The Center for Biblical Spirituality (CFBS): Which habit of grace do most Christians find the most challenging, and why?
David Mathis: Meditation. It is perhaps the most underserved, underappreciated, and potentially most life-changing habit for us to cultivate in our day. By meditation, I don’t mean (like Eastern meditation) try to empty your mind, but (biblically) fill your mind with God’s revelation in his word and seek to apply it to your heart, such that you increasingly feel the significance of his words. Seek to taste the glory of his goodness, communicated through his word, with the taste buds of your heart and soul. Savor the truth about Jesus and his grace. Enjoy it. Enjoy him.
One reason that meditation is so challenging for me, and for so many of us in the modern world, is that it requires that we slow down. It forces us to resist our rapid pace of life. To truly meditate, we must pause and ponder. Which is not easy since we live such fast-paced lives, and so rarely slow down to quite our souls and really ruminate on Scripture.
In particular, I was first awakened to the importance of meditation in studying Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Don Whitney’s (very good) quotations from the Puritans opened my eyes to an experience of the Bible that seemed so natural to these men, but so largely overlooked in our day.
CFBS: Do you limit your discussion to habits of grace found only in the Bible, and if so, why?
David Mathis: By “habits of grace,” I’m referring to the practices we create and develop to give us regular access to God’s appointed “means of grace” — his word, prayer, and fellowship. So, I do limit my treatment of the “means of grace” — at the level of principle — to only what is found in the Bible. However, in terms of personal “habits,” I want to encourage readers to develop all sorts of timely, creative habits for accessing God’s timeless means of grace. I hope to inspire readers to find fresh ways to use new technology, for instance, for the purpose of hearing God’s voice in his word, having his ear in prayer, and even belonging to his body in community. I’d like to encourage readers to dream up all sorts of new practices in their own lives, not necessarily modeled in the Bible, for accessing God’s timeless means of grace, which are so clearly revealed in the Bible.
Other practices, like journaling and practicing silence and solitude (which are not necessarily enjoined in the Scriptures), are often treated in texts on the disciplines, and so I though they deserved treatment in this book as well.
CFBS: What distinguishes Habits of Grace from other books on the subject?
David Mathis: I’m no expert on all the literature in the field, especially the Catholic and more mainline texts, but here are few bullets of what was especially important to me in crafting this book:
CFBS: What do you think is the most helpful concept in the book, or the most helpful part of the book, and why?
David Mathis: Others will be the best judges of that, but perhaps it’s the simple threefold structure. Having worked with college students for many years (and having been one myself a little over a decade ago), I’ve heard time and again from young Christians carrying a low-grade sense of guilt because they’re not practicing all the spiritual disciplines — and they have a list of disciplines in mind that is a dozen, or fifteen, or twenty items long. I hope that thinking about the disciplines, or means of grace, in this threefold way will be clarifying and empowering for Christians young and old, as it has for me. You don’t need twenty different disciplines daily to be a healthy Christian, but you do need to find your regularly habits of life for hearing his voice, having his ear, and belonging to his body.
David Mathis: John has a contagious love for God and his word. You can get that from afar through his preaching and writing, but working closely with him now for more than a decade has made it real in the small moments of life. Like daily habits.
Those who know John, whether from close up or a distance, will be able to tell that his fingerprints are all over this book — just as they are on just about everything I write, how I pastor, and nearly every aspect of life. I’m not sure I can even begin to describe the extent of his influence. But to focus the question on daily habits, my morning approach to the Bible, for one, is deeply shaped by John. I begin with a brief (and earnest) prayer for God’s help, read through a Bible-in-a-year schedule, and while I do so, I’m on the express lookout for a glimpse of God’s goodness in a short passage or verse, or even just a phrase, to linger over and enjoy — call it mediation. Perhaps I try to memorize it as I meditate on it, but I pause there and seek to feed my soul on that ray of light, and then let it propel me into prayer, and into the day.
