Understanding Spiritual Disciplines
Carla started running again this week. She sets her alarm for 6:15 and often goes out in the darkness to run a couple of miles. She will continue doing this even when it is cold outside. There is effort and pain involved in this discipline. You may wonder why she would do such a thing. The reason she puts herself through this is so that next June at the Manitoba Marathon she will be able to run 13.1 miles without too much difficulty. She does it to reduce the chance that at 65 she will die of a heart attack, like her father did. The significance of the goal is worth enough to make her willing to go through the pain and effort.
Two weeks ago, I suggested that the same thing needs to happen in our spiritual life. The effort we expend in spiritual disciplines are worth it because of the reward of spiritual maturity that we will achieve through these disciplines. What are the rewards of spiritual maturity? Which disciplines will help us receive those rewards?
Last Sunday, in the children’s story, Lori mentioned some of the spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, church attendance and prayer. Are some others? How do they work in our life to accomplish the goals we want to attain? When a coach or a physical trainer works with an athlete, they give them certain exercises to accomplish specific goals. Can we do the same thing in our spiritual disciplines?
Today I would like to begin to examine these questions and then conclude with more thoughts next week.
I. Biblical Perspective: II Peter 1:3-8
I would like to continue by once again reinforcing the understanding that spiritual disciplines are a thoroughly Biblical concept and by examining the concept from Scripture to help us understand some of the goals and methods of the spiritual disciplines. II Peter 1:3-8 is a passage that helps us in this quest. Read text.
A. The Goal Of Spiritual Disciplines
This passage helps us understand several important concepts regarding spiritual disciplines. First of all, it helps us identify the goals we ought to have in our spiritual life.
We read in verse four, “so that…you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption of the world caused by evil desires.”
Salvation is about more than spiritual fire insurance. As followers of Jesus, we need to have two goals. Stated positively, we desire to participate in the divine nature. Stated negatively, we desire to escape the corruption of the world.
When Satan tempted Eve at the very beginning, he enticed her with the promise that she would be like God. When she sinned, exactly the opposite happened. Instead of becoming more like God, we have become less like God. The image of God in us has been broken. However, the promise is that there is a way of becoming like God. The desire for participating in the divine nature is God’s will for us.
On the other side, all of us are sinful, in fact, steeped in sin and all sin leads to destruction. When we speak of destruction, we are not just talking about destruction in the ultimate sense of God’s judgement, but in the present sense that sin destroys our lives. When we sin we often think we do so with impunity, but we never do. All sin destroys. But there is a way of escaping the corruption and destruction of sin.
B. Make Every Effort!
How do we achieve these goals?
Salvation is the work of God. Verse 3 says, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him.”
These goals are achieved through the knowledge of God and the knowledge of God is given to us by His divine power. God has saved us. He has given us all we need for the best kind of life - Jesus calls it an abundant life. His power has given us everything we need for godliness - that is to be the kind of people who are known by God and acceptable to Him both now and in eternity. I think we need to rejoice and rest in that knowledge of what God has done through Jesus Christ.
However, effort is also required. It is not only what God has done and does, we also need to be involved. In verse 5 we are called to action. It says, “For this very reason, make every effort...” Building on the foundation of what “His divine power has given us,” we nevertheless need to “make every effort.” We need to work at our Christian life if we truly want to live the life that God has for us. Diligence is required in growth. It isn’t all automatic, nor something to be lightly dismissed or forgotten. The word “add” can also be translated “supply” which, in Greek, has the implication of “give lavishly, with generosity.” The degree to which we will experience the life of God is in some significant measure dependent on the effort we put into it. This is not human thinking, this is not salvation by works, it is God’s word on how we will grow and mature to truly experience God.
C. Spiritual Maturity
What is it that we are to put effort into? Following the call to “make every effort” Peter goes on to indicate which areas we need to work on. In the Jewish world, numbers were significant and the number 8 indicated perfection. Here we have a list of 8 items that will bring us to spiritual maturity.
The first item is assumed to exist already. They are people of faith. But something must be added to faith in order to mature. North American Christianity has often begun with faith and stopped at faith and that is why we see the weak and worldly Christians we see today. Hillyer speaks about some Christianity which is an “initial spasm followed by chronic inertia.” That is not what God wants for us. He wants us not merely to start the Christian life, but to experience life now and life for eternity. The degree to which we will experience life now depends on how we “make every effort.” II Peter calls us to add to faith these other 8 items - Moral goodness, Knowledge, Self control, Endurance, Godliness, piety, Brotherly love and Agape love.
D. Promise Of Success
The promise is that if these things are in you and growing, there will be success. Notice as we read on in verse 8 that the presence and growth of these qualities in our life will result in the assurance that we will not be “ineffective or unproductive.”
Success is directed towards the very specific goal of knowing Jesus Christ. If we go back to verse 3 we will recall that the ability to live and to be godly people comes from our knowledge of Jesus. So the sequence goes something like this. If we are Christians who have begun by faith in God, and if we are diligent to make every effort to grow in moral goodness, knowledge, self control etc. we will know Christ who will guarantee that we will really live and be filled with godliness.
