Approaching the Spiritual Discipline of Study

image Dallas Willard categorized the spiritual disciplines in two families, abstinence and engagement. The disciplines of abstinence are those which lead us to voluntarily abstain from normal desires of human existence such as food, sleep, sex, companionship, etc. Engagement is the counterbalance to abstinence. The disciplines that we engage here seek a deeper involvement in our faith and life as new creatures. There are logical counterparts within each list and our current discipline in focus, study, is the counterpart to solitude.

“Mystics without study are only spiritual romantics who want relationship without effort.” Calvin Miller

The Christian studies two things, letters and the world around us. Our primary tome is the Bible, but our library of study material grows every year. Foster suggests 6 rules that we bring to a fully rounded practice of study, 3 intrinsic and 3 extrinsic. To fully embrace a book, whether the Bible, a book of the Bible, or a volume from the shelf requires three readings. The first is to understand what the author is saying and the second to interpret his or her meaning. Only when those steps have been accomplished can we evaluate whether he is right or wrong. Can the Bible be wrong, we ask? No. Our application and interpretation can be wrong and we must engage those concepts, in which we find our own thoughts superior to those of the scriptures, more deeply.

We expand our study by engaging life and bringing it to the desk with us. We bring our experiences, the reading of other books, and talk with trusted companions to our study. Experience bears out the reality of the concepts we study and talking about them with others either compliments or contradicts our own understanding. When challenged, it gives us purpose in returning to the study. Other books operate in much the same fashion. We read both sides of an issue to gain perspective. Like talk, the voices of the other authors can challenge our position and make it stronger or tear it down, as appropriate to the truth.

Remember, study is not an end unto itself. Like the mystic that Calvin mentions, study without experience can give us facts but no wisdom. The truths that we accumulate through study must be tested in the crucible of life. They will either withstand the flames or be burned up like dross, to be replaced by new thinking by any spiritually devoted disciple.

Grace and peace to you.

The Spiritual Discipline of Study

imageHow can a young man keep his way pure?

By living according to your word.

I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Ps 119:9-11)

The purpose of the discipline of study is the renewal of our minds. We renew our minds by putting them to work on the things of God: His Word and, His world and how we fit into it. Study extends beyond the mere accumulation of facts as we learn not only the significance of those facts, but how they apply to life in the Kingdom as well. For many Christians, lives of undue anxiety and fear are the result of superficial study discipline. They may have memorized a few passages of Scripture or a creed but they cannot apply them to life. Their minds have not done the hard word of understanding the meaning of the passages and thus, when trouble approaches, their minds are unable to properly guide them away and back onto the path.

What is Study?

Foster gives us a definition of study as “a specific kind of experience in which, through careful attention to reality, the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction.” The truth of the mind is that ingrained habits of thought will conform themselves to what we study. What we study becomes crucial in pointing our minds in the desired direction. Minds filled with rubbish or that are worked out only superficially are subject to be thrown about by the winds of life. As Paul teaches, those who focus on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious will posses minds that act automatically in true, honorable, pure, lovely, and gracious ways. Study forms habits.

Meditation is not study. Some are tempted to point out their devotional readings and call this study. Meditation on the scriptures turns our thinking to the Lord but it does not reveal significance to us. Study is analytical. Study reads that ‘God so loved the world’ and asks why and how. Study turns over in the mind what it means for God to love the world and as the understanding forms, the mind realizes that we too are to love the world. A new habit forms.

Day 29 in the School of Prayer : What You Will

image I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him. (1 John 5:13-15)

But, you say, how can we know the will of God?

It is at this juncture that many who take to their knees find themselves at a loss. They desire to ask of the Father but are disheartened because they cannot find within themselves to say that they know the will of God. This confusion derives from the difference between the hidden and revealed will of God. Yes, the Father has a plan and outcomes that are hidden to us but prayer is not driven by this. God does not play guess a number games with His beloved.

