What comes to your mind when you hear the words “spiritual practices”? Maybe you think of unreachable perfection, like a Christian disciple who effortlessly and faithfully performs spiritual tasks with little to no struggle. You might feel shame for not measuring up to such an impossible standard. Or perhaps you recoil a bit as you picture an austere and joyless life devoted to rigid rule-keeping.
If any of these examples resonate with you, you’re not alone in how you perceive spiritual practices. It’s common for the practices to be misunderstood (and even maligned) in our culture. But the extreme portraits noted above could not be further from the truth. The beautiful reality is that spiritual practices are ordinary, accessible, and grace-filled. Let’s start with a few basics that I hope can help reshape how you see them:
- Spiritual practices are ancient. Some of their most recognizable forms arose within Catholicism, but their roots trace back to ancient Jewish customs that would have been common in the time of Jesus. Today, spiritual practices of all kinds can be found across the broad spectrum of Christian denominations and faith traditions.
- Spiritual practices are not for super saints. They are for everyone—for regular people like you and me. Spiritual practices are tools designed to place us in front of God so we can experience the divine healing of God’s life-giving presence. We’re not expected to be experts or even “good” at a particular practice in order to gain from it.
- Spiritual practices are a slow process. They are lifelong habits we develop over time. It is God who produces transformation in us as we practice. Even our smallest efforts can bring noticeable spiritual growth.
- Spiritual practices are about our whole self. They engage us spiritually and physically, transforming our hearts, minds, and bodies as we open ourselves to God.
Serving God above all others
Jesus himself was no stranger to spiritual practices. Our text in Matthew 6:1-18 is the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus advises his hearers to approach the practices with the right posture. Matthew 6:1 serves as the foundation for everything that follows. The emphasis is on our internal motives more than our external works of righteousness. Jesus encourages his disciples to do their acts of charity solely for God’s approval—an “audience of One.” In other words, he wants us to pay careful attention to why we’re doing something.
Jesus then offers real-world illustrations using the spiritual activities of giving, prayer, and fasting. These three practices were considered the basic components of ancient Jewish piety (Brown, p. 65). As each practice is described, a pattern of tension emerges: public versus secret expression, human versus divine audience, and present versus future reward (Luz, p. 297). As we shall see, it is the latter in each of these pairings that Jesus desires for us.
Giving in secret
The Jewish people in Jesus’ day believed they had personal religious obligations to care for the poor as outlined in the Torah, setting them apart from their Greek and Roman neighbors who were more interested in large-scale charitable projects (Keener, p. 60). Yet, just like us, the Jews faced serious temptation to use their gifts as demonstrations of power and authority. In Matthew 6:2-4, Jesus cautions against a metaphorical rather than literal “trumpeting” of their virtue as he discourages bragging about being generous (Luz, p. 299-300).
The practice of giving
The spiritual practice of giving is closely related to simplicity, which is a lifestyle characterized by a humble generosity towards those who have less than we do and by a willingness to make our material goods available for God’s use. Living according to simplicity means we trust God to provide for us. We hold what we have loosely, seeing everything from our homes, our jobs, and even our family members as gifts from the God who loves us. The practice of simplicity encourages us to reexamine our priorities so we seek God first over wealth or possessions.
Questions for reflection
- Consider what belongs to you in this moment. How might God use your material possessions to bless others?
- What are you holding tightly? Is there anything God might be asking you to relinquish? How might you trust God to help you do this?
Praying in secret
The original audience of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:5-15 would have been familiar with the Jewish custom of personal prayer at regular intervals throughout the day. Some Jews had a tendency to conduct these prayers wherever they happened to find themselves, even if that meant in the street (Luz, p. 301). Jesus may have been reacting to those who were making a spectacle of public prayer with his admonition to withdraw to a private space. He is certainly not advocating against the common practice of corporate prayer in the synagogue or temple (Brown, p. 64).
The practice of prayer
Though prayer comes in many shapes and forms, its core is always communion with the living God. Prayer exists exclusively for the purpose of communicating with God. It ceases to be prayer if it becomes about the human audience, about making a theological point, or about showcasing the eloquence of the speaker. The elegant Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6:9-15 is instructive for us because it actively models a desire for the establishment of God’s kingdom above all else. Jesus invites us to long for God alone. In this way, prayer is less about getting what we want from God and more about becoming aligned with what God wants for us and for the world.
Questions for reflection
- How might you listen for God’s voice through prayer besides just speaking to God?
- How might you align your prayers with what God desires for you and for the world?
Fasting in secret
Fasting has a long and storied history in scripture, from Moses’ sojourn with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28) to the actions of John the Baptist’s disciples (Matthew 9:14). Traditional Jewish fasts were conducted by both individuals and the community as a whole. These practices were associated with acts of mourning, repentance, and seeking God’s wisdom through prayer. When Jews fasted, they abstained not only from food but also from everyday regimens like applying oil to prevent dry skin (Keener, p. 61). These omissions made it outwardly clear that they were undergoing a fast, and Jesus addresses this in Matthew 6:16-18 when he tells his disciples to conceal their fast by following regular grooming practices.
The practice of fasting
Of all the spiritual practices, fasting may be one of the least understood in our culture. Because it is designed to curb our appetites for the things that pull us away from God, a fast need not be just from food. We can abstain from anything that captures our attention. For example, I have found digital fasts (from social media or internet usage) very helpful in combating my increasing dependence on technology. A fast can be ongoing, occurring weekly at a specific time, or it can be a single event that lasts for several hours or even days. The most important part is focusing on God in the absence of the distracting element.
Questions for reflection
- What has your attention? What are you seeking instead of God for comfort or security?
- What would a fast look like for you? How might you invite God into the details?
Call to action
Though Matthew 6:1-18 largely focuses on personal piety, that is only part of the story. You were meant to navigate your Christian journey in the context of a community. God gives you the Holy Spirit, who empowers you to remain faithful to God’s calling on your life. God also designed you to join a new family of his representatives in the world. Your faith community—no matter what that looks like for you—strengthens and encourages you to keep going. Who would you name as your faith partners or spiritual mentors? How might you find people to play this role in your life?
Jesus’ instructions invite us to reflect on the state of our hearts as we draw near to God. Where is God at work within you? What is God doing? How might you join God in his transforming work through spiritual practices? I encourage you to learn about additional practices as you explore where God is leading you. Staying close to God will help you remember that you serve an audience of One.
- Brown, Jeannine K. Matthew. Teach the Text Commentary Series. Edited by Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2015.
- Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
- Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1-7. Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Edited by Helmut Koester. Translated by James E. Crouch. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Fortress, 2007.