The Christian Disciplines: An Introduction

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I go through life as a transient on his way to eternity, made in the image of God but with that image debased, needing to be taught how to meditate, to worship, to think (Donald Coggan).

In reading the scriptures suggested by Richard Foster, I was most struck by Romans 8:18: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” As one raised Mormon, I have tended to avoid Romans, so beloved as it is by the evangelicals who are most critical of Mormon works-based soteriology (as they see it). And yet, it is Mormon scripture that reminds us that “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19). So, I’m with St. Paul: I know what is right but I’m terrible at doing it and in my natural state, I cannot help that.

The Christian disciplines are an attempt, I think, to “put off” the natural man, to be better at being good. I was struck by Foster’s warning (p.12 in the 1989 Hodder paperback) to avoid letting the disciplines become virtuous in themselves. I think I may be susceptible to this. In flicking through the chapter on fasting, I have to admit to being attracted to the idea of an extended fast. It sounds like a challenge, something to put alongside triathlon or bike racing as an achievement to be experienced. But if the disciplines are not a means to a spiritual end, they are just vainglories.

That’s the natural man again, I suppose.


I will post next week about the first discipline — meditation — for practice and discussion over November. If anyone would like to connect on Facebook to discuss this, or better, to meet in the flesh, especially to practice pilgrimage, I recommend joining the Mormon Confraternity of St. James. On the first post, Melody talked about a study group in Utah County; there has also been talk on FB about walking in California. &c.


  1. My book came the other day and I will start reading it tomorrow while travelling.

    It occurs to me that we do not take the BoM’s theology of the natural man all that seriously, or rather, that perhaps we have not adequately thought through the implications of that doctrine. A Pauline-reading, as you suggest here, would lead us down a path in which we gain victory over the natural man through acknowledging our weakness before God while a more traditionally Mormon reading might see grace providing us the strength and power to overcome our weakness.

    While I am more inclined to a Pauline-reading I find it hard to shake off the hope of some improvement in how I live my life. I suppose I want to believe that God can change my heart to such a degree that I can at least get a little better at doing what is right.

  2. The natural man is put off via the mighty change of heart which occurs by being spiritually born of God. And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye aspiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? It requires us to follow the Spirit and be trained by him. It is the result of discipleship.

  3. Aaron,

    A Pauline-reading, as you suggest here, would lead us down a path in which we gain victory over the natural man through acknowledging our weakness before God while a more traditionally Mormon reading might see grace providing us the strength and power to overcome our weakness.

    Yes and no. Yes, the Pauline (which is also the Augustinian, which is also the Lutheran, which is also–I think, anyway–the correct) reading of the Christian teaching about our fallen nature does posit our acknowledgment of our own sinfulness and weakness as central; but no, I don’t think that grace is something which only Mormonism is able to grasp as something which provides us with strength and power. On the contrary, I would argue that the Pauline argument is exactly that we receive strength and power as a loving gift of grace. We are enabled to be something other than what we assuredly are–sinful, weak, broken–through God’s transformative grace; hence, discipleship becomes an act of gratitude for God’s gifts. And frankly, anything which can make my gratitude more authentic and humble and less self-centered is a great thing. So bring on the Christian Disciplines! I want to make them part of my life as well.

  4. melodynew says:

    Great Introduction and comments. Thank you. And although I am less likely to apply the term “natural man” to myself (for several reasons) I agree about the strictures mortality places on us spiritually. Of course, that’s the point of this life, isn’t it.

    Here are my initial thoughts: “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” This scripture often presses on me… has done for years. We can be enriched by “knowing.” We are transformed by “doing.”

    The purpose of mortality is to experience and to physically demonstrate – things about which we presumably had a sort of prior empirical knowledge. I love our church because it offers knowledge about the peaceable things of God. And because we have ample opportunities within our religious community to serve and learn to love each other better. But, I’ve also felt a need for something like a “how-to-manual” to help me transform knowledge into concrete action more effectively. Throughout my adult life I have meditated, fasted, appreciated solitude, and I’m forever working toward simplicity. It’s all been rather sporadic, far less organized (or disciplined!) than what I believe could bring me the greatest happiness and peace. The holy spirit has a miraculous capacity to individualize the “how-to’s” of discipleship. I understand this concept well. I know how to listen. Now the spirit seems to move me toward this book which looks as though it provides an exceptional road map for “doing” — a map drawn by someone who has made and is making the proverbial pilgrimage. I’m still loving it. Still grateful. Thanks again.

  5. Just a note: I think the reference is Romans 7:18.

    And thanks for this introduction. Still waiting on my book to arrive.

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