wife Caffy in their home near Louisville. The Whitney’s have a married daughter, Laurelen, and a grandson.
Don’s book is called Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.
Also, be sure to check out The Center of Biblical Spirituality where Don has lots of resources.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Don Whitney. Don is the professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s written quite a few books, some of which I’ve read and have really enjoyed, ‘Praying the Bible’, ‘Family Worship’, probably your smallest ones, but anyways thanks for chatting with me today, Don.
Yes Isaac. It’s good to be with you.
But it also says Don, and I wanted to say this, that your hobby is restoring and using old fountain pens. What’s that about?
Yeah. Since high school I have enjoyed pens. I got into fountain pens fairly early when I first started college, but they were just three dollar cartridge pens on a blister pack, but I kind of got hooked on them. I really enjoy using them. I am a writer after all, too. I’ve always enjoyed using pens. The vintage pens, the older ones, I really like a lot. I have a bunch from the teens, the 20s, the 30s and I’m able to restore some of them if they’re simple enough.
That is awesome. Do you have a case with some of your most precious ones?
Yeah, I do. I don’t collect pens to have a collection. It’s hard for me to imagine getting a pen that I wouldn’t use, but yeah, I have that, because people know I like pens, so occasionally they’ll give me one or my wife gives me one for a special occasion. Over the decades I have a few so I put those in a case.
I love it. Anyways, if listeners haven’t heard of you, all they know is that you are a professor and that you like fountain pens. I would like to ask, who are you, how you met Jesus and a snapshot of what day to day life looks like today.
I grew up in a little county in northeast Arkansas. I was brought to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night my whole life since nine months before I was born actually. When I was nine years old though, we had a series of meetings in our church. Though I’d heard the Gospel many times, it was on a Thursday night during those series of meetings that the Lord brought me under conviction. I came that night, my mother was putting me in bed and saw that I was troubled and brought my dad. He explained the Gospel again.
There, as a nine year old boy in my bedroom, I repented and believed in Christ.
I was in this Bible teaching church, so the Lord kept me pretty close. After that, I went to college, then a year of law school. It was there the Lord confirmed a call to preach, so I went from there to seminary. After seminary went into pastoral ministry and from there into my current position where I am professor of biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
What is a ‘professor of biblical spirituality’?
Every seminary is going to have a required class of some sort in spirituality, but here at Southern we have a whole professorship. We have a program you can major, so to speak, in. In your master of divinity degree you can get a major in biblical spirituality.
I think we’re the only seminary on the planet where you can get all four levels of graduate degrees in something called ‘Spirituality’. I’m in charge of that.
Now Don, the topic of our conversation sort of revolves around a book you wrote back in the early 90s, I think 1991, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Firstly, what is the main idea of the book and why did you write it?
I want to call your listeners’ attention to the fact that it was revised and updated in 2014.
But, the main idea of the book is, it’s based on 1 Timothy 4:7, which says,
‘Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.’
Hebrews 12:14 says that, ‘Without holiness, no one will see the Lord.’ If you’re not pursuing holiness, that indicates you don’t know the Lord in the first place. The great question then is: How do we pursue the holiness without which no one will see the Lord? How by grace through faith in Christ alone were those with God pursued holiness that is characteristic of those who know the Lord? The answer is in 1 Timothy 4:7. You discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.
It is not, as Paul said, it’s not as that we’d begun by the spirit that we’re going to be perfected by flesh. No, we’re given both a desire and the power to pursue godliness, but the way that works out in every day life, the way we obey that biblical command to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness is historically been called the biblical spiritual discipline.
I wanted to write that. There was another book or two already well known in that line, but I thought that I was coming from more of a biblical, an evangelical perspective in my book. That’s why I wrote it. That’s what it’s about.
Many of heard the idea of spiritual disciplines, or as you just said, biblical spiritual disciplines, if they’ve been around church for a while they’ve kind of heard that, but for those unfamiliar and those who have heard it but are still not quite sure, what exactly is a biblical spiritual discipline and what are they for?
These are the practices found in scripture that promote spiritual growth. That’s a simple way of putting it.
