Biblical truth about your physical, mental, and spiritual health
A cultural analysis and biblical response by James C. Denison, PhD, Erin Kerry, CNHC, and Lane Ogden, PhD
As the calendar turns from one year to the next, we turn toward resolving to do better in the new year than we did in the previous year. Many of us make promises to ourselves to eat better or exercise more, or to be more consistent in our Bible study, or to be more available to our family and friends.
These are worthy goals.
However, researchers report that only about 8 percent of us are successful at keeping our resolutions.
So how can we do better at trying to be better, especially when it comes to our health goals for the new year?
First, set God at the center of your resolutions. Talk to him about the ways in which your new year should be different from your previous year.
Second, realize that many of your goals can likely be categorized under seeking better physical health, mental health, and spiritual health, the three central topics of this paper.
Third, understand how intricately connected those three aspects of your health are and how important “right thinking” is to being healthy in body, mind, and soul. You’ll notice that theme throughout the three major sections of this paper.
Note: You may be tempted to only read the section that most compels you, but I encourage you to read the entire paper. You don’t have to read it all in one sitting. In fact, it may be more beneficial to read one section at a time and then pause and reflect on what the Lord may be saying to you through that particular section. You’ll also benefit from seeing how intricately connected your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being are.
Lastly, I am a Doctor of Divinity—a theologian. I am not a medical doctor nor a counselor or psychologist. That’s one reason why I asked Erin Kerry, CNHC, and Dr. Lane Ogden to write about physical health and mental health, respectively.
Erin Kerry, CNHC, (sparkingwholeness.com) is a wife, mom, and certified integrative nutrition health coach. She is passionate about advocating for health through her website and her podcast, Sparking Wholeness, which reaches hundreds of thousands of listeners each month.
Dr. Lane Ogden (laneogden.com) is a licensed psychologist with more than thirty years of experience. He worked with Christian psychiatrist Paul Meier, MD, for twenty-three years before launching his solo private practice in Dallas in 2010.
I am grateful for their expertise and insights in this paper.
Lastly, this paper is intended for a broad audience. If you are struggling with issues beyond the scope of this paper, I urge you to seek professional help, counseling, or medical help. And be sure to seek God even in the pain, confusion, or anger of your position. He deeply cares for you and wants to see you healthy and whole.
Now, let’s discuss what the Bible says about our physical, mental, and spiritual health.
What does the Bible say about physical health?
Five suggestions for better “temple” care
By Erin Kerry, CNHC
Every January, millions of people make the New Year’s resolution to get healthy and/or lose weight. Dieting is a billion-dollar industry, and it thrives in January like no other month.
There is no shortage of information on how to improve your health. It takes a simple Google search to find the latest science on how movement and nutrition impacts your health. Every health expert has an opinion. Every nutritionist and personal trainer has the “magic cure” to our health goals.
But what does the Bible have to say about the importance of physical health for believers?
Does your physical health and how you take care of it matter to God?
The idolatry of eating—and dieting
Your body was made intricately and deliberately. You are not just a physical being; you are a three-in-one creation. Your heavenly Father was purposeful about his creation.
So many of your internal processes are connected to one another. When you are mentally nervous, you may experience the sensation of physical “butterflies” in your stomach. That is your brain talking to your gut via the vagus nerve. When you choose to be grateful, you can decrease the amount of the stress hormone cortisol being pumped into your bloodstream.
So much of what you think and how you think affects the physical processing in your body. (In fact, your thinking plays a central role in your mental health as well, as you’ll soon read in Dr. Ogden’s section.) That is on purpose. It is all part of the beautiful design that makes us human.
In 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, the Apostle Paul says that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you. . . . so glorify God in your body.” This verse is a reminder of two things.
One, your purpose is to glorify your Creator.
Two, how you take care of your temple can be an external manifestation of glorifying God. It is another aspect of stewarding what you have been entrusted with here on earth. How you steward what you’re given matters; Jesus devoted many parables to this topic.
I often find that there are two types of people, two extremes, when it comes to this issue of taking care of our temples.
On one hand, there are those who are overly vigilant about their health. They exercise every chance they get, monitor every bite that goes into their mouth, and worry about fat, calories, sugar, and whatever else is currently being demonized by the nutrition world.
On the other hand, there are those who have no self-control or mindfulness when it comes to eating. They consume more than necessary in order to cope with stress and unpleasant emotions.
Neither perspective is healthy.
One turns optimal health into an idol. The other elevates food and the act of eating to a level of idolatry in the form of gluttony and/or addiction. Both extremes are dangerous.
If you say food is only for fuel and for nourishing your health, you will miss out on the enjoyment that can be had in food during times of celebration or when you need comfort. If you only choose food as comfort or a coping mechanism, you’ll miss an opportunity to turn to your heavenly Father as the true source of comfort and healing.
What does the Bible say about eating?
When you look to the Bible for examples of how to eat and enjoy your food, it is clear that food is a gift that brings pleasure, but the mindset you have about your food is also important.
- “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” —Ecclesiastes 9:7
- “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.” —Proverbs 15:17
- “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” —1 Corinthians 8:8
- “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” —Matthew 4:4
- “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.” —1 Corinthians 10:23
From these verses, we can see that what we consume may not be an issue of morality, but how and why we consume it can be.