If you know the revealed will of God as it is unfolded in the Scriptures, you know the parameters of prayer. He has revealed what is good and has expressed His will that we stay within the good. This revelation however is not apprehended simply by turning the pages of the Bible. In order to understand the full expression of good, the path of revelation must be lighted by the Holy Spirit. Words on a page become embedded truth under His guidance.

We are commanded to pray and to petition within His will. Unanswered prayer should not sway us from our task, it should drive us back to revelation to gain a firmer grasp on the purposes of God. Return to your knees with greater vigor and a deeper devotion and know that an answer will come.

Grace and peace to you.

image by Dia

Turning Away from the Discipline of Fasting

image“Prayer is reaching out after the unseen, fasting is letting go of all that is seen and temporal.” Andrew Murray

Fasting is without a doubt the least popular of the spiritual disciplines. We may gloss over the depth of our prayer or study life but we will rarely flat-out turn away from these disciplines. Not so for fasting; we will not even pretend to fast. Much of this avoidance comes from the misinterpretation of the discipline as an ascetic practice that was often overdone in eras past. Being people of grace, we say, we do not need to continue punishing our bodies to gain forgiveness.

Aside from this general argument, modern Christians who are considering adding fasting to their regular disciplines are confronted with three major enemies: Inconvenience, Comfort, and Unwillingness.

Inconvenience

Fasting requires planning and commitment and it will often interfere with other aspects of our lives. People around us will expect us to join social or business engagements that are challenged by our fast. Since our commitment to fast is to be kept between ourselves and God, we are forced to make excuses. When fasting interferes too much with our schedule, the easy way out is to not practice the discipline.

Unlike prayer which can be practiced in a private hour, fasting by necessity crosses our schedule into both public and private time. Fasting demands commitment and discipline because it is a public activity that is kept largely secret. When we have to make decisions in the midst of a fast, we are confronted with the reality of our value system. Does God get a second order commitment behind our career? Remember that the discipline of fasting will reveal our true priorities.

Comfort

The modern Christian avoids discomfort at all costs. If the sanctuary is too cold, the chairs or pews too hard, or the odor of the shelter too strong, chances are that this is the first thing the pastor will hear about on Sunday morning. Fasting is uncomfortable and doesn’t fit in with the modern interpretation of Christian life. After all, God wants only good things for us, right?

If our greatest excuse for not fasting is that we don’t want to feel hungry, we are not practicing the discipline correctly. As beginners to fasting, we are overwhelmed by the hunger pangs because this is often the only times in our lives when we have been deprived of food. It’s all we can think about. As we progress in the practice of fasting, these thoughts should move to an ability to focus on God and our communion with Him. The pangs subside and are replaced with a strengthening bond of spirituality. Food becomes less important as we grow in the ability to not be slaves to it.

Unwillingness

Are you truly unwilling to engage in a spiritual practice that will draw you closer to your Father? Most Christians would answer no and then revert to one of the previous excuses. We dislike both discomfort and inconvenience both personally and culturally. It’s easy to be a committed Christian on Sunday morning in the midst of a worshipping community, less so at noon on Wednesday when everyone is calling for you to join them at lunch. Saying no brings attention to yourself; it makes your faith public. This is the dividing line.

Falling prey to this simple disobedience is the Enemy’s greatest joy. If we are willing to make excuses for not fasting, he can began to tear at the fabric of our other spiritual practices as well. Why not sleep in a few more minutes instead of getting up to read the Bible? Decide right now that unwillingness is not going to be your first excuse.

image timOve

Fasting Reveals the Hidden You

image“Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.”  John Wesley

There is a certain irony in Wesley’s observation of fasting as he points out that a spiritual discipline that helps us to recognize the spiritually-dividing excesses in our life can, in itself, become an excess of its own. Fasting has largely fallen from favor as a spiritual discipline. Through the centuries excesses in asceticism gave the practice an undeserved reputation as a form of mortification but it also contrasts deeply with modern culture in a Church that views any deprivation as suffering.