People have come to Christ and the way they grow in Christ in a planned and intentional way is generally through these spiritual disciplines. These disciplines, people tend to think of them only in terms of the personal. When we think of spirituality today, it’s almost, the image that comes to people’s minds is almost invariably that of individual spirituality. There are personal spiritual disciplines and that’s mostly what my Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life book is about, but there are equally congregational or interpersonal spiritual disciplines, those you practice with other Christians. That’s why I wrote a book called, Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church.
For example, we’re to get into the Word of God individually, that’s a personal spiritual discipline, but we’re also to get into the Word of God with the church.
That’s an interpersonal spiritual discipline. We’re to pray alone. We’re also to pray with the church.
The spiritual disciplines are both personal and interpersonal.
I could parse them out a little bit more in terms of, they’re activities, they’re not attitudes. They are derived from the Gospel. They’re not divorced from the Gospel in the sense of, ‘Here’s the Gospel, now let’s go into some real meaty stuff, the spiritual disciplines’, and so forth, but they are means, they’re not ends.
You’re not godly simply because you practice the disciplines.
It’s not mechanical like that. That was the error of the Pharisees. They thought they were godly because, as the Pharisee prayed, ‘Lord, I tithe. I fast twice a week. I pray head high.’, and they were the epitome of ungodliness. But it’s not as though we become godly just by being passive.
We are to practice the spiritual disciplines for the purpose of godliness, but with the right motives.
That kind of leads into this next point. Some may think that because Christianity is different than other religions, in the sense that we don’t work for salvation, Christ has done that work for us, so some may think that spiritual disciplines, this idea of, essentially, these actions, kind of goes against this. I guess a question for you would be: How can we understand spiritual disciplines as both a work and a, not just an attitude, but a habit you could say, on our part and God’s work through us?
Yeah. That’s a very important question because – if you let me delve into some biblical and theological terms here.
When it comes to justification, in other words, a sinner being made right with God, we use the term ‘Monergistic’, ‘Mono’ is one and the latter part of the word comes from a Greek word for working.
There’s one person working.
When Jesus came into the tomb of Lazarus and made Lazarus alive, Lazarus contributed nothing but the death of the death from which he was raised. One person was working. That was Jesus. That’s what happens when he comes into the sepulchre of our spiritual death and he makes us alive. We call it regeneration, but once we’re made alive in Christ, then from now until we see the Lord it’s a process of sanctification and that is becoming more like Christ, both inwardly and outwardly. That, Isaac, is synergistic.
We don’t just passively wait and allow Jesus to gradually make us more – or suddenly make us more – holy.
We are to work with him in that. He gives us the desire and the power. I point to a scripture where we see this clearly. In Colossians 1:29, Paul is talking about his ministry of making people mature in Christ. He says, ‘For this, for this ministry, I toil,’. Thus far, Paul is doing the toiling, he’s doing the work, but he goes on and says, ‘For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.’
At the end of the day, Paul was the one who was tired, not God, but at the end of the end of the day Paul would say,
‘You know, the fact that I wanted to do these things today for the glory of God and that I was able, all glory goes to God.’
Paul wasn’t like a robot that the Holy Spirit just kind of moved around that way. It was by God’s grace that Paul wanted to do what he did and was able to do it. That’s where the grace comes in, but we have to actually live it out.
Now would you say the same thing is going on when Paul, in Philippians, says, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God in you working this will for his pleasure’?
Right. We sometimes summarize that by saying, ‘We work out what God has worked in’.
He gives us the desire and the power. He gives us the affinity for these spiritual disciplines. Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit now, you hunger for the Word of God that you used to find boring or irrelevant. You hunger for fellowship with God’s people, not just socializing, but really talking about God and the things of God. God gives you that desire and God gives you the power, but you have to open the pages of the Bible. You have to make time for it. You have to be the one who shows up at church.
We’ve talked obviously a little bit about spiritual disciplines now and you’ve mentioned a few, but do you mind just giving us a little bit more, just list them out? You don’t have to go into detail, but what are some of these personal spiritual disciplines?
The two most important, the foundation on which all the others come is the intake of the Word of God and prayer, and in that order.