This lines up with the biological processes that occur in your body when you’re eating. When you’re in a state of gratitude and peace, your body digests food better. When you’re stressed or in a state of “fight or flight,” your body will shut down important processes, like digestion, in order to survive the stressor.
Stressing about your physical health, what you’re eating, or talking about “good” or “bad” food, affects the way you digest and use the nutrients you’re provided. I often say, “A body in stress will not digest.” When you turn to food as an idol, whether to see it as a savior or to soothe emotional pain, you don’t just hinder your spiritual growth. It impacts your physical health as well.
Two questions to ask yourself about your physical health
As believers, we have freedom as to what we consume and how we move our bodies. Within freedom, we have choices. There is a way to find balance in our healthy resolutions and learn to steward our physical bodies in a way that honors God.
When you feel well, you serve well. You are able to have the physical and emotional energy to do what God has called you to do. Thanks to many increasing studies on the gut-brain axis, we know that what we eat impacts our mental health and how we think—and how we think impacts every single thing we do.
This new year, instead of asking questions about what diet you should start or what eating or fitness plan you need to implement, ask the following questions:
- How can I honor my temple without turning it into an idol?
- How can I receive food with thanksgiving and work to restore my physical health this year without unhealthy extremes or obsession?
Five suggestions for better “temple” care
First, unprocess your diet.
God knew what he was doing when he gave us everything we needed on this earth for physical nourishment. When you consume food that is as close to its whole food source as possible, your body digests it better.
My advice? Start with five different vegetables a day.
How can you introduce more greens and more colorful items like broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes, or squashes? When you overconsume processed foods that have been chemically altered to be more palatable or addictive (like chips, bars, and candy), you may often lose your taste for food in its natural state. You can hijack the pleasure response in your brain so that you’re constantly desiring that “hit” of sugar or processed carbohydrates that make you feel so good in the short term but can be harmful for your body in the long term.
Second, listen to the body you’ve been given.
When you chronically overeat and use food as emotional comfort, you can alter hunger hormones that help your sense of hunger or fullness. You can also warp your natural hunger hormones by adhering to strict food rules that cause you to put all your trust in some magical, one-size-fits-all plan for eating. You may overcomplicate eating and obsess over what you are or are not having. You may often take on the “last supper mentality” and eat everything in sight before starting a new eating plan because you worry that you will not get to experience pleasure from your food in the future.
Instead, let’s acknowledge that we have been given “everything we need for a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3 NIV). Trust God’s provision for you through the food you have available to nourish you and the many processes he has given you to listen to your body’s cues for fullness and digestion.
Third, be grateful.
Be mindful when you’re eating. Take time to breathe between bites and chew your food longer to help activate the digestion process. Stop stressing over the bread and start obsessing over the Bread of Life. We were not given food to replace our relationship with Jesus. Your faith in the next nutrition plan should never outweigh your faith in the Lord’s nourishment.
Fourth, make movement an act of worship.
Go on a prayer walk. Add in joyful movement, not because you have to, or because you feel forced to start a new workout routine, or because you need punishment for eating food you feel guilty about, but as another act of gratitude for the body you have.
Plenty of physical benefits come from movement, but my favorite side effect is an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Through BDNF, you can impact the growth of new pathways in the brain, repair aging cells, and protect healthy cells. When you have higher levels of BDNF in your brain, you can think more clearly, and you are even less likely to become depressed. It’s another example of the beautiful way God created our physical bodies to impact our mental and spiritual health.
Finally, ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to healthy habits that will strengthen your body and make you fit to serve his kingdom, however that looks for you as a unique individual.
Ask him to show you where you are making your health into an idol or maybe where you need to make it more of a priority. Ask him to lead you to people, resources, and information that will guide you along on your journey in the new year.
My prayer for you is the same as Paul’s for the Thessalonian church two millennia ago: “May God Himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our master, Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 MSG).
What does the Bible say about mental health?
The pandemic within the pandemic
By Dr. Lane Ogden
As of late June 2020, as many as 40 percent of us were struggling with symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Battles with substance abuse and other types of addictions, trauma symptoms, suicidal thoughts, and even domestic violence have hugely increased. We are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
This is the pandemic within the pandemic.
As a psychologist and therapist for more than thirty-five years, I have worked with literally hundreds of good people struggling mightily with mental health problems. The fact that I am also a lifelong believer has impacted my worldview, which you will see has influenced my thinking about mental health.
Now, let’s seek to better understand how the mind works, the interplay of our thoughts and feelings, the contrasts between what mentally healthy and mentally unhealthy people do, and, ultimately, what the Bible might prescribe for our mental health.
How your mind works
Implicit in mental health is the idea of a “sound mind.” Soundness means having the ability to function in a healthy way. It means you’re capable of generating “non-depressed” or “non-anxious” responses to stresses and challenges. Mental health requires the capacity to ascertain and embrace reality. A mentally healthy person is controlled by rational thought and truth rather than by fear, hopelessness, or other painful but transient emotions.
We are, after all, “homo sapiens.” Sapient means that we’re capable of deep thought, of wisdom, of intellect, and of reason. You have a big brain, which renders you intrinsically capable of being a thinker, of being intelligent and logical. Your mind can direct your choices, thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. This is your superpower, the tool given to you as made in God’s image.
