Spiritual Disciplines – Introduction

I love reading history and more specifically, church history.  Currently I am working my way through Diarmaid MacCullough’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.  Its a great book.  As I read it, I enjoyed rediscovering one of the more intriguing persons from the history of the church – Simon Stylites.  He lived in the 400s in Syria.  After becoming somewhat famous as a hermit, people kept coming to him for spiritual advice.  In an effort to get away from people so he could focus on praying, he lived up on top of a pole…for 37 years.  His followers would send food up in a bucket and he’d send it back down.  This style of life only increased his fame and people still came to him for advice.

In some ways, this exhibits the best and the worst of monasticism.  Monasticism arose in the early church after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.  Prior to this you could prove your commitment by literally dying for your faith.  Now instead of persecution, being a Christian might mean promotion in your job.  Not all thought this was a good thing, and many retreated to the desert to pursue intense experiences of God.  At its best, such people experienced God and this experience caused them to return to society in Christ-like service.  At its worst, such a system made it appear as if some people who could live such a life were on a fast-track for heaven, holier then everyone else, and doing nothing good in the world.

When you start talking about spiritual disciplines among evangelicals, the fear by some is that it is “too Catholic.”  Spiritual disciplines are what monks and nuns do, right?  Those of us who are children of the Protestant Reformation tend to be a bit schizophrenic about the work of growing in faith.  The teaching of salvation by grace through faith – that you can do nothing to earn your salvation, instead you are saved by a loving God who loves you just as you are – is a beautiful thing.  Where so many other religions say to do something to get right, grace says it has been done.  But this is just the beginning.

The Christian culture I grew up in tends to be obsessed with getting into the faith.  We had altar calls and constant pressure to confess your sins and come to Jesus.  The stories of kids who did this year after year at summer camp or a Christian music festival are myriad.  Unfortunately, the “what comes next” has often been limited to a few rules (don’t get drunk, don’t have premarital sex) and a few practices (read the Bible and pray).

Further, when I talk to people I often get the impression they expect God to just zap them with new desires and choices.  Many seem surprised when I teach that growing in faith is similar to growing in any other discipline – it takes work and effort.  You can’t sit down at a piano and play Beethoven.  You can’t sit down at a car and change the oil and brakes.  You can’t sit down at a computer and write a good book.  All these skills – music, mechanics, writing and the rest – require hard work and effort.  It is not earning your salvation, it is making an effort to grow closer to the God who saved you.  As Dallas Willard says, grace is opposed to earning, not effort.

Speaking of Dallas Willard, his book The Spirit of the Disciplines is amazingly helpful on this subject.  He writes:

One must train as well as try. An athlete may have all the enthusiasm in the world; he may “talk a good game.” But talk will not win the race. Zeal without knowledge or without appropriate practice is never enough. Plus, one must train wisely as well as intensely for spiritual attainment.

To undertake the disciplines was to take our activities— our lives— seriously and to suppose that the following of Christ was at least as big a challenge as playing the violin or jogging.

We are going to spend the rest of the semester studying, and hopefully putting into practice, the Spiritual Disciplines.  In addition to the Bible, I will be heavily relying on Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline.  To give a taste of his book, he speaks of the relation of God’s work and our work:

“Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours.  The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside.  We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a grace that is given…if  all human strivings end in moral bankruptcy (and having tried it, we know it is so), and if righteousness is a gracious gift from God (as the Bible clearly states), then is it not logical to conclude that we must wait for God to come and transform us?  Strangely enough, the answer is no..  God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us” (6-7)

There are many disciplines to discuss – prayer, fasting, worship, service and more.  The one to start with is meditation – learning to hear God’s voice and obey God’s word.  Foster writes that this discipline cannot be learned in a book, it is learned by practice.  I read like 50 books a year, so this is very difficult for me!  I have never had problems reading the Bible, but sitting in silence and listening for God has always been a struggle.  I suspect I am influenced by my culture and feel I am not doing anything so it is a waste of time.

Foster says that God speaks to those who are willing to listen.  That is those who open the door to God’s knocking (Revelation 3:20).  People who hear from God in scripture are not spiritual superstars, they are normal people who listen.  We need to take the time to get away from the noise of our society, perhaps in the early morning quiet (it worked for Jesus, see Mark 1:35) and listen.

Meditation is not necessarily just sitting there and listening for a literal voice.  It is closely connected to both prayer and Bible reading.  But rather then reading a large chunk of scripture, meditation works best when a few lines are focused on.  This is something I have been trying to do more lately, because I tend to read a lot!  I try to pick out a line or two that sticks out and I repeat it to myself.  I ask God why it sticks out and ponder what God may be teaching me through this.

I encourage you to take some time this weekend – get somewhere quiet, read a bit of scripture, maybe get out into nature and listen for what God may speak to you in the stillness.

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