II. Disciplines of Abstinence
How do we add these things? What I am suggesting is that it is through spiritual disciplines that we will grow. So the question is, “what are the specific spiritual disciplines that will help us exercise towards godliness and away from corruption?
There are different ways of organizing what is basically the same material. I mentioned some of the disciplines I will be speaking of the other day. Dallas Willard speaks about disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement and I will use this system of looking at this material.
Disciplines of abstinence are things we avoid for specific reasons and for a specific plan of training. The ones I will talk about are solitude, silence, fasting, chastity and simplicity. By abstaining from these things, we are not implying that there is anything wrong with them. An athlete will sometimes abstain from certain foods, not because they are bad foods, but because abstaining from them will help her achieve a certain effect. Willard says, “If we feel that any habit or pursuit, harmless in itself, is keeping us from God and sinking us deeper in the things of earth; if we find that things which others can do with impunity are for us the occasion of falling, then abstinence is our only course.”
What are the disciplines of abstinence and how do they help us?
One of the most important disciplines of abstinence is the discipline of solitude. The discipline of solitude is not the time we drive to work alone. It is a time deliberately taken in which we remove ourselves from contact from other people and prayerfully face ourselves in the presence of God. It can be a very frightening discipline because it forces us to come face to face with ourselves. Alone with God, all the pretences and excuses and fronts disappear and we have to be honest with ourselves. Willard says, “In solitude we find the psychic distance, the perspective from which we can see, in the light of eternity, the created things that trap, worry, and oppress us.” What makes solitude a discipline is that we might quickly become bored or we might see things in ourselves that we don’t like to see and in those times we may want to run to entertainment or to people to once again escape the uncomfortable feelings that arise. The way to make solitude a discipline that helps us is to remain in solitude until we get to the place where we cling to Christ in our aloneness.
There is tremendous value in the discipline of solitude. Jesus practiced solitude. Luke 4:42 says, “At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place.”
The other day, I was reading Psalm 63:1 which says, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirst for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” What is happening in this verse is that David is in the wilderness fleeing from his enemy. He is forced to withdraw from normal contact with friends and family. In that setting of doing without, he is brought to the place of seeking God. Sometimes God brings us into the wilderness through sickness or loss and we are brought to seek Him because we have no where else to turn. What solitude does is bring us to a place where we do without all kinds of supports and in that self created wilderness, we seek God. Instead of an imposed wilderness it is a chosen wilderness and allows us to seek God while alone. Such solitude will help us learn to know God, to trust Him and to find that He is enough.
But solitude also helps us beyond the times of solitude. One writer says, “When we learn to fix our attention on God in the time of solitude, it helps us focus on God when back in the office, shop, or home.”
A second discipline which is very closely related and must go together with the discipline of solitude is the discipline of silence in which we close ourselves off from sounds. Henri Nouwen says, “silence is the way to make solitude a reality.” Psalm 46:10 and many other Psalms call us to “be still and know that I am God.”
We live in a noisy world. The radio and television are always on. There are always sounds to comfort us and let us know that we are not totally alone. Willard says, “we find complete silence shocking because it leaves the impression that nothing is happening.” Silence “cuts us off from this world and leaves only us and God.” That too is a little frightening for us. “…in that quiet, what if there turns out to be very little to ‘just us and God”?
The way in which to exercise the discipline of silence, is to couple it with solitude. That is, to get away from other people, turn off the radio and the television and in a prayerful attitude, concentrate on God. One of the best times for solitude and silence can be in the middle of the night. Perhaps the next time you wake up at night and can’t fall asleep, instead of tossing and turning and getting mad, go to another room, enjoy the silence and prayerfully enter into the presence of God. There is an experimental aspect to this in that when we are alone with God, we open ourselves up to see what God will do.
There is great value in silence. Just look at Isaiah 30:15 which says, “in quietness and trust is your strength.” Silence will help us build a quiet inner confidence.
The other value of silence is that it can help us exercise the discipline of not talking. One of the most troublesome parts of our person is that we talk too much or poorly. James 3:2 talks about “bridling our tongue.” In silence we practice being quiet so that perhaps when we get back with people, we will have spiritual muscle to hold our tongue rather than letting it loose.
A third discipline of abstinence is one which we find hard to do and aren’t quite sure how to handle and that is the discipline of fasting.
Fasting is abstaining from food for a chosen length of time. It can be as little as one meal or as much as days or weeks. Although usually associated with food, I believe that we can also fast from other things. In some sense, solitude and silence are a form of fasting.
I believe that there are two reasons why we should fast.
One is that in fasting, we make a commitment about what we value. Some fasts are for the purpose of concentration on a certain issue. If your pregnant wife tells you just before supper time that it is time to go to the hospital and have a baby, you won’t ask her to just hold on until she can make you supper and then you will go. At that point, the coming of the baby becomes far more important than eating and so you do it. The same thing can be chosen by us. We can choose to forgo food because it is more important for us to think about or pray about a certain issue. In fasting, we are saying, to ourselves and to God, “this is more important than eating.”