To be of a sound mind means to be characterized by reasoned good judgment. To be mentally healthy is to fully live in reality. Indeed, it seems obvious that willfully or inadvertently choosing to believe in a falsehood is a set-up for trouble. To the extent that you believe something that isn’t true, you are at risk. The more that you believe distortions and lies, the more you are open to the consequences of those misplaced beliefs. For example:
- If you believe you can jump out of a second-floor office window without being hurt, you’re placing yourself at risk.
- If you hold it to be true (the very definition of a belief) that you should never make an error, then you’re primed to feel worthless when your human imperfections emerge.
- If you believe no one can really be trusted, then your relationships will be impaired.
Anxiety and depression might thus be accurately thought of as byproducts of distorted thinking—of believing lies rather than the truth. On the other hand, mental health requires, and is characterized by, living in truth with a minimum of defenses or distortions.
Those who struggle with depression are typically plagued by thoughts such as: “At my core I am unlovable and somehow defective.” Or, “I should be perfect.” If you accept such thoughts as truth or allow them to go unchecked, you’ll inevitably experience the feelings that would accompany that distortion if it were true. Feelings such as sadness or hopelessness, perhaps even suicidal thoughts, could reasonably be expected.
Why wouldn’t they? In your unrealistic thinking, you inadvertently exaggerated the reality of your hopeless plight. Then your emotion followed proportionately. All the while, your brain is constantly generating thoughts consistent with your distorted appreciation of truth—because that’s just how your brain (and mine) works. Such malicious, untrue thoughts drive depression.
Similarly, those who struggle with anxiety are typically plagued by thoughts of vulnerability and threat, such as: “It will be awful if she doesn’t like me,” or, “It would be horrible if I make a mistake.” If you accept those as truth or allow them to go unchecked, you’ll inevitably get the feelings that would accompany that distortion if it were true. Feelings such as fear, panic, and the impulse to avoid or escape could reasonably be expected.
Again, why wouldn’t they? In your unrealistic thinking, you inadvertently exaggerated the true peril. Then your emotion followed proportionately. All the while, your brain is constantly generating thoughts consistent with your distorted appreciation of truth. Such malicious, untrue thoughts drive anxiety as well.
How your thoughts and feelings interact
By design, the part of your brain that thinks and the part that feels are not the same. Anatomically, they are literally separate. For homo sapiens, the physiology is such that the thinking parts dominate, or direct, the feeling parts. Yet we are often much more aware of and focused on the emotion than of the thoughts that created the emotion. In other words, feelings are a product of thoughts.
Painful feelings (e.g., depression, anxiety) result from thoughts that generate painful feelings. Pleasant feelings (e.g., peace, joy, hope) result from thoughts that generate pleasant feelings. The feeling parts are not “rational.” Of course they’re not; they’re feelings! Feelings don’t act; they react—to thoughts. Emotions are a result of, at the mercy of, and reliant on the accuracy of thoughts. When thoughts become distorted and are not true or rational, they inevitably produce distorted and potentially damaging feelings. The painful feelings we call emotional problems are the product of irrational thought patterns.
- are correct or incorrect
- are accurate or inaccurate
- are valid or invalid reflections of reality
- have moral value
- are right or wrong
- are true or untrue
In contrast, emotions are byproducts of thoughts. Consequently, emotions don’t have moral value—they’re just feelings, neither right nor wrong. Certainly, some are more desirable than others. I’d much rather feel happy than sad, but it is not “wrong” to feel sad. Such a feeling might be pointless, unnecessary, or disproportionate to the situation, but feeling sad is not wrong morally. Feelings are just feelings.
However, the part of your brain that matters, in terms of where your emotions go in response to those thoughts, can’t tell the difference between a true thought and a false one. So, an emotion gets generated as if your thoughts were accurate—even when they’re distorted.
For example, if you believe that your spouse no longer loves you, you will have the feelings that go with that circumstance without regard to his or her true sentiments. “As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7 KJV). Yet, I have argued above that, to the extent you accept something false as the truth, you are in jeopardy, and mental health requires living in truth. To be mentally healthy, you must tell yourself the truth. And you will lose mental health to the extent that you do not tell yourself the truth.
However, we live in an age that increasingly rejects the idea that objective, indisputable truth even exists. Many prefer to believe that it is all relative, that your truth may be different from my truth. Many see the answer to the question, “How’s that working for you?” as the critical criteria. If it’s working, then it’s a good thought. If it’s not working, it’s a bad thought.
In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul tells us that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Scripture was given by the inspiration of God—the ultimate source of truth—and is useful for correcting our thinking. At this point, Christians stand in direct contrast to our culture. Part of the definition of being a Christian is submission to and acceptance of God’s truth rather than our own.
If you’re to live in reality, you must consider your Creator’s perspective. You must accept his definition of truth.
To increase your level of mental health, you must increase your level of healthy thinking. But is there hope that any of us can actually do so?
If so, how?
How to increase your healthy thinking
The anatomy and physiology of your big brain means that it is independently and spontaneously generating thoughts all the time. That’s simply what it does and is supposed to do. I once had a patient who accurately and succinctly described his brain as “secreting” thoughts. What those thoughts are—the content of what pops out of your brain—is outside of your conscious choice or control, perhaps even your awareness.
However, this is vital to realize: you most certainly have an impact on what happens to those thoughts after they pop in. Therein lies your power. But the other side of the double-edged sword may appear, and you fail to use your power to intervene. If you’re going to feel differently, you must think differently.
