How this Perfectionist is Learning to Rethink the Spiritual Disciplines

“Discipline” is one of my strengths on Strengthfinders. I hated that fact, when I first read my results. I wanted to cross it off the list and trade it for a different strength. Because 1. Boring, but 2. Wrong! I never think of myself as very self-disciplined. I only follow through on things when the approval of another person is on the line. (Gretchen Rubin would call me an obliger.)

I’ve since learned that the Strengthfinder people define discipline a little differently. They write, “Faced with the inherent messiness of life, you want to feel in control. The routines, the timelines, the structure, all of these help create this feeling of control.” Ah yes. That does sound like me.

I like rules, and I like tasks, and I like to be able to cross things off my to-do list and yes: It gives me an illusion of control over my time, my day, my life.

I don’t know when I first heard the term “spiritual disciplines,” but needless to say, I latched on. Here are what my perfectionist instincts tell me to do:

  1. Make a list of spiritual disciplines. A lot of them.
  2. Pull out today’s to-do list.
  3. Add each spiritual discipline to the list.
  4. Complete each discipline in a controlled environment and within a reasonable timeframe.
  5. Cross each item off the list.

Ahhh. Doesn’t that sound just like something Jesus would do?


When I read Scripture these days, I see that’s how the Pharisees operated, and it’s how they tried to convince everyone around them to operate, too. They wanted to control their faith, as I have so often wanted to do.

But Jesus came and preached another way: “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly,” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster lists the disciplines as meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I would have never even considered things like guidance, celebration, simplicity, or solitude as disciplines, primarily because How do I cross those off my list? They aren’t easily measured or tracked.

We are obsessed with metrics these days. We track the number of steps we take each day, moving something as simple as walking into the realm of accomplishment and enough/not enough. Facebook tells us how many people like what we have to say, and Instagram shows us how many people have watched our stories. (I’ve heard that there are actually cheat hashtags you can use on Instagram, to make it look like you have more likes and followers.) We believe these numbers give us value; this is our economy.

I’m not a numbers person, but I have created my own economy based on productivity, accomplishment, and doing enough.

Foster writes, “to know the mechanics does not mean that we are practicing the Disciplines. The Spiritual Disciplines are an inward and spiritual reality, and the inner attitude of the heart is far more crucial than the mechanics…”

My pursuit of the disciplines was hardly an unforced rhythm, because I was focused almost entirely on the mechanics.

My instinct is to view those practices as a means of getting good at faith and good at relationship with Jesus. And no doubt—there is work to be done. But Jesus doesn’t ask me to good at, well…anything.

He just asks me to follow, to watch, and to keep company. To be like Mary as his feet. He asks me to trust that He is good enough for the both of us, that His own goodness is transforming me.

When Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, what was she doing if not practicing and acting on her faith, like I wanted to by practicing the disciplines? But she did it so naturally, so joyfully, so instinctually. She sat and she listened.

I am learning to view these disciplines not as items to be crossed of my to-do list, but as perspectives to take on; as ways of looking at the world; and as means of interacting with myself, God, and others.

I'm learning to look at spiritual disciplines not as items to be crossed off my list, but as ways of looking at the world. (1)

I shared a little bit about this when I talked about what I learned this summer. Over the next few days, I’ll share some surprising new spiritual disciplines that are making a difference in my life. You can read all the posts in this series here.

Some further reading:

I read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline a couple of years ago with our old small group, and I highly recommend it. That’s the book that got me thinking about the disciplines for the first time in a new light; he shares how to engage practically with these disciplines, but also captivatingly conveys the true meaning and vision behind them.

Not long after that, Emily Freeman began publishing posts about unexpected and unusual spiritual disciplines, which I love. Those posts have also been instrumental in helping me look differently at the rhythms and routines in my own life, and how they all can be tools for helping us follow Jesus.


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