Several rows of books in my library are dedicated to spiritual disciplines. The literature in the field has blossomed since the late 1970s when Richard Foster published his still-influential Celebration of Discipline. Since that time, books such as Kent Hughes’s Disciplines of a Godly Man and Don Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life have become staples of small group studies and classroom texts. Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath, Patrick Morely’s A Man’s Guide to the Spiritual Disciplines, and Siang-Yan Tan and Douglas Gregg’s Disciplines of the Holy Spirit have offered readers more niched takes on Christian practices, while Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook is the most inclusive of the genre.
So why yet another book on the spiritual disciplines or, as David Mathis prefers, “habits of grace”? What can Mathis hope to say that hasn’t already been said?
Mathis, editorial director for Desiring God and pastor of Cities Church in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, reveals his pastoral heart in Habits of the Heart: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. His goal is simple: to help Christians “simplify their approach to their various personal habits of grace.” In so doing he groups the spiritual practices in an original and helpful way: “hearing God’s voice (his Word), having his ear (prayer), and belonging to his body (fellowship)” (15). Mathis suggests this organizational structure is one of his approach’s—and therefore the book’s—distinguishing marks. And I agree.
He draws on Reformed conceptions of the various means of grace (à la John Calvin, J. I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John Frame) and is transparent about his sources, noting his dependence on the writings of John Piper, Don Whitney, and Tim Keller (15, 17). His footnotes confirm the influence these men have had but also show an occasional nod to non-evangelical writers. One source that crops up occasionally are blog articles from Desiring God, such as lists of biblical passages to memorize (72) or defenses of church membership (150). For those who’ve read Piper’s Desiring God or When I Don’t Desire God, Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines, or Keller’s Prayer [review; 20 quotes], Mathis’s book will sound familiar—though, as he says, it’s more than a summary of other works (17). His chapters on core personal disciplines related to the Word and prayer rely heavily on these authors. Yet this isn’t the case with his section on fellowship, which treats often-neglected interpersonal practices—such as the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and rebuke—in a thoughtful and original way.
The final sections of Habits of Grace cover three other disciplines (missions, time, and money) that don’t fit neatly into the book’s threefold schema. I’m glad Mathis included these topics; I just wish he’d developed them more fully.
Ropes of Christian Living
Following time-tested emphases, Mathis starts his discussion with spiritual practices related to Scripture: reading, meditating, memorizing, and learning. As an example of his pastoral approach, he recognizes that, for some Christians, expecting an annual Bible reading plan could become a “yoke.” In such a case he encourages readers to consider multi-year strategies. To be sure, there are many other variations on daily Bible reading (or hearing) that could be mentioned, but Mathis’s willingness to avoid blanket prescriptions is wise and helpful.
In part 2, Mathis explores the topic of prayer, also discussing the practices of fasting, journaling, and solitude. The biblical call that Christians be devoted to prayer (e.g., Rom. 12:12; Col. 4:2; Eph. 6:18) is “not the stuff of impersonal achievement and raw discipline, but intimate relationship” (96). Such intimacy finds true expression in private—in prayers that test our authenticity and allow us to be “real” about our weaknesses (100–01). In prayer, believers follow Jesus’s own patterns of seeking sustained, intimate fellowship with the Father.
As elsewhere, Mathis gives readers several lists filled with brief, practical tips for praying alone, praying with others (103–05, 110–16), and journaling (132–35). He includes a discussion on the practices of silence and solitude (137–42)—including advice for occasional, even daily “respites” or “retreats”—but curiously absent is any discussion of weekly Lord’s Day rest, which would seem appropriate here.
Part 3 emphasizes the place of interpersonal disciplines like fellowship, worship, preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and rebuke. Mathis prizes corporate worship—“corporate worship is the single most important means of grace and our greatest weapon in the fight for joy”—since it integrates all the other practices, or at least it should (156–57). Yet, following Piper, Mathis notes the tension in seeing worship as a means rather than an end, concluding that the best way to experience the strengthening power of worship is to understand its value “and then let the calculations vanish as you lose yourself in the Blessed” (159).
Mathis’s last practice—rebuke—often seems like anything but the “great act of love” he describes it as (185). Drawing deeply from Proverbs, he shows that the wise person accepts correction from peers as well as from the Lord. Still, giving and receiving rebuke are often difficult to do skillfully and cheerfully. American culture, with its protest-and-sue reflexes, offers Christians few helpful examples of how to receive corrective feedback or how to give it. Mathis, however, gives us a distinctively Christian mindset to guide rebuke (189–94).
I’m thankful David Mathis has taken the time to write Habits of Grace. I wish this book had been available in the mid-1990s when a faithful Campus Crusade staffer named Frank was teaching me the ropes of living Christianly. I think this kind of setting is where Habits of Grace will especially excel.
David Mathis. Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016. 208 pp. $14.99.