As a new Christian coming out of an agnostic family, my first encounter with so-called spiritual disciplines came through my youth pastor. Upon my baptism, he was quick to say that my next step as a Christian was to start spiritual disciplines—that is, start waking up early to have a “quiet time” with God that mainly included Bible reading and prayer.
As a 14-year-old boy interested in getting better at playing sports and dating girls, I didn’t see how these spiritual disciplines would affect my life all that much. I knew I needed forgiveness for my sins, but I had already covered that in my profession of faith. These spiritual disciplines, I was told, would make me a better person—more “godly”—but I felt like I was doing just fine.
My experience might be similar to yours. It’s probably not a stretch to say that just about every evangelical church in America discusses the important of spiritual disciplines. These disciplines often include Bible reading, prayer, stewardship, and fasting. We often think we’re doing them for personal growth. However, in Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, Kyle David Bennett—assistant professor of philosophy at Caldwell University in Caldwell, New Jersey, where he also directs the Spirituality and Leadership Institute—challenges the overly individualistic practice of spiritual disciplines.
While reading Isaiah 58:1–12, Bennett was struck by the way spiritual disciplines are described:
Essentially, God is telling the Israelites that they’ve been selfish in their practice of what we nowadways call “spiritual disciplines.” Now in a sense, they have been doing everything that they’re supposed to be doing. They have been doing these practices; they have been disciplining their lives. But in another sense, they have done nothing right and everything wrong. (11–12)
What did they get wrong? According to Bennett, the Israelites (like us) lacked “a focus on the neighbor and the benefit that these disciplines have for one’s neighbor” (13). In other words, even when we nail our “quiet time,” we stunt the power that spiritual disciplines can have on the world around us.
This book offers an alternative way of understanding the classic spiritual disciplines that makes them relevant, doable, and meaningful for everyday Christians. Kyle David Bennett shows how the disciplines are remedial practices that correct the malformed ways we do everyday things, such as think, eat, talk, own, work, and rest.
Through personal anecdotes, engagement with Scripture, and vivid cultural references, he invites us to practice the spiritual disciplines wholesale and shows how changing the way we do basic human activities can bring healing, renewal, and transformation to our day-to-day lives and the world around us.
Now, the 14-year-old me would’ve been much more intrigued by Bennett’s proposal than my youth pastor’s. I was never told that these disciplines weren’t just for me. Maybe my selfish teenage self wouldn’t have cared anyway, but the sense of story, purpose, and bigness of a vertical and horiztontal discipline would’ve piqued my interest.
In nine chapters, Bennett lays out several spiritual disciplines with a particular focus on how they affect those “out there” and not simply us “in here.” These include owning and giving, meditating and thinking, fasting and feasting, solitude and socializing, silence and talking, service and working, and Sabbath-keeping and resting. As is obvious from this list, Bennett is careful not to bifurcate the need for disciplines to be both personal and communal, though he no doubt focuses on the outward (horizontal) implications.
His first chapter helpfully sets up this premise by noting that “Jesus did these basic, human activities differently. He didn’t do them in self-centered and selfish ways” (33). This isn’t a Jesus juke; Bennett raises this point to get us thinking about how habits start with us but inevitably bleed into our everyday activities and interactions. Jesus’s character drove his mission—and we’re called to (imperfectly) imitate him and continue that mission.
Finding the Balance
Practices of Love is a needed corrective to the way we often talk about the spiritual disciplines. While Bennett’s proposal isn’t entirely novel, he rightly raises this concern with a great deal of biblical and theological care. Lest one thinks he is offering up warmed-over works-based righteousness, Bennett wisely clarifies:
We do not save ourselves through spiritual disciplines, nor do we save the world through them. Jesus is the only one who saves us and saves the world, if he so chooses. (171)
And this is the best aspect of this book—Bennett continually points back to Jesus, the gospel, and the Scriptures.
While the book is overwhelmingly helpful and well-argued, I came away with the same concern I often feel with books or ideas that seek to correct the “common assumption” of the day—that it pushes too hard to the other pole. Similar to N. T Wright’s critiques of Pauline scholarship or Roger Olson’s critiques of Calvinism, the nature of taking a posture of correction or dissent means the author will almost inevitably overcorrect to the point of caricaturing the other view, even if unintentionally and subtly. Nowhere does Bennett insult other positions, but it’s clear he is cutting down what he sees as an exaggerated individualism. While Bennett is right to bring up the imbalance he sees, I wish he had spent less time trying to correct the imbalance and more time simply laying out a balanced view.
Toward the end, he writes: “Our calling is first and foremost to live in a particular way. This call is tied to the lifestyle featured and welcomed in these practices that we call ‘spiritual disciplines'” (177). Yes and amen—kind of. The Christian calling is indeed tied to a “lifestyle” and not merely mental or emotional assent to belief, but this is a case where Bennett oversimplifies the point. Salvation in a biblical sense starts with the individual in his or her vertical relationship with God as primary, and then always leads to an outflow to others. This is evident in places like Genesis 1–3, John 6, Romans 1–3, and Ephesians 1; the individual heart is addressed, and then the outflow to others is explained.
This perhaps-inevitable overcorrection notwithstanding, Bennett has written a helpful and commendable book that seeks to challenge our individualistic tendencies, and I’d recommended it not only for personal reading but also for small groups. Hopefully this book will help others see that the story of the gospel starts with vertical implications, but quickly tips over into the horizontal.
- Jen Wilkin on How Your Quiet Time Should Change You (Jen Wilkin)
- In Praise of the Quiet Time (Megan Hill)
- Stop Having Quiet Times (David Powlison)