My little mental arc for moving through a season of morning devotions, or “time alone with Jesus,” is begin with Bible, move to meditation, polish with prayer.
CFBS: Thank you, David. May the Lord greatly bless Habits of Grace.
You can read the first part of this interview here.
I want to recommend a new book on the spiritual disciplines by David Mathis. David (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org, pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and adjunct professor for Bethlehem College & Seminary.
His new book is Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.
Center for Biblical Spirituality (CFBS): In a sentence, what is the message of Habits of Grace?
David Mathis: God gives us his ongoing grace for the Christian life through his appointed means, accessed through our regular, realistic, and personalized habits.
CFBS: How did Habits of Grace come about?
David Mathis: I have a shorter version of the story and a longer one. The shorter story is in recent years I taught spiritual disciplines to college juniors for Bethlehem College & Seminary. Over time I wrote up, in article form at desiringGod.org, some of the insights and approaches I was finding most helpful in the classroom. Crossway took interest in the project and gave me space to pull the articles together and grow them into a relatively short book (just about half the length of most texts on the disciplines).
The longer story — and I’ll just give the outline here — goes back to my parents and home church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, faithfully teaching me the value of God’s word, prayer, and Christian fellowship and some of the practical habits of daily life, health, and growth. In my college years, the ministry of Campus Outreach drove it all home as I was becoming an adult and embracing the faith at a new depth. Campus Outreach also gave me the opportunity to own these things even more through teaching them to others — both as a student and then during subsequent years on staff in Minnesota.
CFBS: What are the habits of grace and why are they important?
David Mathis: “Habits of grace” is my term for the countless practical rhythms of life we can develop in our lives for accessing the timeless “means of grace” God has given for our ongoing life, health, and joy in the Christian life. God’s means of grace (which John Frame helpfully summarizes as threefold — God’s word, prayer, and fellowship) are unchanging, while our particular habits for accessing his means will vary based on personality bent and season of life and simply tweaking our practices to keep them fresh.
CFBS: Why do you call these practices “habits of grace”?
David Mathis: Of course, the most common term is “spiritual disciplines.” I’m okay with the term, though it’s not my preference. I do include the term in the subtitle (“enjoying Jesus through the spiritual disciplines”) to help readers identify the genre of the book. By using the terms “means of grace” and “habits of grace,” I’m trying to keep principle and practice distinct (which can easily get blurred in the more general terms “spiritual disciplines”).
The biblical principles for accessing God’s ongoing grace — God’s “means of grace” — can be simplified to three: hearing his voice (in his word), having his ear (in prayer), and belonging to his body (in the covenant community of the local church). The practices, then — our “habits of grace” — are the personal rhythms and patterns of life we develop in light of God’s means of grace to position ourselves to keep on receiving his help. We build habits of life in light of God’s (three) revealed channels of blessing.
CFBS: Is this book about personal habits of grace, interpersonal habits of grace, or both? Why so?
David Mathis: The book is about both, and this is one of the most significant contributions I hope to make in constructing the book this way. Often the emphasis falls heavily on the personal aspect of spiritual discipline, such that it can take on an unintentionally individualistic feel. In some sense, that’s unavoidable — you can only address your reader, not his community! But in structuring the book this way, in three parts, and making one of those three parts to be exclusively about interpersonal disciplines, I hope to ring the bell, loud and clear, that fellow believers are essential means of God’s grace in our lives — and it is vital to cultivate habits of life that weave others’ lives into ours.
Part Two of this interview can be found here. Thanks for reading!
Since prayer is talking with God—the only Person in the universe worthy of being called awesome—why don’t people pray more? Why don’t the people of God enjoy prayer more?
I answer these and many other questions in this interview with Jonathan Petersen of Bible Gateway about praying the Bible.
You can find the interview here.
To get info on Don’s book Praying the Bible or to order it, click here.
In this video, Justin Taylor sits down with Don Whitney to discuss what it means to pray through God’s Word.
