Too often we think in binary terms. We think that sermons are about teaching Scripture, inspiring hope, and inviting people to believe the gospel for the first time or to reaffirm belief for the thousandth time. But when it comes to cultivating a rich spiritual life or nurturing various spiritual disciplines, we think that is the work of a spiritual director or perhaps best fostered in small-group settings. We don’t tend to associate the pulpit with helping people practice the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.
True, the bifurcation is not total, and there are probably many preachers who bring a kind of spiritual direction into their preaching. But if sermons don’t help us to nurture a more robust prayer life or understand what it means to practice fasting or meditation, we do not necessarily deem that a pulpit deficit. Because practicing various disciplines is often regarded as a somewhat private matter—something between an individual and God—we tend not to connect it with a public venue like the pulpit.
But I suggest that we preachers should do what we can to dispense with this bifurcation. We should want to connect our public preaching with people’s more private acts of devotion and their nurturing of various spiritual disciplines.
In a systematic theology course I took at Calvin Seminary, Neal Plantinga noted that in Paul’s pastoral epistles there is an abiding concern for what we can properly call “spiritual hygiene.” Paul repeatedly uses the Greek word hygiaínō (the root of our English word “hygiene”) in his letters to Timothy and Titus. Sometimes we translate that word as “sound,” as in “sound doctrine,” but Paul is literally talking about “healthy doctrine.” At its core, hygiaínō is about good spiritual health.
In most of life hygiene crops up only in regard to physical matters. When I worked at a Christian mental hospital years ago, one thing we always needed to monitor was a patient’s ADLs— Activities of Daily Living. When a person is clinically depressed or going through some other psychological difficulty, activities such as combing your hair, brushing your teeth, washing your face, and trimming your fingernails are among the first things to go by the wayside. One of the early signs of recovery is that a person starts to pay attention to these ADLs again without needing to be reminded. Good hygiene signals good health, both mentally and physically.
Disciplines like prayer, meditation, fasting, almsgiving, confession, and service all can improve our spiritual health even as the regular practice of these spiritual ADLs is itself a sign of spiritual well-being. The disciplines are the hygiene practices that aim at wholeness. Despite many of these activities being about as private as brushing your teeth or trimming your nails—we generally don’t expect to see people doing these things in public—they can still be nurtured in the public sphere of worship and certainly through preaching. Though we perhaps cannot practice or even model certain disciplines from the pulpit—Richard Foster lists solitude as a spiritual discipline, for instance, and that is tough to do on a Sunday morning among the gathered congregation—that does not mean those disciplines cannot be pointed to, talked about, and encouraged with biblical backing and support in the preaching moment.
If this is going to happen, however, we preachers need to keep the spiritual disciplines on our homiletical radar so we touch on them regularly, encourage them, and make suggestions for how to do them well. Not every sermon lends itself to a mention of spiritual hygiene, but if we are intentional about it, we might be surprised how many sermons could head in that direction after all. It reminds me of what my colleague Jack Roeda said when he became the pastor of a congregation that celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week. He wondered how every single sermon could possibly always lead to the Table. As it turns out, he discovered, every sermon does this quite naturally! The same may be true of pondering and pointing to the practices of good spiritual hygiene.
But here is another vital thing our preaching can do to keep spiritual disciplines before a congregation: we can routinely frame these activities with the grace of the gospel. This is vital to do as often as possible in preaching because we are all tempted by legalism. We sing “Amazing Grace,” but deep down we figure we are saved through “Trust and Obey,” through what we do and accomplish for a God who is grading us on a curve and admitting into God’s kingdom only those who behave well. Needless to say, as soon as we start to talk about doing certain activities to promote good spiritual hygiene (such as the spiritual disciplines), this tendency to focus on our deeds as entry tickets to heaven is always very close at hand.
Good, biblical preaching should preach grace all the time anyway. But certainly when it comes to encouraging the practice of spiritual disciplines, people cannot hear us preachers say often enough that this all happens not to curry grace, but to dwell in the prior grace of God in Christ that scooped us up in undeserved love while we were yet sinners. The disciplines are the fruits of faith and salvation, not the roots. Disciplines are a response to God’s amazing love, not the catalyst to making God love us. Preaching needs to say this over and over, and never more so than when framing the practice of disciplines.
On the Groundwork radio program I cohost (groundworkonline.com), we have done two series on spiritual disciplines in the last few years. Our first series took up the more obvious disciplines of prayer, fasting, and meditation. But in the second series we thought about less-obvious disciplines, such as keeping sabbath. We also asserted that worship itself is a discipline. We tend to think that worship is only expressive—we go to church to express our enthusiasm for God—but the formative dimension of worship is equally important. Thoughtful worship should form habits in us, practices that channel our Sunday worship and our daily worship in fruitful ways.
In the context of worship, the sermon is, of course, a prominent feature. It stands to reason, then, that preaching can contribute to people’s practice of spiritual disciplines throughout their lives. What’s more, preaching can remind us that good spiritual hygiene is finally all about grace, grace, grace.
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Sometimes my pastor is really annoying. He preaches a series, and the series haunts me. In November of last year, we had a series called “No Hurry.” Over several weeks we received scriptural instruction and practical application about following Jesus, taking Christ’s easy yoke, and practicing solitude, sabbath, simplicity, and slowing.
The annoying part is that sometimes the sermon really sticks. Since November, every stop sign I approach while driving becomes a test. Am I in a hurry? Or do I have time to come to an actual full and complete stop at this moment? Every time I open a cupboard or drawer or storage space, I look at the stuff in front of me and think: Do I really need all this stuff? Have I used this recently? Or should I simplify my life and remove the mental/temporal/physical energy and space this item is taking up? Annoying, right? But I don’t feel guilty—truly not. I’m reminded that there is another way to do things, and I could choose a different way today. Some days are definitely rolling-stop-at-the-stop-sign days. But other days are better: stop, take a deep breath, and keep going.
—Marja Fledderus, Canada.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.