In the absence of an intentional effort to change, your brain tends to develop patterns of thought or belief systems that become ingrained or automatic. You tend to continue to think the way that life—events, circumstances, and teachers—taught you to think. You get stuck in what might be called thinking habits and tend to accept them without question (if, indeed, you are even aware of them at all).
Absent intervention, your brain tends to just go with whatever thoughts pop out. After all, it’s what your brain told you, so it must be accurate, right? It rings true to you. And, once you believe something, you tend to gather reinforcing data and ignore things that might challenge your comfortable, well-rehearsed (though perhaps miserable) way of thinking. So, since you had the thought, or have always thought it, or were taught by powerful people or life events to think it, that thought is inevitably true and you must continue to think it, right?
That big brain is constantly secreting, and you simply don’t choose what pops out. Part of your humanness means that you’re flawed and will have some damaging lies masquerading as truth. That’s one product of living in a fallen world. Martin Luther is credited with saying, “You cannot prevent the birds from flying in the air over your head, but you can certainly prevent them from building a nest in your hair.” A therapist friend had a bumper sticker that said: “Don’t believe everything you think.” You must actively and vigilantly patrol your thoughts and assess for truth. If you expect to improve your mental health, you have to improve the veracity of your way of thinking.
First, consider this perspective.
Your big brain likes information. It wants to grow and do a better and better job of protecting you and getting your needs met. You have nourished this brain in just the last few minutes by your attention to this essay. The simple acquisition of new information and determination to apply it has started you already on the path to health. You now are in possession of psychological principles—of a way of thinking about mental health—that is consistent with objective, biblically sound truth. Never again do you need to be confused about what is generating emotional distress; it is distorted thinking.
Second, thoughts may accurately be conceptualized as conversations in your brain that you are having with yourself.
Everyone has those conversations, although the “volume” can be very low—until you intentionally begin to listen in. Yet what goes on at the level of those conversations is extremely powerful in determining your emotional state or your mental health. It is possible to tune in more effectively to those conversations and even to begin to alter them.
Note that the same “rules” which apply in your conversations with other people also apply in conversations with yourself. You might tell your friend that he is defective, unlovable, and hopeless, but it should not surprise you if doing so damaged him and your relationship. In the same manner, you cannot allow such thoughts to occur unopposed in your conversation with yourself and then wonder why that damages you and the relationship you have with yourself. The rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t say it to someone you cared and wanted the best for, you cannot say it to yourself. Unchecked lies inevitably damage. If it’s not consistent with biblical truth, it has to go.
If your goal is to be mentally healthy, you must endeavor in all things to tell yourself truth and to intentionally fill your mind with truth. You have to challenge and alter whatever thoughts move you toward a decrease in health and an increase in the likelihood of depression and anxiety. You have to take captive destructive thinking patterns. You have to teach yourself a new skill. You have to replace automatic, deeply ingrained (but dynamic and ever-changing) distortions with truth. You have to, as Romans 12:2 admonishes, renew your mind.
Third, if you are going to change something, you first have to figure out what needs to be changed.
In other words, you must begin to tune in or listen in to those conversations effectively. In my experience, each of us seems to have a “volume” setting that is our norm. Some seem to be naturally aware of the thoughts their brains generate more than others, to have a louder default setting. Others may be so oblivious that they doubt such conversations are even happening. Without regard to where you start, it is possible to turn up the sound level. There are two ways to begin this part of the work that leads to an increase in your awareness.
You’ve already begun the first. It is simply to grasp the intellectual truth that those conversations are occurring and to commit to making a sincere effort, including the investment of energy involved in finding them. You have to work at listening, to become an “active listener.”
Do a little thought experiment wherever you are right now. Be still and listen for a moment to whatever ambient sounds are around you. I can hear a white noise maker, the air rushing out of the heating system, my clock ticking, a car passing outside, and a mockingbird—none of which I was aware of as I began to type this sentence.
What can you hear?
Then, in a similar vein, tune in to your thoughts. Teach yourself to listen better. Practice. Exert your will. Teach an old dog a new trick. What are you telling yourself in conjunction with the feelings you are wishing to change? Capture these and write them down. This is an ongoing process that requires effort and vigilance.
The second is less accurate than actually listening and hearing but still quite functional. It involves deductive logic. If thoughts cause feelings and you are having some feelings—especially those painful, unwanted ones—then you know you are having painful-feeling generating thoughts. When you have a “surge” of emotion, that is a signal that you just had a thought. You can work backward. Deductive logic tells us that if thoughts cause feelings and you have a feeling, you had a thought. Now backtrack. Follow that trail! What thought must you just have had to produce the surge?
After you’ve heard your thoughts, you are in a position to assess, evaluate, and make decisions about them.
- Is what you’re hearing true?
- Is it a thought you’d advise others to listen to, to tolerate, or even to embrace?
- Is it something you’d like to nest in your hair?
- Is it something you’d be comfortable if others knew you were thinking it?
If the answer is no, the thought is creating a problem for you. It’s damaging your mental health. And it must be confronted. You have to replace lies and distortions with truth.
What might you suggest a friend say to self instead of the distortion? What does your self need to hear that is edifying rather than destructive?
Most importantly, what would God say? What’s the biblical truth?