To get info on Don’s book Praying the Bible or to order it, click here.
I was interviewed by Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO, about family worship.
At the link below you will find both audio and a transcript of the interview.
You can link to the page on President Allen’s website here.
On this page you can find information about my book, Family Worship.
I was interviewed about how to respond when someone claims that attending worship at church is boring. This is the second of two posts based on that interview. The first is available here.
If people are bored in church, is that a problem with the church or with the individuals?
As I’ve already mentioned, if people are unconverted then the problem is with them. Since “no one can [sincerely] say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3), no unconverted person can truly worship, no matter how the service is conducted. Therefore not only is it a mistake to plan worship for those who cannot worship, it is also a mistake to ask those who cannot worship to evaluate our worship services. Otherwise it’s like planning an art exhibit according to the preferences of the blind.
Second, as I also said above, the problem of boredom in worship is also the fault of the individual if he or she is not thoughtful about what is proclaimed. People who do not want to love God with all their minds during a worship service will probably be bored. The proper observance of the Lord’s Supper, for instance, requires deliberation. Without thought about its meaning, the mere ingestion of the elements may not only be boring, but sinful. The pursuit of God in worship is worthy of our best attention and mental efforts.
Third, boredom is also the problem of the individual if his or her expectations are unrealistic. We should remember that those who lead worship “are dust” (Ps. 103:14) too. They likely have many other ministry responsibilities in addition to leading worship (though few are as important). To expect the leaders of most local churches to “produce” events every seven days that can capture our interest at the same level as do the teams of highly resourced professionals on TV and in the movies with all their special effects we watch each week is unrealistic.
But if Godly, mature, Word-hungry followers of Jesus are consistently bored in worship, the worship leaders need to take a great deal of the responsibility.
How do you train future church leaders to preach and otherwise “do church” without being boring?
You ask about training them to preach. I am not a professor of preaching, but I believe that the greatest need of the church is always for men of God to preach the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God. (By the way, I know those who teach preaching at four of our SBC seminaries, and they all strive for this.) When this is done, God’s people find it extremely satisfying, not boring. Sheep love sheep food.
In my classes on Biblical Spirituality I am training future church leaders, mostly about being Godly people and shepherding others to grow in Godliness. But occasionally I teach classes on worship, as well as speak in church conferences on worship.
There I advocate evaluating every element of the worship service by whether each is God-centered and Biblical. Worship is, by definition, the worship of God. If the worship leader makes God the focus of every part of the service, and present God to the congregation in the ways He has revealed Himself in Scripture, God’s people will find Him alluring and captivating.
And I urge them to ensure that every element in the worship service is Biblical. By that I mean that for every line item in the order of service they should be able to find clear support in Scripture for making that activity a part of worship. Otherwise that element should not be part of the worship service (though it may have a legitimate place elsewhere in the life of the church).
So, for instance, we know preaching should be part of public worship because there is a command to preach the Word of God (2 Tim. 4:2) and there are examples of preaching that occur during gatherings of believers in the New Testament. We should sing Psalms and other Scripture-saturated music in worship because, among other reasons, believers are twice urged in the New Testament to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18; Col. 3:16).
Although not alone in this, Baptists, going as far back as their first (1644) and also to their most influential (1689) confession of faith, have agreed that worship should be only as “prescribed in Holy Scripture.” This, I believe, is what it means to “worship in truth” (John 4:24), that is, according to the truth of Scripture. If we will deliberately include in worship only those elements that are God-centered and “prescribed in Holy Scripture,” and present them in the right spirit, I believe God’s people will find worship nourishing, and rarely boring. Spiritual life and light are not boring, and these come to us only when we focus on God through Christ and feast upon Him through His written self-revelation
I realize this goes counter to the trends in many evangelical churches today, and stands against the hurricane of our entertainment-oriented culture. Add to this the numbers of unconverted people who may be active members and such a reformation in worship will be difficult to accomplish in many situations. But all reformation begins with teaching, and I would recommend such a path to a pastor before he overhauls the order of service.
