Americans don’t celebrate discipline. We order take-out instead of cook. Drive instead of walk. Text instead of call. We are always busy, but never get anything done. A nation that once went to the moon can’t even keep our highways from blowing up. Social media and smartphones have made us more connected than ever, yet people have never felt more alone. It’s the paradox of modernity: everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Our society gives us one answer to our problems. Consume more. Climb the ladder. Advance further. Those looking for a different kind of answer will find one in Raymond Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline.
When people hear the word discipline, they think of their own will and the power of hard work. That’s not what Foster is talking about. The book is about spiritual discipline. He divides the disciplines into three groups: inner (how we relate to ourselves), outer (how we relate to others) and corporate (how the church body relates to itself). Each group builds on the one that precedes it. The inner disciplines — meditation, prayer, fasting and study — are the foundation. Prayer is how we partner with God, while meditation, fasting and study are how we quiet ourselves to hear Him. The fruits of those disciplines allow us to lead lives of simplicity, submission, service and occasionally, solitude. When we do those things, we can form healthy communities where we confess our struggles to each other, guide each other and worship and celebrate together. It sounds like a lot, and even thinking about how to integrate 12 different spiritual disciplines into life can be intimidating.
You don’t have to be religious to see the benefits of doing it. Even those who don’t believe in prayer are helped by taking time out of their day to unplug. Fasting has health benefits that have nothing to do with its spiritual dimensions. And who doesn’t want to live a simpler life? The ten steps Foster took to minimize his consumption will resonate with anyone who has ever taken on too much debt, or found themselves getting rid of stuff they don’t need or simply been overwhelmed with all the demands on their time. The problem is the gap between knowing what we should do and the discipline to actually do it. As the apostle Paul said, I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. I find myself thinking this every time I go through a drive-thru.
People prefer to rely on themselves. If that doesn’t work, they look to those around them. God is the last resort in our secular age. It’s no wonder life feels so difficult. We are trying to carry the weight of our lives, dreams and expectations on our shoulders with one hand tied behind our back. Foster uses the analogy of the farmer to explain:
A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain.Inner disciplines like meditation and fasting only create the conditions necessary for spiritual growth. They are a means to an end, not an end to themselves. Without God at the center, they become empty, simulating the appearance of holiness without the substance. In Foster’s telling, we perform the rituals without understanding the heart behind them. We have become a nation of cargo cultists.
The original cargo cultists were tribesman in remote Pacific Islands in the late 19th and early 20th century. They saw the air strips built on their islands by modern militaries, but not the global infrastructure that supplied them. When the supplies stopped coming, they began building their own air strips, thinking the gods would bless them with cargo of their own. We don’t think of ourselves as being a less advanced culture, but progress doesn’t just go in one direction. The vast majority of people who ever lived would find our materialistic view of the universe insane. Maybe they were wrong. But maybe they weren’t.
It’s hard to learn anything without humility. Americans think we already know everything. Every four years, our politicians tell us we are the greatest country in the history of mankind. The United States were founded as “a city on the hill”; American exceptionalism is one of the bedrock ideas of our foreign policy. Humbling ourselves to study things written thousands of years ago, and learning from people who didn’t have running water, much less wi-fi, seems ridiculous on its face. In the American mind, we stand at the pinnacle of societal evolution. Now that the US is on top of the world, history is over. A country only a few hundred years old has a hard time grasping the sheer scale of human history. Western Civilization is a few thousand years old, which is less time than the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. In ten thousands years, the US will be a footnote in the history books, if it’s there at all.
We think our society will last forever because we can’t imagine a world without ourselves. Social media has created a world where everyone is at the center of their own lives. The race to get ahead is constant, and even those at the top feel like they have to run as fast as they can just to stay in place. Living for yourself never feels like enough. Robin Williams was one of the most successful actors of the last generation and he ended his own life. Wilt Chamberlain slept with 10,000 women and died alone. Psychologists coined the term the “hedonic treadmill” to describe the tendency of humans to quickly return to their previous levels of happiness after major life changes. God has put eternity in our hearts, and nothing in this world can satisfy our longing for it. The only lasting mark we can make on the world is when we commune with the eternal.
Practicing the spiritual disciplines are how we grow closer to God. However, if we are not careful, they become nothing more than a long list of rules to follow. The Pharisees rigidly followed every religious law in the Old Testament, but they missed the heart behind them. They were more concerned with appearing righteous than living righteous lives. The reality is that living righteously is beyond our power. It’s only when we trust our salvation to someone else that we are freed from the burden of doing everything ourselves. That’s what Jesus meant when he said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. We don’t have the strength to be disciplined on our own, but we have access to the one who does.