- “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” —1 Peter 1:13
- “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” —Philippians 4:8
- “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” —Romans 12:2
- “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” —Isaiah 26:3
- “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” —Colossians 3:2
- “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” —2 Corinthians 10:5
- “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” —1 Peter 5:8
Renewing the mind is an ongoing, dynamic, ever-changing task. It requires listening for lies, catching them, and replacing them with truth. Renewing your mind can be done, but it requires understanding, work, vigilance, and commitment.
But mental health is the reward.
What does the Bible say about spiritual health?
Practice the disciplines of the soul
By Dr. Jim Denison
As you seek better physical and mental health, don’t deny the deepest need of your soul: a healthy spiritual life.
There are spiritual disciplines which will help transform your spiritual life by replacing old destructive habits with new character-building, life-giving ones. If our purpose is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ in this life (Romans 8:29), then these disciplines are vital to spiritual growth and victory. Jesus practiced them and gave us personal examples. Through them he defeated the Enemy.
Today, we face the same Enemy, and the disciplines Jesus used to defeat Satan are still our weapons in spiritual warfare and our tools to live victoriously.
An accomplished ice skater has freedom on the ice because she is disciplined. Being on the ice without the discipline of training only creates chaos and fear for the skater. The key to the accomplished skater’s grace and confidence comes through hours of self-imposed discipline. She defeats her enemies—fear, lack of confidence, and lack of control—with discipline.
As Christians, we can also have grace, strength, and beauty through embracing the spiritual disciplines. Without them spiritual life is often chaotic, even confusing.
The disciplines Jesus practiced and taught us are the vertical disciplines of meditation, solitude, and fasting and the horizontal ones of Bible study, accountability, and confession.
While this is not an exhaustive list, the faithful practice of these disciplines can transform your life and prepare you for a deeper walk with Jesus Christ.
Richard Foster taught us in his classic book on spiritual disciplines, Celebration of Discipline,that disciplines are not the end in themselves. They are the means to the end. The goal of every believer is to fully embody the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).
Disciplines that don’t result in a life defined by the fruit of the Spirit are, at best, “busy work” and will likely have the same fate as the fig tree that bore no fruit (Luke 13:6–9).
Being transformed from a believer to a follower is initiated by the vertical and horizontal disciplines. But, a believer does not truly begin to be a follower until the sacrificial disciplines are put into place. And these are available only when the vertical and horizontal ones are operational and effective in a believer’s life.
The sacrificial disciplines are best described in Luke 9:23: “If anyone will come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The sacrificial disciplines, then, are: deny self, take up your cross, and follow Christ.
It is my prayer that this study will be transforming for you as you follow Jesus.
Vertical disciplines are designed to help us maintain a healthy spiritual life with God. They include meditation, solitude, and fasting.
They do not operate in a vacuum. They are not independent of each other. Meditation often leads to a desire for solitude, which can be the perfect setting for fasting. Fasting is the ideal environment for meditation.
The “whole” of practicing these vertical disciplines is much more than “the sum of the parts.” A synergy emerges which is revelatory and profound.
Meditation (Proverbs 3:5–6)
Meditation is an active discipline, not a passive one. It connects you to the living God and his purpose for you. Eastern religion has held the concept of meditation captive for too long. There is a vast difference between the Eastern concept of meditation and the Christian concept. The Eastern concept generally calls upon the practitioner to empty self and become nothing.
The Christian concept calls those who practice mediation to be filled and transformed.
Meditation keeps you spiritually and emotionally equipped to face the Enemy. When you listen to God’s voice, you can respond in obedience to his word. The world constantly pulls us in multiple directions. Meditation allows a person to focus on what is important.
Busyness is often the most significant obstacle to being transformed from a believer into a follower. Meditation involves changed behavior as a result of consistent, reflective encounters with the living God. You turn from yourself and your own resources to God, seeking his power to become all he has called you to be.
So, how does a Christian meditate?
It’s like learning to ride a bike. You don’t really know how, no matter how much you’ve studied, until you climb on and experience it. Basically, you learn to meditate by meditating.
With meditation, don’t be as concerned with “how” as with “what.”
Find a quiet place and establish a regular time for meditation. Take a particular Scripture and savor every word and nuance of it. Or consider the magnificence of the creation around you and apply the awe and wonder to the One who created it all.
Consider these four methods to guide you in meditating:
- Meditate on Scripture: Don’t rush through a passage, hoping to gain an insight or two. But “ponder in your heart” what God is saying through his word. Study the background. Why were they written, and to whom? Our tendency to rush through quiet time reflects our internal state of busyness, and that is what needs to be changed through meditation.
- Meditate on God’s creation: Be still and know him as Creator. Focus on something that God has created and study it. If God is so intricate with a simple leaf, if he is so mindful of the birds of the air and the grass of the fields (Matthew 6:26–30), how much more so is he concerned with our lives!
- Meditate on a life issue: Our minds are cluttered with fragmented thoughts involving every area of our lives. Meditation centers our thoughts on God. Focus on a problem for which you need God’s help, or on a good thing which has happened to you. Use symbolic gestures to help you. With palms down, lay down your cares. Then with palms up, receive God’s provision.
- Meditate on a significant event: Seek God’s mind about it. View the prophetic truths of God’s word as you reflect on world and community events. Pray for those in power. You have the ear of God—and that’s real power.
Solitude (Mark 1:35–39)
Do you have to have the television or radio on just for the noise, even when studying?