A large percentage of evangelical churches in America are plateaued or declining. Can that be attributed, in part, to people finding church to be boring?
In part, yes—at least theoretically. Personally I think there are more and greater reasons than this, such as the erosion of insisting upon a regenerate church membership. Second, I think it has more to do with a lack of Biblical preaching than we’d like to admit.
But if we want to focus specifically upon whether the worship event as a whole has contributed to so many churches plateauing or declining, I would say it has more to do with whether each part of the service is God-centered and Biblical than it does with whether the leaders’ have sufficiently worked to make worship “interesting.”
What do you think when someone says that worship is boring?
Some time ago I was interviewed about how to respond when someone claims that attending worship at church is boring. This is the first of two posts based on that interview.
What is your response when you hear someone say, “Church is boring?”
My first response is to ask, “Why do you say that?” For starters, even the most God-pleasing worship service would likely bore the unconverted person, whether they profess to be a Christian or not. “The natural person,” the Bible makes plain in 1 Cor. 2:14, “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
In light of this, and in view of the fact that many who attend church are not true believers, I would expect church to seem boring to many people. They do not possess the God-given, spiritual capacity to find the satisfaction, nourishment, and refreshment in worship as do those indwelled by the Spirit of God.
If I am confident that a person is genuinely converted and still they say, “Church is boring,” then I want to ask about their expectations and determine if they are reasonable ones.
Beyond that, I would ask about the particulars of the service, trying to discern if the worship leadership is seeking to promote “worship in spirit and truth?” (as Jesus put it in John 4:24).
Should “boring” ever be a term used to describe church? Why or why not?
Sadly, sometimes “boring” is an appropriate term. There is such a thing as dead orthodoxy. To refer to John 4:24 again, worship that is done “in truth” but not “in spirit” is heartless and potentially boring. To present the endlessly satisfying and perpetually fascinating God who is “holy, holy, holy” to His worshipers in such a way that does not call for “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28) is deplorable.
In my own case I’ve found that the immediate cause of boredom in worship is usually thoughtlessness on my own part. If I do not focus on and think about what I am encountering in the service, I may be bored, but it’s my own fault.
If God is presented faithfully to me in worship, that is, if the Word of God is read, if the songs we sing are true to Scripture and point Godward, and if the sermon faithfully proclaims the Bible, then enough of God’s revelation is present to capture my attention. I cannot sit back, fold my arms, and wait for the worship leaders to stimulate or entertain me. That’s not their job. Their job is to present God to me, to magnify and exalt God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. And if I am seeking God, they will make it easy for me to encounter Him and to find Him fascinating, not boring.
The old adage about horses has application to worshipers here: you can lead a worshiper to God, but you can’t make him worship. God forbid, however, that the worship leaders themselves appear thoughtless and unmoved about the God they are presenting to the worshipers.
And yet, I’m reluctant to allow the use of the term “boring” as a possible descriptor of worship. Doing so may be merely reflecting the values of a society that places such a high priority on amusement that the most common word of blessing on someone going out the door is “Have fun” or “Have a good time,” and the most condescending evaluative curse is, “That was soooo boring.”
To permit worship to be analyzed on a “boredom scale” is to use the wrong measuring rod. To call worship “boring” could imply that we can evaluate it in the same way that we appraise movies, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment. It also puts pressure upon the worship leaders to focus on making worship more exciting or interesting rather than considering it upon more explicitly Biblical grounds.
This interview will be continued in the next post.
On the occasion of the release of the Revised & Updated edition of my Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Trevin Wax interviewed me about spiritual discipline, legalism, and laziness.
Part one of this interview is here.
Trevin Wax: 3. The second concern deals with specific spiritual disciplines, primarily those concerned with meditation on God’s Word or spending time in silence and solitude. How do you respond to those who believe time in silence is a misinterpretation of Psalm 46:10, an extrabiblical innovation that can lead us to place personal experience over God’s revealed truth?