The lack of understanding about the purposes of fasting also contributes to its negative reputation. Many continue to view it as a hair shirt, a form of self-imposed castigation but that is a flawed view. The singular purpose of fasting is to become more intimate with God. A fast is a personal matter between you and God in which you do without food in order to focus on how you are sustained by God alone. Spiritual fasting for any other reason is extra-biblical and borders on self worship. It is never to be used as leverage to gain favor from God or as an effort to divert His will.

The Bible Speaks on Fasting

Christians since the earliest days have sought the biblical mandate for all Christians to fast regularly, only to be disappointed in their efforts. There is no biblical law that commands regular fasting. Every case of fasting in the Scriptures is initiated by the Lord, as He sees necessary. The majority of the instances are individual in nature though, on occasion, God has called for corporate fasts. The discipline of fasting, its method and frequency are initiated by God and conveyed to the believer through the intimacy of relationship. We should interpret these facts cautiously. The spiritual discipline of fasting is a release of control on our lives meant to help deepen our intimacy with God. It is a privilege which we can practice as a part of our regular devotional life as long as we are certain of its purpose. If there is a specific reason for a fast (repentance, et. al) God will guide his people to it.

As people have searched the Scriptures to determine if there is a commandment to fast, the disciple discovers that Jesus simply takes for granted that you will include fasting in your devotional practices. In the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “When you fast” (Mt 6:16). It is not offered as one selection among many (‘if you choose fasting’) or as an optional endeavor (‘IF you fast’). Instead, the Lord speaks to the topic as a regular component of the devotions of a disciple as are prayer and charity.

What Jesus brings to light in this passage is a warning against ostentation when one does fast. Our fasting is to remain a private matter between us and God. To make a public spectacle of ourselves in the process draws attention to us and immediately defeats the purpose of the fast. Glory shifts from God to ourselves and the growth and strength that derives from the fast is destroyed. We might as well not have fasted at all. If those around us become aware of our fast they should not be asking how we endure such torture. Rather, they should be seeking for themselves the source of our nourishment which, for the disciple, is the very word of God (Jn 4:32-34).

The real you and me that we mask with comforting things will also be revealed when we fast. It’s no secret that we are vulnerable to revelation when we are uncomfortable. Our irritations, feelings, and sometimes our actions bubble to the surface when our discomfort overrides our ability to suppress them. This is our true self that we contain under normal circumstances. This is the true self that Jesus directs the Spirit to address within us. Our deceitful minds are more than capable of convincing us that these attitudes are not a problem but the Lord knows the truth. Just as the desert revealed the purity of Jesus Christ, our 24 hours of fasting reveal the flaws within us that demand attention.

It’s Time to Stop Avoiding Fasting

Fasting can bring unparalleled vitality to our spiritual life in a way that none of the other disciplines can. Wesley closes the thoughts, “…it was not merely by the light of reason…that the people of God have been, in all ages, directed to use fasting as a means:…but they have been…taught it of God Himself, by clear and open revelations of His Will…Now, whatever reasons there were to quicken those of old, in the zealous and constant discharge of this duty, they are of equal force still to quicken us.” (Sermons on Several Occasions)

image by todo juanjo

Submission to Those in Authority

imageSubmission is among the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines to put into practice. Every time that we place another above self we run the risk that out submission will be abused. The Christian is willing to be obedient to the Lord in this risky venture but we search for limits and these are reached when submission becomes destructive. This point is clear in the words of Christ,

Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40)

We are challenged by Peter who described a radical submission to wordly authority in his first epistle. He says “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Our submission is a clear sign to  the watching world that we see authorities as vested in their position by God. We are obedient up to the point at which the submission is abused and it becomes destructive.

This ‘spiritual authority’ is the key indicator that the modern Christian is alert to. We are deeply aware of the differences found in a world of Christians and those who are antagonistic toward Christ. Are we allowed to refuse to submit in situations where spiritual authority is absent? For the most part, no. We are to emulate the radical submission of Christ to greatest extent we are able until such point that it becomes destructive. Until then, we model the Gentle Soul and pray that their hearts will be touched.