The fear of being alone drives some of us to constant noise. Don’t be misled; solitude does not produce loneliness or emptiness! Loneliness is inner emptiness, but solitude is inner fulfillment.
Jesus found it necessary to be alone with his Father. He needed that time of solitude and focus for leadership and direction in his life.
If Jesus needed the discipline of solitude, how much more do we? How does one achieve solitude, especially in a world so cluttered with noise and activity?
In many ways, solitude is nonstop prayer.
Solitude is not about being alone, it’s about being focused. Ask God to prod you to develop the discipline of solitude. How does one experience solitude?
- Set aside a quiet time. Most people who have quiet times do so in the morning before the day begins. Jesus did this daily. And, if you are to find God’s direction and strength for each day, solitude is a key ingredient.
- Find ways for an extended time of solitude. A worthwhile goal is to work toward spending an hour in solitude at least once a week. Then, you’ll discover that you want to find a way to spend a whole day in solitude, perhaps monthly. Some will take the next step of finding a whole week, perhaps annually, to spend in solitude and communion with the Lord.
- Retreat to advance. As you grow through the discipline of solitude, try to withdraw regularly, perhaps three or four times a year to redefine your life goals. Stay late at your office, or find a quiet place at home to reevaluate your objectives and your progress toward them. Take a retreat once a year with the purpose of solitude—try a silent retreat. “In quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).
- Use the small times. Early morning is a great time to know solitude. Before the family awakens, before the daily grind, the few moments in bed before getting up, or over a morning cup of coffee. Redeem some of the time you cannot control—rush hour traffic on the freeway, waiting in a doctor’s office, waiting for an appointment at work. Instead of wasting those minutes, use the time to focus your mind on God. Small snatches of time like these, which we often fill with fretting, can be used as an inner quiet, a spiritual recharging of sorts, for your mind and body.
Fasting (Matthew 6:16–18)
Throughout the Bible, fasting is mentioned as abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. In most biblical cases, it involved private matters between the individuals and God and was not intended for public display.
Should believers fast today?
Jesus spoke of fasting, as he did praying and giving—he taught all three as a part of Christian devotion. While most of us don’t consider a Christian life without praying or giving, why do many of us exclude fasting? Today, especially in western culture, fasting seems to be the antithesis of a fulfilled Christian life. Most of us are well-fed. Fasting almost seems fanatical.
Why fast? There are both physical and spiritual benefits.
- Fasting reveals what controls us. Often, we cover up the turmoil and pain of daily life with food. But, through fasting, things like greed, pride, resentment, etc. are revealed.
- Fasting also reminds us that we are sustained by “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). When the disciples brought food to Jesus, thinking he was hungry, he said, “I have food to eat of which you do not know. My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:32, 34). Jesus was actually being nourished by the power of God.
So, how do you fast?
The Scriptures teach we are to fast regularly, humbly, joyfully and expectantly. Fasting does not earn God’s blessings, but it puts us in position to receive his blessings.
Some simple guidelines for fasting:
- Don’t announce your fast. This is personal and usually private. Announcing it may seem self-promoting and give others the wrong impression of why you are fasting.
- Begin with a partial fast. Because we are not used to fasting as a discipline, it is wise to begin by giving up one or two meals. You may attempt this once a week for several weeks before attempting a normal fast. Use the mealtime you’re giving up to spend time with God and give the money you would have spent on the meal to him as well.
- Move on to a normal fast. In Scriptures, the typical fast was from sunup to sundown. When you practice this kind of fast, drink plenty of water. Whenever you feel hunger, think of God and his sacrificial love for you.
- Seek God’s will for a longer fast. Fasts of three to seven days are the most common in this category. However, some people follow Jesus’ example and fast for forty days. This seems to be the physical limit the body can endure. In the longer fast, you may experience more physical discomforts, including headaches, stomach pains, dizziness and weakness. These will improve with time. Your physical bearings will amaze you, but it is more important to monitor your inner bearings. You will continue your daily routine, but inwardly you will be in prayer and adoration.
- Break your fast with fresh fruits and vegetables and with inner rejoicing. Fasting helps equip us for great battles. It can bring about breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that are not possible in any other way.
Fasting does not necessarily have to involve food. You could fast from television, the internet/phone or your favorite pastime. It needs to be a meaningful sacrifice, though. While I would enjoy fasting from mowing the lawn, that misses the real meaning of fasting!
The horizontal disciplines
Horizontal disciplines are important not only in our relationship with God, but with others. These vital disciplines include Bible study, accountability, and confession.
As with the horizontal disciplines, these disciplines are not independent of each other. Being transformed by the study of God’s Wordcreates in us a desire for meaningful relationship of accountability. We need people in our lives who see us the way God does. Accountability is a fertile environment for confessionand experiencing life changing forgiveness. Confession and forgiveness always lead to a deeper hunger for manna: God’s word.
The horizontal disciplines engage us with the faith and with each other.
Bible study (Acts 2:42)
Bible study is the discipline which brings great changes in a believer’s spiritual life. Church attendance doesn’t change us. Serving on committees won’t, either. Singing in the choir or even reading the Bible won’t. But a deep embrace of God’s word will. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). So, how do we “know the truth?”
A good artist studies his subject before drawing or painting it. He knows it, then he can draw with greater freedom. When you study God’s word, you begin to know it. You start to know God and can have greater freedom in the Christian walk. You turn from merely reading the word of God to allowing it to fill and change you.