Don: First, I trust that no Bible-believer has an issue with the responsibility, privilege, and value of meditation on God’s Word. Passages such as Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:3, 2 Timothy 2:7 and others should settle that. How could anyone who loves God and His Word discount the importance and benefits of meditation on Scripture? And the fact that meditation would frequently be most fruitful when done in privacy stands to reason.
But to unite the two (solitude and meditation on Scripture) on the basis of Psalm 46:10 is an error. Psalm 46:10–“Be still, and know that I am God”–is indeed frequently misinterpreted. In fact, I would say that when it’s used in the context of the devotional life it’s always misinterpreted. While I do think it represents a biblical principle, namely that it’s always beneficial to stop and be reminded of the sovereignty of God in the midst of all circumstances, that’s not what Psalm 46:10 is about. Rather the context there is international, not personal. It’s about God’s exaltation above the nations, not about an individual’s personal piety.
Meditation on Scripture, done rightly, leads to the richest “personal experience” (with God), but never at the expense of God’s revealed truth. Rather I would contend that the richest experiences with God come most consistently by means of meditation on His Word. Why is it that so many Christians, people who read the Bible every day, cannot remember the last time their daily time in the Word of God changed their day, much less changed their life? Why is it that most days, if pressed, as soon as they close their Bible would have to admit, “I don’t remember a thing I read”? I would argue that the reason is a lack of meditation.
While reading the Bible is the exposure to Scripture–and that’s essential; that’s the starting place–meditation is the absorption of Scripture. And it’s the absorption of Scripture that leads to the experience with God and the transformation of life that we long for when we come to Scripture. My contention is that people just don’t do that, even people who read the Bible every day. It’s not that people can’t meditate on Scripture; they just don’t. Often it’s because they’ve not been taught about meditation, and/or they just don’t know how to meditate on a verse of Scripture. That’s why in the section of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life where I write about meditation I conclude with seventeen different ways to meditate on Scripture, ways that are doable by any Christian (for any devotional practice–like meditation–expected of all God’s children has to be fundamentally simple).
Trevin Wax: 4. One of the reasons why worship attendance is down in some denominations is that the faithful Christian who is active in church is attending less often. In your opinion, does it help us to see the public worship gathering as a “discipline,” or is conceiving of worship as an “obligation” one of the reasons of why Christians are attending church less often?
Don: In my opinion, the reason the “faithful Christian” you mention attends church less often has nothing to do with the intentional rejection of an “obligation” imposed by the church. Having no interest in gathering when God’s people gather for the purpose of publicly honoring and enjoying God, finding no delight in the incarnational (not merely recorded) proclamation of God’ Word, and having no appetite for the grace of the Lord’s table comes from a deeper root than an avoidance of legalism. In the New Testament, the concepts of “faithful Christian” and avoidance of church life never characterize the same people.
Because of the internal war of the Spirit against our flesh and our flesh against the Spirit (Galatians 5:17), there remains within us while in this world a gravitational pull of our hearts away from the things of God (such as public worship) as well as a Spirit-produced gravitational pull toward them. To be one who intentionally fights against the flesh and who “sows to the Spirit” (Galatians 6:8) it’s right and biblical to speak of participation in congregational worship as a discipline. As I mentioned earlier, the blessings experienced in the worship of God with His people will often be forfeited if we attend only when we feel like it when we awake on Sunday morning (if indeed we even awake on time without discipline).
Trevin Wax: 5. In this newest edition of your book, you have added more than 10,000 words of new material, adding more Bible references and a more cross-centered focus. What led you to make these adjustments in the new edition?
