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A Glimpse of a Disciplined Life

John Stott

One thing that always fascinates me when I read biographies is learning of other people’s habits. That’s especially true when the subject is extremely disciplined. Tim Chester’s Stott on the Christian Life is not quite a biography of John Stott, but it’s not far off. He gives an interesting glimpse of Stott’s normal, well-disciplined routines. Here is what his life looked like:

Commitment to discipline and to the disciplines was a feature of Stott’s own personal piety. “Fundamental to all Christian leadership and ministry,” he said, “is a humble, personal relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ, devotion to him expressed in daily prayer, and love for him expressed in daily obedience.” Stott himself had a number of disciplines he adhered to resolutely. He did not impose them on others in a legalistic way, but they were the framework for his own walk with Christ. His normal pattern was to rise at 5:00 a.m.—a pattern of early rising he learned from [Charles] Simeon. Stott would greet each member of the Trinity in turn before offering a petition for the day ahead. It was also common for him to recite the ninefold fruit of the Spirit or, mindful of the call of Romans 12:1 to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, to offer each limb of his body in service to God. Then he would listen to the news on the radio while washing, before spending an hour reading his Bible and in prayer. All his adult life Stott followed the Bible reading plan developed by Robert Murray M’Cheyne, which involved reading four chapters each day—three each morning, one of which he studied in more depth, and one at night.

Bible reading was followed by intercession, conducted with the aid of a leather notebook containing names and issues for prayer, and stuffed with letters and pamphlets. Not that prayer was straightforward for Stott—he often spoke of the need to win “the battle of the prayer threshold.” He would imagine God waiting within a walled garden. But in front of the door into the garden stands the devil with a drawn sword, who must be defeated in the name of Christ. “Many of us give up praying,” comments Stott, “before we have tried to fight this battle. The best way to win, in my experience, is to claim the promises of Scripture, which the devil cannot undo.”

Stott became rector of All Souls at the young age of twenty-nine “to everybody’s astonishment (especially mine),” he says, and he describes how the responsibilities soon got on top of him. “I guess that at the time I was not far from a nervous breakdown.” At this point he heard L. F. E. Wilkinson, the principal of Oak Hill Theological College, commending to a group of church leaders the practice of spending one day a month as a quiet day away from the parish. Stott immediately planned a “Q” day into his diary, a practice he continued throughout his ministry. “All I can say is that this little prudential arrangement saved my life and my ministry… . Although I was still challenged by the job, I was not overwhelmed by it.” In fact, as the busyness of ministry increased, so did the frequency of his Q days, from monthly to biweekly, and from biweekly to weekly. Every Thursday he would drive to a house in north London in which two elderly spinsters hosted him.

Stott would give up chocolate (one of the abiding passions of his life) and other treats during Lent. His friend John Wyatt recalls how Stott once told him that he was in the habit, when walking alone, “of remembering that every fresh breath, every heartbeat, was a gift from God which could be taken away at any time”—a good example of what John Calvin calls “the meditation on the future life.” Stott was once asked whether he had ever felt like giving up his ministry. He acknowledged that pastors are often subject to discouragements and that these can easily lead to burnout. But then he added: “I have never really been tempted to this because I have taken precautions. I have recognised that human beings are psychosomatic creatures, so that our bodily condition has a powerful influence on our spiritual life. I have tried to maintain a disciplined life, ensuring adequate sleep, food and exercise.”

I don’t think birdwatchers get nervous breakdowns

He characteristically commends bird-watching, citing the physical recreation and mental relaxation it provides, along with the exposure to wilderness. “I don’t think birdwatchers get nervous breakdowns,” he adds, somewhat tongue in cheek. Finally, he concludes, “I found, however, that most important of all is a disciplined devotional life, with a determination to meet Christ every day.”

There is no doubt Stott was by temperament a disciplined person, a natural bent further reinforced by his social background and upbringing. But, although he commended discipline as part of the Christian life, he was slow to impose his own routines on other people.

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