Jesus teaches us the other value of fasting when he says to Satan after 40 days of fasting, “Man does not live by bread alone.” We have a hard time believing that. We think that unless we eat, we will die. That is true to a degree, but for us it is so true that when we don’t get every meal and even a few in between, we get rather grouchy.
After 40 days of fasting, we might think that Jesus was weak and vulnerable and greatly susceptible to the temptation to turn stones into bread, but the exact opposite was true. Forty days of fasting had taught him that he could live without food and that life has more to do with obedience to God than to eating. So the fasting prepared him to know that he did not need to make the stones into bread.
In the same way, fasting will teach us about ourselves. It will bring us face to face with how dependent we are on things instead of on God, and as Willard says, “how much our peace depends upon the pleasures of eating.” Willard also says, it “may also bring to mind how we are using food pleasure to assuage the discomforts caused in our bodies by faithless and unwise living and attitudes - lack of self worth, meaningless work, purposeless existence, or lack of rest or exercise.” But when we learn the lessons of fasting, we will get to the place that we can depend on God and that He is indeed, as we sing, “our all in all.”
When we learn these lessons in fasting, we learn to trust in God in many areas and the power of temptation is diminished in us. “In fasting, we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God.” Thus, fasting becomes a very important discipline to help us overcome temptation. “Persons well used to fasting as a systematic practice will have a clear and constant sense of their resources in God. And that will help them endure deprivations of all kinds, even to the point of coping with them easily and cheerfully.”
A fourth discipline is the discipline of simplicity. Our society, reinforced by advertising and our own desires, teaches us the lie that the more we have the more satisfied we will be. There is nothing wrong with having, but the discipline of simplicity, is choosing not to have what we could have and perhaps even have a right to.
There are several reasons for simplicity. First of all it frees us. The more we own, the more time is taken up in the maintenance of these goods. There is a tremendous freedom in not having as much. By now we know that all the time saving gadgets that we possess do not leave us more time in the end. I have learned this in the area of recreation equipment. To a degree I have made decisions about that. I have chosen not to own too many things with motors because I am not good at maintaining them and they always need to be maintained so I want to be free of that hassle. But, now I own some non-motorized recreation equipment - golf clubs, a nice bicycle and a canoe, but I feel obligated to use them and so have some bondage to what I possess. By choosing simplicity, we will discover freedom.
Instead of the drive to have, if we learn to live with simplicity and choose simplicity because we can, we will also learn contentment. The constant thinking that I will be happy if I have just this one more thing, is a never ending drive. As income rises and we can buy more, we usually do buy more and yet we are never satisfied. Satisfaction comes as we learn contentment through the discipline of simplicity.
A third benefit of the discipline of simplicity is that we are freed to give ourselves to service. The more things we have, the more we have to use and or maintain them, the less time we have to serve others. This is obvious in the church where labour saving devices and more things has made it more difficult to find people to serve in the church than before. My professor at Regent said, “I live simply that others may simply live.”
Remember, having things is not bad, but the discipline of simplicity will teach us contentment and will give us a greater freedom within and a greater freedom to serve God and others.
Chastity is the discipline of “purposefully turn(ing) away from dwelling upon or engaging in the sexual dimension of our relationship to others - even our husbands or wives.” Chastity is not the same thing as celibacy. Celibacy, according to Scripture is a gift. Chastity is a discipline in two areas.
I appreciate the words of Job 31:1, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.” This is the first area of discipline that we abstain from the second look or the longing look. Such a discipline is a part of the path towards spiritual purity. It will help to renew our hearts in purity.
The other aspect is that described in I Corinthians 7:5 where Paul says, “Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” He is affirming the relationship between husband and wife, but is also suggesting that there is a time to abstain for the purpose of prayer.
What these disciplines do is something similar to what fasting accomplishes. I Thessalonians 4:4 suggests the goal that “each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable.” I believe that these disciplines - given in Job and in I Corinthians will help us to “learn to control our own bodies.” Bonhoeffer said, “chastity is not the suppression of lust but the total orientation of one’s life toward a goal.”
So these are the disciplines of abstinence, but they are just part of the story. Next week we will examine the disciplines of engagement - in which rather than abstaining we actually do something. Then at the end, I will talk about how to put the disciplines into life and how we can plan a system of disciplines that will help us grow.
The whole area intrigues me because I so greatly would like to discover more of what it means to live the abundant life God intends for us. I am a learner in this area. I have learned some things by experience and my reading has taught me some other truths that I am on the way to learning. As we continue to seek the Lord, I invite dialogue on this issue. What have you experienced? Where do you need to make every effort? How have these disciplines been helpful? Let us talk about this and encourage one another towards participation in the divine nature and towards escape from the corruption in this world.