For it’s more important for us to hear from God than God to hear from us in prayer.
As important as prayer is, it is second to the intake of the Word of God. I break that down into several forms from the easiest to the more difficult. That is, hearing the Bible, 1 Timothy 4:13 says, ‘Give attention to the public reading of scripture’, so we should hear the Bible read to the people of God.
We’re to hear it. We’re to read it ourselves. We’re to study it. We are to memorize. I think the one most often left out today is ‘meditate on scripture’ and then apply the Bible. All those I group under Bible intake, and then prayer, but then after that worship is a spiritual discipline we have to be intentional about, serving, evangelism, fasting, silence or solitude, discipline of godly learning. We can add journaling in there. These are the kinds of things that historically people have found as biblical spiritual disciplines for the individual.
When you wrote the book about the church, what was included in that?
First of all, it talks about baptism. ‘Go therefore, make disciples of all nations’, Jesus said in the Great Commission. First thing is then baptize them and then teach them. Baptism of church membership, then the ordinances, one of which is baptism of course, but disciplining ourselves, don’t forsake the Lord’s supper, the preaching of the Word of God, getting yourself under a God-called man who preaches and teaches the Word of God, worshiping God with his people. Every Christian pretty much knows that the Bible says we are a temple of the Holy Spirit, but that’s 1 Corinthians 6, but earlier 1 Corinthians 3 and six other times the New Testament says, ‘The church is the temple of The Holy Spirit.’
Gathering with God’s people to experience those things that happen only in the temple. There were experiences with God that happened only in the temple, at church.
We discipline ourselves not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.
We worship and we serve there. We evangelize with the church. We learn with the church, not just our own. These are some of those things that we do with other Christians and grow in Christ.
Now Don, myself and many listeners of indoubt, we’re younger, 20s, 30s. When you look at the North American evangelical Christian landscape today, and I imagine you have quite a few 20s, 30 year olds in seminary as well, but anyways, what spiritual discipline do you see lacking heavily amongst the North American church, amongst young people?
On the congregation or interpersonal side, I would say it would be congregational worship. That thinking ‘spirituality or Christianity’ is something I do on my own, and that’s only part of the picture. As I said, the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit. There are experiences with God you will get only at the temple.
You can have the greatest devotional life in the history of the world, but there are experiences with God in growth and grace you will not experience apart from the local church,
worshiping with the local church and all that comes with that, experiencing what the Holy Spirit does for us and to us through the church. But on the individual side, I think if it were within my power to change the devotional life of every Christian on the planet, it would be in terms of meditation on scripture. Here’s why even our most devoted daily Bible readers need it.
People who read the Bible every day, but they close their Bible and as soon as they close their Bible, most days, most Christians it’d seem, would have to admit, ‘You know, I don’t remember a thing I read.’
You know that does very little good. That does some good. I wouldn’t want people to abandon that, but the problem is a lack of meditation on scripture, thinking about what you read.
If somebody only has 10 minutes, I get that. Don’t spend the whole 10 minutes reading. Read for 5 minutes and then select a verse or phrase and meditate on that for 5 minutes because it’s far better to read less if necessary and remember something than to read more and remember nothing.
Now I’m kind of throwing this on you, but I think you can take it. This is a very spiritualized culture we’re living in. This postmodern era, everyone seems to be spiritual. The word ‘Meditation’ is used all the time. When you say, ‘Meditate’, what exactly are you saying? Because I feel like it’s very subjective, a lot of people have different ideas on that.
Yeah, that’s absolutely right. For starters, I want people to know that meditation is mentioned in the Bible. We’re not borrowing something from the culture and bringing it to Christian spirituality. In Joshua 1:8 there’s a very important passage about meditating on the Word of God. Psalm 1:2 talks about meditating on the Word of God. In both places it talks about meditating day and night. How in the world can you do that? If you meditate, how can you do that and do everything else God wants you to do too? If you will take part of your Bible intake time and meditate on scripture, you’ll discover not only will you remember it as soon as you close your Bible, you’ll be able to reflect on it, bring it back to your memory all day long. ‘What was that verse? Oh yeah.’ As you’re driving home, you can reflect on it again. You can pray over that again.
