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.

Four Steps in the Discipline of Study

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Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Tim 2:15)

The Christian wants to live her life according to biblical principles, but in order to do so, these principles must become a part of who she is, rooted deeply in her heart to become second nature. Enabling this transformation of heart is the purpose of the spiritual discipline of study. It trains the soul to default to the desired principles so that, in a moment of crisis, the renewed soul is not without its armor.

Your thoughts and subsequent actions will conform to whatever diet you feed them. If you elect to swamp your mind with cultural influences you cannot be surprised when your outward expressions begin to mirror what is seen on the screen and heard on the radio. To have your thoughts conformed to the mind of Christ and His Church requires a purposeful, directed intake of the scriptures and the ideas that have influenced the Church through the centuries. Follow Paul’s advice and give your soul a steady diet of those things that true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious.

Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, organizes study into four steps.

Repetition

New habits are rarely, if ever, formed by a single encounter with the truth. Just as muscles are not strengthened by the single lifting of a barbell, the mind must be repeatedly exposed to an idea and channeled into acquiring that idea in order to capture it and take ownership of it. Repetition works at the lowest levels of the mind. If you want to change a behavior, in many cases all you will need to do is to repeat the desired behavior or thought over and over for a period of time. The mind will accept this as the new reality and soon, the new behavior or thought will become the habit.

Concentration

Bringing the mind repeatedly to bear on a specific aspect of God’s truth is the initial step but then we must concentrate on that truth. The daily reading plan that you follow discourages this. It leads you quickly from one chapter to the next without the time to camp on the important truths that you are encountering. This is fine for devotional reading but not for study. You must spend time with a truth, fully devoted to searching it from every angle and testing it against other ideas. Remove distractions, slow down and sacrifice volume for quality of experience.

Comprehension

Most Christians can repeat at least a few Bible passages from memory. Few though can demonstrate an understanding of what those passages mean beyond a superficial level. Spiritual growth is not attained by simply knowing something, you must understand what a truth means to both you and the original author of the truth. It is knowledge that sets you free (John 8:32), not the mere accumulation of facts.

Reflection

Only when you truly understand a truth can you reflect upon it. The words of the best known truth in the Bible, John 3:16, are so simple and yet they have a significance that is often underestimated. Focused study and the development of an understanding of a truth open the doors to a realization of the significance of an idea. Grasping significance is the moment where we see and hear and experience a truth in a whole new way.

 

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.

Disciplined Steps to Worship

image One who apprehends worship as a spiritual discipline is going to stand forever separated from the mass of believers who treat worship as a singular event that occurs once per week. She is going to be intentional about the assimilation, preparation for, and spirit of worship. When worship is an event, minimal preparation is necessary; you need only appear at the appointed time and ‘worship’ when the music begins. It becomes a check list item.

For those who correctly see worship as contributing to their spiritual formation, there are number of exercises and attitudes that can be integrated into your practices in order to build up the strength necessary to properly worship the God of the universe. Is anything less rigorous true worship?

A disciplined worshipper will practice the presence of God as a regular part of their lives. Paul wrote of developing the proper spirit needed to worship: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; (1 Thess 5:16-19) A mindset fixed in this way will heighten the expectancy of a meeting with God in worship, an encounter that change you.

A disciplined worshipper will seek out different worship experiences. She will worship alone and worship in community. He will find private moments to worship in solitude and will express the magnificence of God in public.

A disciplined worshipper will be intentional about preparing for the community worship experience. He will be physically prepared (rested, nourished, hydrated) and spiritually prepared (prayed through the services, confessed his sin privately).

A disciplined worshipper cultivates an attitude of Holy Dependency so that in the midst of the act of worship, she is completely dependent on God for anything at all. Any hint of manipulation is found to be abhorrent. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only god, who makes things grow. (1 Cor 3:7)

A disciplined worshipper is not distracted by events around him. Instead, he allows God to speak to him through the crying baby, the stifling heat, or the dancer in the aisle. Bless them, pray for them, see if there is a message embedded in what has grabbed your attention. Be in community.