Don: The single biggest addition to the book was the expansion of the section on methods of meditation from six to seventeen. Some of the book’s enlargement came simply from including things I’ve learned about the disciplines in the twenty-three years since the original edition was published. I also took the opportunity to delete a few lines and quotations that could be construed as inclining toward mysticism. Most importantly, I added more of the gospel in every chapter. In 2011 I did a year-long series on “The Gospel and the Spiritual Disciplines” for Tabletalk magazine. Much of that material found its way, chapter-by-chapter, into the Revised & Updated edition of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. I wanted to do my best to ensure that no one separated the gospel from the disciplines or became tempted to think that by the diligent practice of the disciplines they could earn God’s favor.
I’d also like to mention that the terminology of the book has been updated, and I believe it’s now a better-written book. I reviewed every line, and I hope I’ve learned a few things about writing in the last twenty-three years. Overall, I think this edition is a big advance for the book in style, but especially in content, and I hope your readers find it to be so.
This interview originally appeared on August 12, 2014, on Trevin Wax’s blog on The Gospel Coalition website.
A brief interview with Don Whitney about spiritual discipline
1. What is a spiritual discipline, and can you list some of the foundational spiritual disciplines?
First Timothy 4:7 says, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of Godliness” (NASB). The kind of discipline that promotes Godliness isn’t physical (see v. 8), but spiritual. Thus the practical, biblical ways by which followers of Christ pursue Christlikeness have historically been called spiritual disciplines.
So the spiritual disciplines are those personal and interpersonal activities given by God in the Bible as the sufficient means believers in Jesus Christ are to use in the Spirit-filled, gospel-centered pursuit of Godliness, that is, closeness to Christ and conformity to Christ.
Specifically, the foundational spiritual practices involve the personal and interpersonal disciplines involving the intake of God’s Word, prayer, and worship. The other disciplines—including fellowship, serving, taking the Lord’s Supper, etc.—flow from or are interwoven with these.
2. What are some of the most common obstacles to practicing the spiritual disciplines on a day-to-day basis?
The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the relentlessness of our schedules and the avalanche of our responsibilities. And certainly this is part of the battle. When we feel overloaded with life—which is most of the time—an exhortation to practice the spiritual disciplines can make us feel like an exhausted juggler, struggling to keep half-a-dozen family heirloom plates in the air while someone is trying to toss us a few more.
But the reality often is that we simply have not made priorities of the spiritual disciplines. It’s not that we fail to practice the disciplines only because we have no time—our devotion to TV, Facebook, and Netflix prove that we regularly do have some discretionary time. Rather it’s more often that we do not practice the spiritual disciplines because we do not plan to, whether time is available or not. Snow days, vacation days, and holidays result in no more time in the disciplines than any other days.
I should also mention that boredom with or a lack of a sense of blessing experienced through the disciplines is also an obstacle. Many—and I am speaking of truly converted people here, those indwelled by the Holy Spirit—find themselves bored in prayer, for example. I believe the root problem here is usually one of method, as when a person prays and regularly says the same old things about the same old things. As a result they struggle to pray except out of a sense of mere duty or obligation. The simple, biblical solution to that is a change in method to one of praying through a passage of Scripture
3. How does our practice of spiritual disciplines relate to the gospel?
Most importantly we need to realize that practicing the spiritual disciplines—no matter how faithfully, consistently, or sacrificially—does nothing to endear us to God. The gospel is not a message of what we must do for God in order to overcome the offense of our sins and become acceptable to Him, rather it is a message of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ in order to bring us to Himself.
Once we accept the message of the gospel and receive credit for the righteousness of Christ and are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, the spiritual disciplines become the means by which we enjoy God and are transformed more into conformity to Christ.
It is by means of the biblical spiritual disciplines believers in the gospel of Jesus focus on the person and work of Jesus. Through them we learn from, gaze upon, and enjoy who Jesus is and what He has done. By means of the disciplines we find the truths of the gospel restoring our souls. As we engage in the spiritual disciplines given by God in Scripture, we should continually sense our need for Christ and find the infinite supply of grace and mercy to be found by faith in Jesus Christ.
This interview was conducted by David Burnette and first appeared on the Radical.net blog on March 17, 2014.