Life With God 8

imageThe life with God drives us to see what  could happen we are faithful doers of the Word rather than just hearers. As Foster begins to wind down his book Life With God, he is emphasizing the ‘why’ of spiritual transformation. He says that “ the quiet power of a life transformed by God is so explosive that it can redirect the course of human events.” When we are deeply enmeshed in a life lived in the immediate and intimate presence of God, we find ourselves with transformed inclinations. Our purposes are driven less and less by personal desire and worldly avarice and more by the subtle whispers that guide our fulfillment of God’s purposes through us.

Coming to this spiritual awareness is the purpose of the spiritual disciplines. Remember, the definition of discipline that we apply to our spiritual nature is the ability to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. The spiritual practices are not intended for record keeping, that is, we are not rewarded by the measure of their exertion. Rather, the reward for the practice of spiritual disciplines comes in an increased sensitivity to the words of God through which He moves you to action. As Dallas Willard says, we are being prepared to enter a state of unthinking readiness in which we are able to respond despite pressures from outside to act otherwise. When the moment of action arrives, we  move in the Spirit without having to consider the possible societal implications of doing so.

There is a liberating truth that we can come to understand through study and focus on the lives of the saints that have gone before us such as John Woolman (pictured above.) The truth is that we do not become godly by trying to become godly. We become godly as our worldly habits are replaced by holy habits such as love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. When our character is filled with these traits we will instinctively do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. Our practice of the Disciplines is not intended to change ourselves, that is God’s work. Rather, our practice is intended to open ourselves to His power so that the transformation may occur. This is the principle of indirection.

This principle works by addressing human character issues by attending purposely to the attending spiritual virtue. For example, pride is overcome by intentionally seeking out opportunities to serve others. Over time, this consistent practice puts us in a proper relationship with others, engendering humility within us. Paul mentions this intentional training in 1 Corinthians;

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24-27)

We do not train in the Spiritual Disciplines solely for the sake of training. We train for transformation. The key to this shift in our understanding is to remember that it is God that will provide the transformation, not our own efforts. We must become expectant of the change, sensitive to His whispers that slightly change our mechanics as a coach would do. All of our training and the resulting transformation of our character will reorient us for life in the kingdom of God and our thoughts and attitudes and our behaviors will gradually become radically different from what passes for normal in this world.

Now, that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Life With God 4

It was this…intention that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety, that made the goodly fellowship of the Saints and all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. And if you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it. ~ William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Intent rather than method. A bracing thought for the modern Christian who finds themselves enmeshed in the current intellectual culture of the Church. Spiritual formation is reduced to a set of to-do’s and application. Richard Foster leads us now to develop the proper mindset needed to read the Bible for spiritual formation rather simply information. Life With God locates the next chapter in helping us to draw the distinction between reading the surface of the text and encountering God. The greatest cultural challenge that we face is that we encounter daily the idea that the Bible exists to serve our needs. We are tempted to pick and choose verses that serve our needs while setting aside the context that might challenge our perceptions. When read this way, the Bible becomes a manual for moralism, a behavioral set of scales that substitutes for true relationship with God.

The approach that we can take to engaging the bible to participate in God’s transformation of our souls is called Lectio Divina. Our reading changes focus from breadth to depth. It is a way of encouraging our mind to descend to our hearts so that we are drawn into the love and goodness of God as it is spoken to us through the living Word. Our goal is total immersion in the text so that we a drawn into the story, becoming a part of the words.

There are four elements to Lectio Divina:

  • Lectio – this is the practice of reading with a listening spirit
  • Meditatio – we reflect on what the voice of God speaks to us
  • Oratio – in response to the elation of hearing from God, we pray the scripture in response
  • Contemplatio – most importantly, we contemplate deeply on what changes we will make in our lives in obedience to the Word

Engaging the Bible in this fashion is a challenge to much of what we may have learned. It is not compatible with a daily reading plan which schedules a number of verses so that the book can be completed in a year. We skim over the words that God has for us in our pursuit of the goal. Lectio is a much slower process, immersing us in a single passage, perhaps even a few words or a phrase so that the voice of God can get through to us. It seeps into our heart as we camp on this verse or passage and as our hearts turn, we act in obedience to demonstrate to the world the way of the disciple.

