the shape of leadership

The Spirit of Spiritual Disciplines

What Jesus taught about humility and privacy

We all know that spiritual disciplines are essential to cultivating intimacy with God. Spending time in prayer and in God’s Word feeds the soul and calibrates our hearts to the voice and leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Yet we have to guard our hearts as spiritual leaders, even when it comes to spiritual practices. That’s because our egos can convolute our spiritual disciplines. Being spiritual and projecting an image of spirituality are two very different things. One is driven by humility, while the other is driven by pride.

Jesus addresses this temptation in Matthew 6 by offering an example in the areas of giving, prayer and fasting.

In regard to giving, Jesus said, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2).

Then, in the area of prayer, Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5).

Finally, in the discipline of fasting, Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:16).

Instead of succumbing to pride-driven spiritual practices, Jesus offers a better alternative: humility and privacy. Jesus repeatedly drives home the point that our spiritual practices should be shaped by a spirit of humility and practiced in a posture of privacy.

Humility keeps the heart of our spiritual practices pure. It keeps us centered in our deep need for God. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). That phrase “poor in spirit” refers to our spiritual condition. In other words, when we readily admit we are spiritually impoverished without God, we inherit God’s kingdom.

When our hearts are shaped by humility, we practice spiritual disciplines for the purpose of knowing God, not flattering people.

As the starting place, humility is where our knowledge of God begins, but humility is also where our relationship with God grows. When our hearts are shaped by humility, we practice spiritual disciplines for the purpose of knowing God, not flattering people.

Privacy keeps the motive of our spiritual practices pure. There is nothing wrong with the public practice of certain spiritual disciplines. For example, we might pray or read Scripture in a public gathering of believers. In fact, Paul exhorted Timothy to do so. But there’s a difference between being public and seeking publicity.

The public use of spiritual practices should not seek the publicity of spirituality. That’s not where true transformation occurs. When we regularly pray, fast and read Scripture in private, we experience the permanency of heart transformation. Privacy creates permanency. Publicity breeds pride.

Practicing spiritual disciplines in private helps purify our motives. Do you pray when nobody else is listening? Do you read Scripture when nobody else is looking? That’s where the true transformation occurs.

When you practice spiritual disciplines with humility and privacy, something wonderful happens. God rewards us (Matthew 6). He takes delight in answering our prayers, enriching our spirits, and transforming our hearts. Humility and privacy attract the favor of God. Pride and publicity lead to a downfall.

The Message portrays the negative effects of pride and publicity in a rather forthright way in Matthew 6:1-4:

Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure — “playactors” I call them — treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it — quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.

Who wants to be a “playactor” when it comes to spirituality? Authenticity is born in humility and privacy. That’s the true spirit of spiritual disciplines.

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