by Timothy L. Cooley, Sr.
A former Marine made it memorable to me, but Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (a diplomat from India) and U. S. General George Patton are both widely known for the saying. Who knows who said it before that? Some have interpreted this proverb to mean that if we work at peaceful relationships before there is a conflict, we may never have to wage a battle. In many settings, that is true, but the knowledgeable Christian is keenly aware that we are in a spiritual battle with a highly skilled, untiring, resolute enemy, one who hates every individual Christian and also the Christ we serve. The Christian life is not a playground; it is a battlefield.
Most of our battles do not seem life-threatening. They seem like small decisions. A thousand small skirmishes pester us, and we either win or lose, but it seems no one else really notices. Then along comes a bigger battle, one that we sense is high risk. If we lose this one, everything is at stake. The trouble is that by the time we lunge into that battle, our success or failure has already been determined—by our preparation or lack of it.
Across the centuries, many Christian thinkers have written about the spiritual disciplines that make a soldier strong in Christ, most notably in recent years, Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Unfortunately, some holiness people have decided that the spiritual disciplines are for the less spiritual—those who do not realize that the second work of grace will solve these problems. Think again!
John Wesley preached “means of grace,” including “works of piety” and “works of mercy.” As long as these “works of piety” are carried out with a true heart, God has ordained that prayer, reading/meditating on the Scriptures, and receiving the Lord’s Supper are “the ordinary channels whereby He might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” Wesley’s Sermon 27 focused entirely on fasting. The “works of mercy” included “the feeding the hungry, the clothing the naked, the entertaining or assisting the stranger, the visiting those that are sick or in prison, the comforting the afflicted, the instructing the ignorant, the reproving the wicked, the exhorting and encouraging the well-doer” (Sermon 26). Wesley warned those who earn all they can and save all they can that they must also give all they can, and he preached that the early Church believed that “none could be real Christians, without the help of Christian discipline” (Sermon 116).
Willard remarks, “Spiritual growth and vitality stem from what we actu- ally do with our lives, from the habits we form, and from the character that results” (p.20). He explains, “The disciplines are activities of mind and body purposefully undertaken, to bring our personality and total being into effective cooperation with the divine order” (p.68). St. Paul pressed young Timothy “to be at work in the ‘spiritual gymnasium.’ ‘Train (gumnaze) yourself unto godliness…” (p.98). Willard cites Oswald Chambers’ teaching on “forming habits on the basis of the grace of God.” Chambers warned, “If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When the crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made our nature our ally. The practicing is ours, not God’s” (as cited in Willard, p.118). Willard explains, “Discipline, strictly speaking, is activity carried on to prepare us indirectly for some activity other than itself ” (p.120).
“The rigorous form of life mandatory for excellence” (p.121) is the only way we can purge ourselves to become “vessels of honour” (II Tim.2:21).
Willard classifies the disciplines as “disciplines of abstinence” or “disciplines of engagement” (p.158). Foster breaks them up into inward, outward, and corporate disciplines. Both authors offer outstanding insights on the whole range of exercising ourselves unto godliness (I Tim.4:7). Perhaps each of us will not excel in all of the spiritual disciplines, but the more we are aware of the full round of discipline the more we will be able to “put on the whole armour of God” (Eph.6:11) and to “fight the good fight of faith” (I Tim.6:12).
Excuse me, I must get myself to the spiritual gymnasium!
FOR FURTHER READING:
- Foster, Richard. (1988). “Celebra- tion of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth”. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
- Wesley, John. Works. Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace”; Sermon 26, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 6”; Sermon 27, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 7”; Sermon 116, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity.
- Whitney, Donald. (1991). “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life”. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress.
- Willard, Dallas. (1991). “Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding how God Changes Lives.” New York: HarperCollins.