Avoiding books on the spiritual disciplines is a natural response when you already find making time for plain old prayer and Bible reading a struggle. It doesn’t feel possible to memorize, study, journal, pray, and fast. To those who have struggled, as I have, to practice several spiritual disciplines at once, this book will provide a refreshing perspective. Rather than overwhelm with a wide variety of disciplines to keep in tandem with one another, Mathis offers the gift of simplicity, focusing on a few key conduits of grace, and then allowing the specific ways in which these conduits can be fleshed out to be creative and realistic for each individual’s season of life.
Mathis helpfully streamlines the disciplines into three pathways of grace: “hearing God’s voice, having his ear, and belonging to his body” (p. 26). The first pathway refers to the ways in which we receive God’s Word: reading, studying, memorizing, mediating, and learning from other teachers. For Mathis, biblical meditation is the pinnacle of Scriptural intake. The second pathway refers to the ways in which we speak to God, and includes private prayer as a “test of authenticity,” as well as corporate prayer, journaling, and fasting. The third pathway involves the grace we receive as we participate in the life of the body of Christ. This includes corporate worship, listening (to others and to God’s voice through the pulpit), communion and baptism, and rebuke received and given through the process of church discipline. Mathis includes a closing “coda” in which he discusses evangelism, money, and time stewardship.
Habits of Grace makes several unique contributions. First, Mathis helpfully establishes the theological foundation that undergirds his understanding of the spiritual disciplines. Receiving God’s Word, speaking to God, and participating in corporate worship are the normal ways that God mediates his justifying, sanctifying, glorifying grace into our lives and hearts. Second, by viewing these disciplines as conduits for grace, Mathis maintains a gospel-centered focus that is too often lacking in books on spiritual disciplines. Third and most notably, he incorporates a community element to the spiritual disciplines, whereas previous books have focused primarily, and at times exclusively, on the individual nature of each discipline. This communal emphasis allows Mathis to present giving and receiving rebuke as a new category of spiritual discipline, and include baptism and communion in the corporate disciplines as well.
Mathis’s emphasis on meditation as the “pinnacle” of hearing God’s voice provides a projected “meeting place” for the mind (as it processes the words of Scripture) and the heart (as the Spirit moves the heart to receive and live the Scripture). Meditation “bridges the gap between hearing from God and speaking to him. . . . We go deep into God’s revelation, take it into our very souls, and as we are being changed by his truth, we respond to him in prayer” (p. 59). Meditation creates a space for communing with God. And by striking a balance between reading Scripture (breadth) and studying Scripture (depth), Mathis points out the value of both approaches. Perhaps there would have been added value in spending time on a few key, tested methods for interpreting Scripture (or recommending some good resources for this), since some readers may feel ill-equipped to answer the questions that arise when they begin to study the Bible in-depth.
One of the most valuable parts of Habits of Grace is the author’s practical ideas for how to incorporate the disciplines into our lives. For example, Mathis offers the following suggestions for being a lifelong learner: vary sources for education in differing seasons of life, redeem space and time for education during the mundane moments of life, switch mindless time into meaningful learning time, adapt to new media formats, and assume the identity of a learner (pp. 86–89). To add further strength to this section, the author could provide a brief explanation of some specific areas to consider for education (e.g., biblical and systematic theology) or a few key resources for learning more about specific books or topics in Scripture. Further clarification on the place of theological studies (both formal and informal) in hearing God’s voice or in continuing education could also provide potential benefit.
The chapter on lifelong learning contains a quote which well sums up Mathis’s emphasis on pursuing God the Person, as opposed to simply pursuing knowledge or performing the disciplines as duty:
[T]he focal point of our lifelong learning is the person and work of Christ. . . . The heart of lifelong learning that is truly Christian is not merely digging deeper in the seemingly bottomless store of information there is to learn about the world and humanity and history, but plunging into the infinite food of Christ’s love, and how it all comes back to this, in its boundless breadth and length and height and depth, and seeing everything else in its light. (p. 85)
One of the great values of this book was communion with God as the goal of the disciplines.
Some may question Mathis’s placement of communion and baptism as spiritual disciplines—particularly baptism, since it is a one-time event rather than a repeated practice. However, Mathis frames the disciplines as a means of grace to the believer, and it works well in that context. Believers experience fresh grace in the gospel through the celebration of the Lord’s Table and through observing baptism (both our own and that of others).
Some readers will also question whether or not “rebuke” works as a spiritual discipline. At first glance, it raises questions as to why this “one another” command is elevated over similar commands, such as serving one another (Gal 5:13), encouraging one another (1 Thess 5:11) and singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19). However, given our society’s reticence to receive correction or to open ourselves for input, this discipline addresses a needed growth area and a timely word that could help us root ourselves more deeply in our identity in Christ, as well as encourage and challenge one another to grow in faith and holiness. Mathis’s guidelines for giving and receiving a rebuke provide help for those who are concerned that they do not have what it requires to give (or take) a rebuke. He writes, “The love of Christ for us is the key to unlock the power of rebuke. . . . Only in Jesus can we find our identity not in being without fault, but in being shown love by God when we’re still sinners” (p. 188–89).
All in all, Habits of Grace is likely to do just what its title suggests: help the church to cultivate communion with Christ, through grace, as we welcome simple habits into our daily routines.