Have you practiced these methods with success? Has there been some culturally or in the Church that works against this method of engaging the text? Let’s talk about this.

Life With God 3

Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. Isaiah 55:3

Richard Foster emphasizes the messy reality of the the “I am with you” Immanuel principle in chapter three of Life With God. Reading the Bible with this in mind, one of the transformative themes that we can derive is that the book does more than just tell us about the immediate presence of God. Instead it unfolds for us how embedded the Presence is in every aspect of human existence. Whether we are running toward or away from God, we cannot escape the truth of His pursuit. He calls out, “I am with you” and asks, “Will you be with me?”

Our struggle with Immanuel is often spelled out in the tension between two ideas. We comprehend our value to God in His pursuit of relationships with us and yet, when skies cloud over, we identify equally with the Psalmist’s lament “why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? The space between these two poles is life guided by the choices that we make. In those choices is the ultimate act of spiritual formation, allowing God to perfect His will and His ways in our lives. In the pages of our Bible, we can see how the Living Word transforms countless other human beings and it speaks to us; surrender your will and come into relationship with me! In exercising our freedom to choose to trust in Christ, we open ourselves to transformation in the depths of life with God.

For spiritual formation, we want to read the Bible with two aims. First, we want to engage the story of God’s people who were immersed in God’s immediate presence, whether they were aware of it or not. We read of God pursuing relationship with His creations and of the blessings and consequences of choosing for or against this relationship. In fact we learn from those that have gone before us that turning back to God is not a mechanical transaction, not a rule to follow, it is a relationship.

The second aim that we want to approach the Bible with is hear God as he speaks to us through the Word. The stories that we read are replete with examples of failure and restoration. Human beings are not the most reliable partners in relationship and when we come to this realization it opens up a new horizon in how we view God. Because we are by nature fickle, the transformation that occurs in each of our spiritual lives is a unilateral commitment from our Father. He pursues and transforms. Our task to immerse ourselves in those things that can positively affect our character. It is at this level that the living Word works.

Foster refines this approach to a single statement for modern Christians in saying that the way into this life, the Immanuel life, is trusting in Jesus. The Lord’s words make it simple, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” (Mark 5:36) Our call is to live the Kingdom life now and not just approach the faith as fire insurance. Our way into the fullness of this life is through character transformation, something that occurs when choose for life in relationships with the Lifegiver and when we immerse ourselves in the Word that changes us into what we were intended to be.

I would love to hear of your experiences of transformation. Have you found any particular scripture verses or story that were particularly meaningful in this process? Let’s share and grow together.

Life with God

image

Most Christians can enunciate the Immanuel principle in some fashion; “God is with us.” This stirring promise has been the foundation of belief and practice for as long as there has been a Church. Discovering the key to tapping into this powerful presence has been a goal of discipleship for centuries, not just for purposes of knowledge but also to seek out the transforming power of that relationship. Through the history of the Church, many disciples have discovered and deepened our understanding of various disciplines that allow us to draw closer to this power source. In 1978, an unknown Friends pastor published a book entitled Celebration of Discipline which has become a standard in Christian libraries. Richard Foster, the author and one of our leading thinkers on Christian spirituality, has contributed a new work that narrows its focus to the practice of reading the scriptures for personal transformation.

The book, Life with God, centers on the practice of Lectio Divina, a contemplative praying of the Scriptures which enables the Word to become a means of union with God. In each of its chapters, Foster challenges us to respond and be shaped by the truth-proposition that God voices throughout the scriptures, “I am with you. Are you willing to be with Me?” If you’ve read the book or would like to, I would love to engage in conversation with you about the ideas and practices within. In the coming weeks I will examine one chapter and idea per week in addition to looking at another book having to do with the reading of the Bible, Scot McKnight’s upcoming The Blue Parakeet.