A disciplined worshippers offers sacrificial praise and devotion even when he doesn’t feel like it.

A disciplined worshipper recognizes that true worship ends in obedience. To stand before God is to change.

Grace and peace to you.

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The Spiritual Discipline of Worship

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” John 4:23

You and I were made to worship… Chris Tomlin, Made to Worship

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The act of worship centers all of the other spiritual disciplines. Worship is the connection of spirit to Spirit, ours to Him. Many Christians will not immediately identify worship in the family of spiritual disciplines because it lacks an ascetic dimension but this narrow thinking constrains our growth. True worship that brings us into the presence of the God of the universe, to know His immediate glory and holiness and to fear it to our core is anything but a trifling pursuit. To enter the Shekinah demands everything we have to give spiritually and physically; it is not something to be engaged casually. All of the spiritual disciplines have as their objective the strengthening of spiritual muscles that give us the endurance, strength, and character necessary to approach the throne and offer our worship.

God seeks worshippers. He entered the Garden to seek out Adam and Eve. Through Christ and the horror of the crucifixion He draws men and women to Himself (Jn 12:32). Worship is our response to God’s loving advances. Scripture is filled with the stories of those who have fallen to the ground in the presence and reality of the ultimate Love. Human history mirrors this trend. We were made to worship and the trajectory of life is altered permanently when the truth of this characteristic becomes our reality. Worship becomes both the most natural and most challenging of the disciplines.

Our practice of worship must be clear in its objectives and dismissive of peripherals. The first burden to rid ourselves of is the concern for method. There is no single correct form of worship. High, low, liturgical, or free are all valid forms of worship as long as the object of our practice is God alone and our objective is to have His spirit touch our spirit. Anything less is empty and void and is not worship. We are tempted to say that we have worship when we have mouthed a praise chorus or sat through a sermon or greeted those around us or even simply appeared for the scheduled service but worship demands more. It demands commitment, preparation, and engagement.

Worship ends in obedience. Devoting time and effort to seek and enter the presence of God changes us. We are exposed to the same raw glory that caused Isaiah to proclaim his ruin we will know what it is have the burning coals of holiness touched to our hearts. The boundless love of God becomes more and more real in our lives and it affects all that we are and all that we do. Worship, true worship, changes us irreversibly.

 

Grace and peace to you…

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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)

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Life With God 9

And so we conclude our weekly foray into Richard Foster’s fine book as we started by rehearsing the the Immanuel principle means to us as we attempt to live it out. Life With God began by reminding us of a truth that we all know on the periphery of our consciousness but often fail to bring to the center of our lives; God is with us. In that intimate presence he extends a hand and asks, ‘will you be with me?’ Our choice is to partake of the stream of grace that is offered, to imbibe of it, to allow it to infuse our core and transform us such that we love God and love others more than we are ever able to comprehend on our own.

Or we can ignore it and spend the precious currency of our lives living on the edges of the grace. We can acknowledge that God is near but never truly see him as present and thereby lose out on the power of a grace filled life. This is biological life … it is not life in full!

The central theme of LWG is that we read the Bible not just for information but to discover the relationship with God that we can have. Our hearts and minds are stretched to greater realization as we see how the relationship has touched other humans for the centuries before we arrived on the scene. We read to know God, not just know of Him. In return, God speaks to us individually through His Word. He offers comfort, guidance, instruction, wisdom – anything we need so long as we hear his voice as we read His story.

There is a risk in exploring spiritual formation through the Bible that derives from our brokenness. The risk is that we try to do something rather than resting in the grace offered. Jesus pointed this out to the Pharisees:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (Jn 5:39-40)

The Bible is not the source of life, its author is. When we read for spiritual growth, we read to know the author the words. May He bless us in our efforts and help us to understand it is not for our efforts.