Regimens in the Christian Life
People fall along a diverse spectrum of spiritual maturity. You have beginners, which are both new Christians as well as those who simply haven't thrown themselves into the means of grace to help them grow. Those are the people who most need to jump into practicing basic rhythms in their life. But then you also have seasoned Christians, who have known and walked with the Lord for years and who readily practice the rhythms of the Christian life, yet may describe their spiritual growth as stagnant. There is great temptation to settle as if that's as good as it’s going to get. And this is where the regimens come in! Regimens are those spiritual practices [disciplines] that are best done in short spurts because of their intensity.
In 313 CE the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great issued an edict that Christian worship would no longer be considered a criminal action. This effectively ended the persecution of Christians. But some of the early Christians noted that persecution brought with it a built-in mechanism for spiritual growth. When your life is on the line, you tend to get real clear on what's worth giving your life to. So with the end of persecution some of the early Christians, the Desert Fathers, retreated to the Nile desert region in Egypt and embraced "asceticism," or giving up bodily comfort and material possessions, as a way to "re-create" the effects of persecution. Of this phenomenon, Helen Waddell wrote in The Desert Fathers, "Now that the Church and the State were at peace, the idea of martyrdom… [gave way to the ideal] of asceticism [as] a substitute for the shedding of blood."
This is similar to what regimens do: they turning up the heat, so to speak, and strip away some unnecessary things so that what remains is the gospel. Your character can then be forged by the Holy Spirit. In reality, this is what trials and difficulties do in general. If the spiritual disciplines/practices are intended to get us to the end of our own resources to declare our utter need for God's grace, the regimens are short-term, abrupt, "disruptive" practices that reveal our hearts and point us to God's gracious love while having a refining effect.
Regimens would include solitude, silence, fasting, simplicity, certain types of prayer, contemplation, mission, and secrecy. A wonderfully complete resource to pick up would be Adele Calhoun's book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. There's a bit more in it for us to master, but there's something helpful for all of us no matter where we are on the spectrum of maturity.
What is below is not an exhaustive description of each practice but rather a brief picture of a few key regimens. My suggestion is that you take time to ask the Lord if there is a regimen you should practice, then wait. Let the Spirit do his great work by motivating you. Resist both the feeling of I-don’t-do-enough guilt and the knee-jerk reaction to fix...something.
SILENCE & SOLITUDE (Luke 5:16)
I include these together because they can be practiced simultaneously. In our modern time of noise, these are incredibly difficult to practice. For the extroverted, type A person, trying to “unplug” is often brutal. However, for the introvert, while they might love the silence, the temptation is to overthink or get stuck on things. The heart behind these disciplines is this: Lord, my life is filled with noise and everything calling for my attention. I don’t know how to pay attention and listen to you. If your sheep listen to your voice (John 10:27), I don’t know how to recognize your voice unless you’re shouting at me.
Silence and solitude are renewing. They have a way of taking our fragmented self (I’m a mom/dad, I’m an employee, I’m a spouse, I’m a consumer, I’m a victim, etc.) and in the pressure cooker of silence reveal that the multiple identities we often grasp on to don’t make us a whole person. That only happens when we recognize our ultimate identity as beloved by the Father because of the gospel. The difficulty of silence and solitude is that they reveal our false self, and the blessing is that they help us to detach from them and re-attach to God in our identity.
In silence you see how much you use words and how often they really are unnecessary. What if you find out that your use of words, talking to others, is really about impressing them or even making much about you? Silence stills your heart so that instead of racing to get your words in, you can listen to God. Solitude reminds you that you don’t live for the presence and approval of others. Look for the subtle idolatrous ways that you put people in this ultimate place in your life.
Often silence and solitude are best done over a period of days. There are numerous retreat centers that will allow you the quiet that you need to re-center yourself on the gospel. I can make some suggestions about where to go as well as what to do on a silent retreat for the weekend. The main things are 1) turn off all electronics, 2) leave all work behind, and 3) bring a journal. Have a loose plan for the weekend full of Bible reading and prayer. If a book besides the Bible would help, bring one. I can make a recommendation what kind of book to use. Email Jon
For those of you that are really active and organized, this is incredibly hard. I can’t tell you how many people automatically say, “I could never do this.” Yes, you can. But the time spent in silence and apart from others is also jarring. You will find in some ways you have to “detox” from your cell phone or email. What if you found out that in automatically responding to them, you are really saying how much like being needed? Silence and solitude are very abrupt practices that reveal the heart and thereby allow us to create space in our frantic lives for the Lord to speak through His Word in the stillness and aloneness.