Jesus said that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). God’s word is the food he has provided for your soul and the catalyst for real change.
There are several steps which will help us develop the discipline of Bible study:
- Repeat the Scriptures. Repetition channels the mind in the right direction. This trains the mind to respond to what is being repeated, to renew itself by conforming to God’s word. “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). It is known that repeated listening to destructive, violent lyrics or dialogue can lead to destructive behavior. Repetition works.
- Concentrate on God’s word. In addition to repeating the truths of God’s word to condition the mind, also concentrate on them. With the twenty-first-century digital age, there are more distractions around us now than ever before. Our culture is full of children who cannot concentrate in classrooms and are medicated to help them focus. As a culture, we are not conditioned to concentrate or to center our minds on a particular subject. Unfortunately, most of us attempt to operate with distractions, often times ineffectively. Condition your mind to focus on God’s word and with singleness of purpose, concentrate on what it says.
- Know and understand what you have read. If you condition your mind through repetition and concentration, then you can more clearly comprehend God’s word. Words on a page, even biblical words, do not set us free. But, the knowledge of the truth frees us. Comprehension involves knowing, understanding, and applying what is being studied. All of us have tried to read while distractions swirl around us. We read a line over and over without comprehending what is being read. That is why conditioning the mind with repetition and concentration is necessary before comprehension and transformation come.
- Put God’s word into his perspective. Reflect, even meditate, on what you have studied. How is it important to your everyday life? By reflecting on God’s word, you see things from God’s perspective. The purpose of Bible study is to change us, not to increase our mind’s database. It not about knowing, it about being transformed.
The discipline of Bible study leads you to experience what you have read. First, one learns what the Scripture says. Next is applying and obeying it. It moves from your head to your heart. Finally, you continue in God’s word, applying it to your lifestyle. His word is the only food God provides for the soul. Nothing else works.
Accountability (James 5:19–20)
As we actively pursue these disciplines in our lives, there is another one which is often overlooked. But it is essential for spiritual success—accountability. Accountability is basic to life.
Banks hold us accountable for our financial transactions. Schools hold students accountable for academic growth and achievement. Employers hold employees accountable for work performances. Coaches hold players accountable. Parents hold children accountable. And God holds us accountable.
Scripture tell us that we are all accountable to God. We will have to give an account of our actions to God (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:12). But we are also to hold each other accountable. In Luke 17:3, Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”
God can save you from heartache and sin if you are yielded to him and his will. But how do we follow the discipline of accountability with each other?
- First, find someone you trust. A spouse, or a good friend, a coworker or a counselor, these are some of the people you may want to consider. But find someone with whom you can share honestly and one who will be unreservedly honest with you. The last thing most of us need is someone else telling us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear.
- Form an accountability relationship. After you find someone to trust, work with that person on a regular basis. Accountability is asking that person to help you accomplish your goals, not that person imposing his standards on you. He is to help you achieve your goals and avoid the pitfalls you disclose to him.
- Allow your partner to restore you. Likely, when you need accountability the most, you desire it the least. You must allow your partner to restore you gently and with humility. His purpose is not to criticize or judge you, but to build you up and help you meet your spiritual goals.
Why do we need accountability?
Our burdens are too great for us to carry alone. God never intended Christianity to be a solo act. We are to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). We need each other.
Confession (Psalm 51)
All the horizontal disciplines relate to how we treat others and how we are perceived by them. These disciplines aim at transforming our minds to conform us into the image of Christ (Romans 8:28–29). In the process, they bring to surface old habits, entrenched sin and bad attitudes which need changing. We are not really transformed until these things change.
So, how does that happen? It’s simple and at the same time monumental: we confess these impurities and acknowledge our need for God’s help.
God is a God of redemption and forgiveness. When Jesus died on the cross, he took upon himself the sin of the world. God “made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This was the only way total redemption was possible. The Bible promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
How do we confess to God our sins? How do we get cleansed?
- Agree with God and call sin what it is: sin. Our conscience has to bother us. Under the gaze of God, examine yourself and deal with definite sins—not generalizations.
- Agonize over your sins. Genuine sorrow, godly sorrow, means hating what we have done so much that we are willing to turn, even run, from the sin. That is repentance.
- Avoid the sin and the circumstances where it appears. You must then have a determination to avoid the confessed sin. You must desire what God desires for you, which never includes sin.
- Accept God’s forgiveness. If you hold onto past sins which you have confessed to God, you will not be empowered by him. The Scripture says he is “faithful and righteousness to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He is faithful. His faithfulness is not contingent on our willingness to receive his forgiveness. He is faithful in spite of us, not because of us. But our transformation is contingent on accepting his forgiveness. You must accept it —incorporate it, believe it—and act on it.
Confession is good for the soul, we’re told. But, more than that, confession requires humility, vulnerability and trust in God to do what he says he will do: forgive!
And if he is faithful and just to forgive us, how ought we to treat each other?
The sacrificial disciplines: Deny self, take up cross, follow Jesus (Luke 9:23)
For a believer to be transformed into a fully devoted follower, the interaction of the disciplines we have examined becomes a powerful cruciform of transformation: the vertical connected to the horizontal.
- Meditation coupled with Bible study equips the believer.
