Over the years as I’ve taught the members of my congregation, I’ve often shared nine spiritual disciplines, habits that can reinvigorate you and keep stress and chaos at bay. Although these principles are God-centered and Biblical, they apply in general, no matter what your belief system is. And these aren’t just principles that I talk about from the pulpit: I actually put them in practice in my own life.
Why do we need these tools? Because in our harried and hurried world, they keep us centered and aware of the bigger picture. They restore our perspective. They remind us that we have a place in the larger community of humankind. And when we practice them consistently, they have the power to restore us not just spiritually, but emotionally and physically as well. Just carving out the time for these habits is itself a kind of discipline—one that leads us to refocus on what’s most important in life.
1. Prayer. Daily prayer is a way to practice an awareness of God—His providential care, protection, provision and direction in your life. Jesus said, “Watch and pray.” So prayer isn’t just communicating with God; it also includes paying attention to what you hear and the things that you allow into your mind. Your hearing is a gate that information comes through, and that information influences the way you think and believe, as well as what you say. The words you say have creative power—they become your actions, which are an expression of your character. So in a sense, that whole process begins with paying attention to what you listen to. The quality of your hearing determines the quality of your life.
2. Spiritual Study. Every religion is based on its writings. Whichever faith you subscribe to, become intimately acquainted with the writings that inspire it. Doing so will deepen your understanding of what you believe and renew your connection to the principles you use as a guide in your life.
3. Worship. This means practicing the sovereignty of God over your life. It’s a reminder that you’re part of something much greater than yourself. Even if you don’t believe in God or a higher power, you believe in something. If you’re an atheist, for instance, you believe in the universal moral principles that govern humankind. We all believe in something. We all have some kind of faith that can become an anchor for our souls. Worship is about acknowledging the power of that which rules your life. It’s also about experiencing community; when we gather with those who share our beliefs, we strengthen our commonality of faith and hope. Studies have shown that those who subscribe consistently to a particular faith—and then consistently connect with those also of that faith—tend to be less stressed.
4. Solitude. Getting away from the busyness and distractions of life is a way to reconnect with and hear your own voice. It’s a way of communing with your own heart. And what is the fruit of solitude? An increased compassion and sensitivity to others. In his book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Richard J. Foster says that solitude is what gives us the freedom to be with people. Solitude is not being alone—it’s being with God and your inner voice.
5. Giving and service. A spirit of generosity frees us from poverty and covetousness. It’s understanding that part of life is being responsible for someone other than yourself. When you serve, you become God’s channel of love and compassion. There’s also wisdom in the law of reciprocity: Give and it shall be given unto you. I’ve seen this principle at work in my own life: Because I practice a spirit of generosity, countless opportunities come my way.
6. Fasting. This is about practicing self-control, and that’s important because unbridled words and actions can undermine your success in life. The length of time you stop eating doesn’t matter; you have to determine what’s best for you. Fasting also allows you to identify with the hungry and impoverished who live among us. It raises your consciousness that you’re not alone in this world—you’re part of a greater humanity.
7. Reflection. Every day, take the time to observe your actions, your words and your choices. Write them down in a journal, if you’d like. Question and consider those things that might have been inconsistent with the person you want to be. Through reflection, you can discover that there may be a need in your life you’re trying to satisfy in the wrong way.
8. Discernment is learning to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad, pure and evil. There’s a natural discernment that we all get through experience; when you do anything habitually, you discover what to look for. Discernment is about exercising your spiritual senses, and that creates a deep awareness of others’ motives. It’s about recognizing the hand of God at work in everyday life; doing so keeps us conscious that there’s a higher realm of existence. Discernment also involves sharpening your judgment about, for instance, the people who love you versus the ones who really love you. Lust is a desire to benefit self at the expense of others; love is a desire to benefit others at the expense of self. Surround yourself with people who are out for your good: those who are willing to contribute to your growth and development as a person.
9. Sharing your story. In the church, we call this “testifying.” When you tell others what you’ve lived through and how you’ve failed and succeeded, it reinforces your strength, gratitude and resilience. It also inspires those who hear it—and spreads hope to those with whom we share this planet.
Rev. A.R. Bernard is the founder and senior pastor of Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn and the author of Happiness Is …Simple Steps to a Life of Joy.