FASTING (Acts 13:2; Matthew 6:16-18)
When I worked in Davis, CA, for student housing, my boss, who was raised Catholic, announced to us that he was going to give up drinking beer for Lent. Limited or focused fasting is practiced not only by Catholics but also by Protestants today. I thought this was an interesting, even admirable, commitment, but then I saw him get raging drunk on wine every weekend. Frankly, I was more confused than anything. How does a person take something with such religious significance and find an escape clause. He missed the point.
Fasting was a common practice in Old Testament times, and we see this carry over into the New Testament. Our modern approach to fasting is to make it about fixing ourselves – diet, dealing with gluttony, etc. We see it simply as a denial. I spoke with a good friend who is both Jewish and a follower of Jesus the Messiah, and he confirmed that fasting in the Old Testament was never practiced to “fix” a person. Rather fasting had two main purposes and both were centered on God: 1) to plead with God to act, usually with an attitude of prayer or mourning, or 2) to act on a desire for more of God in one’s life. You can see an example of the first in Nehemiah 1:4 and the second in Joel 2:12. Jesus takes fasting and gets to the heart of it during an intense period of temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 8:2-3: “Man shall not live on bread alone.” The real point of fasting then is to remind you that it is the Lord who ultimately sustains you, not the food you eat. Jewish author Lauren Winner wrote, “When I am hungry, it is possible to remember where my dependence lies.”
While food is a great blessing and has it’s own spiritual significance, we fast not because generally we are gluttons, but rather to confront the belief we have that there are other things in this world that sustain us rather than God. In other words, fasting is meant to be difficult and a persistent reminder that our real source of sustenance is not physical food but rather a spiritual sustenance. Fasting is a practice of denial where for a time period, you willingly give up something in order that you would then prayerfully recall 1) at the end of your own resources, it’s God who will make a way and 2) Jesus is your real sustenance in life (John 6:68; Col. 3:16).
A few words of caution when fasting: start small; set a time table; don’t announce it to a wide group of people; and if you choose to fast from food, make sure you check with your doctor first. While fasting usually is practiced by withholding physical food, some people fast from other things (e.g. media). For those that are new to fasting, start small with a meal a week for a given period. Use that time to pray [talking to God] about why you are fasting. If you are fasting from something other than food, you might think about how you will fill the time in a better way (e.g. reading a Christian classic).
THE PRAYER OF EXAMEN (Philippians 1:9-10)
The ancient Christians had forms of prayer that moved a person beyond the typical, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication model. For instance, the monk Ignatius Loyola (for whom the Chicago university is named) thought that the examination of one’s day or life was a gift from God to bring a sense of focus on what is, or should be, primary. This became formalized in what’s called the Prayer of Examen(Latin for “examination”).
Our first reaction should not be to dismiss Catholic spirituality. I realize that there is good reason for concern, and Catholic writings should be read thoughtfully and through an evangelical lens. The problem with discounting all Catholic spiritual writing is two-fold. First, our tradition doesn’t start abruptly with the Reformation. In fact, John Calvin when writing the Institutes of the Christian Religionreferenced Bernard of Clairvaux quite a bit, who in his own day was considered a bit of a reformer Catholic! But second, in my experience and studies, it’s the spiritual Catholic writers who had an excellent understanding of the heart as well as the Spirit’s sanctifying work on the heart.
In practicing these “forms” of prayer in short intervals, one was to eventually make them a rhythm in one’s prayer life. It was a way of examining the day at periodic times – at noon and at the end of the day – recognizing how God is always at work. In our busyness and trying to get things done, we can often miss the small ways in which God’s grace is always abundant to us in Christ. Examination prayers are a way of recalling that Christ is always with me when things are going well or even they aren’t.
There are usually self-reflective questions that accompany the Prayer of Examen:
- Place yourself in God’s presence by thanking Him for His great love for you demonstrated in Jesus’ sacrifice.
- Pray for grace to understand God’s ways and how He acts in your life.
- Prayerfully review your day thinking about these questions:
- How has God revealed His presence to me in small ways? In large ways?
- What did I find myself most grateful for today?
- What did I find myself thinking about mostly today?
- What emotions then did I find stirring in my heart? Love? Fear? Worry? Joy?
- What do I need to admit to God is really sin (not just some mistake)? Where did I see it “erupt” out of my heart? This is confession, getting to the end of our sufficiency as we honestly admit it’s sin yet admit that Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient for forgiveness.
- When did I see the fruit of the Spirit “erupt” out of me?
- Did these things draw you closer to or push you further from God?
- Now take these and prayerfully talk to God expressing your gratitude that He’s always with you and will never leave you (Hebrews 13:5). Look forward to the rest of the day or tomorrow praying that you will join with God in His great work
In this we find what Elizabeth Elland Figueroa discovered when she wrote, “The main thing is not a thing at all, but a person – Jesus Christ.”
To dig deeper, take a look at Reading the Christian Spiritual Classicsby Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. The authors are solidly evangelical, gospel-centered proponents who have a great grasp of the human heart.