- Solitude teamed with accountability empowers the believer to become more than a conqueror.
- Confession in the milieu of fasting engages a believer to embody the faith in life-changing transformation.
It is at this juncture of the vertical and the horizontal—the cruciform—that the crowning, sacrificial disciplines become available. All that has been discussed to this point is the springboard into the ultimate expression of the faith through disciplines: the Sacrificial Disciplines. They are best summed up in Luke 9:23: “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
The nonbeliever is reborn through the milk of God’s word. The believer is grounded and nurtured through the practice of the disciplines, the meat of God word. But, the ultimate expression of the faith springs from the sacrificial disciplines: the manna of God’s word.
The sacrificial disciplines mean that you are to:
- Deny self (no man can serve two masters): Matthew 6:24. Self-denial bears faithfulness.
- Take up your cross: 2 Corinthians 4:10–11. Sacrifice bears gentleness.
- Follow Jesus: Romans 8:29. At this point, one becomes most like Jesus. Discipleship bears self-control.
The most pointed invitation to surrender in all of Jesus’ words is Luke 9:23: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Spend a moment with each phrase:
“If anyone”—these words apply to every prospective follower of Jesus, no matter our religious background, achievements, or education.
“Come after me” is a call to complete devotion, not just Sunday church attendance. The phrase points to the first-century disciple’s decision to live as his master lived, to follow where his master went, to mimic his life in every way.
“He must” leaves no options, no levels of devotion for different people or roles, no loophole for part-time discipleship.
“Deny himself” means to put ourselves second to Jesus, to make Jesus’ glory and priority more valuable than our agendas or ambitions.
“Take up his cross” means to accept death. A cross was not jewelry in Jesus’ day. Rather, it was the most hideous means of execution ever devised. Go to the electric chair would catch its sense today.
“Daily” is found only in Luke’s account of these monumental words, recalling Paul’s later call to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1).
“And follow me” is the positive side of surrender. It means to go wherever Jesus leads and do whatever Jesus says.
Here’s the reward and warning: if we try to save ourselves for our own ambitions, we lose all that we try to gain. If we lose ourselves in Jesus’ purpose, we gain all that Jesus gives (Luke 9:24).
On the day Jesus returns, he will reward those who have stood for his glory and be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him (9:26). We have only this day to be ready for eternal reward or its loss.
We cannot serve both God and self. We must choose who will be our master, for one always is. And that one will shape our life purpose and mold our soul.
How we use our talents and resources reveal our true values: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). What we serve creates our values. How we spend our money and time shows and shapes who we are.
We will live either for the Creator or self. We will define success either by pleasing him or pleasing the world; accumulating reward in heaven or possessions on earth; acclaim in eternity or popularity today. We cannot have both.
But some try, as Jesus makes clear. He calls the eye the “lamp of the body.” He says it must be “good,” translating the word for “single.” If your eye gives your body a single image, you are “full of light”—you can see where you’re going.
But if your eye is “bad,” meaning diseased or unhealthy, it gives your body blurred or double vision. Then you are “full of darkness”—you cannot see where you’re going.
You can only have one life purpose. To live for two is to have spiritual double vision, a blurred soul. It cannot be done.
Jesus is blunt: “No man can serve two masters.” “Serve” translates “slave.” You are owned by one or the other. Either God or Self. You must choose. You cannot serve them both.
Years ago, Billy Graham said, “Our lives should resemble a channel, not a reservoir. A reservoir stores up water. A channel is constantly flowing. God wants us to be a channel of blessing to others. When we are, it is we who receive the greatest blessing of all.”
Benjamin Disraeli: “The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” What is yours? The Creator or his creation? Treasure on earth or in heaven? William Cowper: “The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.”
God gave his best, his only Son, to purchase our eternal life, our soul’s salvation. He finances his kingdom on earth through the faithful sacrifice of his people. And he blesses such sacrifice with an even greater reward.
But we must trust him. We must trust the One who loved us enough to die for us.
We “carry . . . the death of Jesus” continually, always ready to die for him. As a result, Jesus’ life is revealed in us (2 Corinthians 4:10–11).
God’s plan for our lives is that we “be conformed to the image of his Son”(Romans 8:29) “Conform” means to “make with” or “mold.” He wants us to be like Jesus. He wants us to manifest the character of Christ. What does this mean?
- It means that we obey our Father like the One who prayed, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
- It means that we commune with our Father like the One who got up “very early in the morning, while it was still dark” and “went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
- It means that we refuse sin like the One who said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (Matthew 4:10).
- It means that we forgive our enemies like the One who prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
- It means that we serve our friends like the One who washed his disciples’ feet and told us, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).
God wants Jesus to be “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). “Firstborn” in the Jewish culture meant the preeminent one; we are to imitate him as members of his family, showing the world Christ in us.
So, if you were given a “spiritual growth” test, how would you score? Reflect on each discipline below and see where God may want to increase your spiritual health this year.
- Vertical disciplines
- Horizontal disciplines
- Sacrificial disciplines
These elements build on each other. Conforming to Christ requires that you embrace the sacrificial disciplines. The sacrificial disciplines can’t be operative without the horizontal ones. And none of this is fully effective without the vertical disciplines as the bedrock of your spiritual life.
It’s good to know where you are on this journey.
This year, may you experience better physical health, increased mental health, and deeper spiritual health—for your good and God’s glory.