In my book, Spiritual Disciplines, I actually have about 17 different methods of meditating on scripture. I want to emphasize this as meditation on the text of scripture. In other words, there’s not just one way to do this.
Don, what would you say to the Christian who has this idea in their mind, ‘I don’t have to engage the spiritual disciplines, but I always go to church, I pay my tithes, I attend conferences and retreats throughout the year. I do all this stuff. I can’t do the spiritual disciplines because I’m just too busy.’?
Yeah. I want to affirm what they are doing, but people tend to gravitate in one of two directions. One, as we mentioned earlier, is the person who says, ‘I have a wonderful devotional time, I don’t need that half-committed ungodly group of people down at the church. I don’t have time for that anyway. I could just take my spiritual disciplines and go off and be an evangelical monk or an evangelical nun and I would be great.’ No, they’re missing what the Bible teaches about the interpersonal spiritual disciplines. But on the other extreme are those people that say, ‘You know what, if I’m at church pretty much every time the doors are open, and if I profit from that as I do, I’m sure that somehow in the end that will compensate for the lack of a devotional life.’
No it won’t.
There are experiences with God you will only get alone with God, and there are experiences with God you will only get with his people. The Bible teaches both. We’re all inclined a little more one way or the other, but the Bible teaches both.
Now, as a kind of a final question, how can reflecting on the Gospel specifically help motivate our often distracted hearts and minds to engage the spiritual disciplines? When I look at some of my peers myself, a lot of younger people in the evangelical church today, there just seems to be a lack of engaging the spiritual disciplines. I know that the Gospel has to be the foundation also.
How can reflecting on the Gospel help motivate us?
Yeah, this is why I mention in the very first chapter of my book and I alluded to it a moment ago, that
the spiritual disciplines are practices derived from the Gospel, they’re not divorced from the Gospel.
What that looks like is people who say, ‘I believe the Gospel. Now I’m ready to go past the ABCs. I’m ready to go for the meat. I’m ready to go to the spiritual disciplines.’
No, the spiritual disciplines only take us deeper into the glories of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not away from it.
To reflect on the Gospel, first of all, you found the Gospel in the Bible and you find the Gospel and various nuances of it and various aspects of it in the Bible. We’ve already mentioned several, right? We’ve mentioned conviction. I said that very early. We mentioned regeneration, we mentioned faith, we mentioned justification, we mentioned sanctification. These are only half a dozen terms of the 20 or so that relate somehow to the Gospel. Where do you find out about that? In the Bible. If you reflect, and we’re back to meditation again, you reflect on these things, that is something so powerful it has the power to change your life, to change your day. When you meditate on something that great and that glorious, that (meditation) rightly done will capture your heart and your mind and make you want to go further. And that leads us to the spiritual disciplines.
Don, maybe the last thing before we end this conversation, is there a verse or just a portion of scripture about the Gospel that you could almost give to us to reflect immediately, because people might be listening to this and they’re like, ‘I do want to apply what Don is saying here, but I’m in the car right now and I can’t do it right now.’ Is there anything you can give us that we can help us begin this attitude of meditation on scripture immediately?
At the end of Psalm 16, I believe it is, it says, ‘At your right hand there are pleasures forever. At your right hand’, It says of God, ‘There are pleasures forever. You make known to me’, this is Psalms 16:11, ‘You make known to me the path of life.’ What is that? The Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s through him we come into the presence of God. Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, the Life. No one comes to the Father, but through me.’ ‘In your presence there’s fullness of joy. At your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.’
To just even try to imagine the unlimited unimaginable pleasures there are in the presence of God forever – and what is the path to that? It is the Gospel. This is what Jesus opens up to us.
That’s so good. Thank you so much, Don.
If you enjoyed today’s conversation and are interested in Don’s book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, which is updated in 2014, you can pick it up on Amazon, probably your best bet. You can also head to biblicalspirituality.org, which has a host of resources from Don, but anyways, thank you so much, Don. I hope to have you again on the show.
You’re very welcome Isaac.