ARTICLES

Following the Master

As we continue learning more about spiritual disciplines, it’s important to keep in mind that regimens are different than rhythms, which are part of the flow of daily Christian living. You can read about spiritual rhythms here. This second part is geared toward helping you explore more spiritual regimens and the purpose behind them. Remember, these should be approached prayerfully and not by just “plowing into them.” Regimens are often considered practices of abstinence, meaning they use self-restraint to avoid or to get rid of something. In that sense, they often feel abrupt and difficult.

 

SECRECY

 

Have you noticed just how much self-promotion runs underneath our communication these days? Social media makes it easier than ever to promote ourselves in subtle ways  – look at my kids, look at where I’m at, look who I’m with! Or consider people who bring conversations back around to themselves or who try to play the game of one-upmanship in telling stories. Our society emphasizes self-importance over humility.

One key regimen, secrecy, is difficult because it really runs against our desire to be accepted, recognized, and important. Author of Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us Adele Calhoun writes, “We want people to know just how generous, smart, successful, and popular we are. But we don’t want to appear to be a braggart so we come up with subtle and socially approved ways of promoting ourselves and our image.” Whether we let people know about the insider conversations we had recently or the organizations we have given to, ours is a culture built on being noticed. Dallas Willard once wrote, “Secrecy, rightly practiced enables one to place the public relations department entirely in the hands of God.”

Jesus Himself valued secrecy. In John 2:24 we read, “But Jesus would not entrust Himself them (people), for he knew all people.” Jesus knew the real motives of people. Much of His own motivation for instructing others not to report what they had seen and experienced stemmed from his desire to keep people from coming to him only to get something they needed.

Secrecy then is an abrupt spiritual discipline that is practiced to literally “not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). The best way to start practicing is to land on a start and end date, preferably longer than a week and shorter than two months. Examine yourself and your instinctual desires to improve your own image in others’ eyes. During this time I would recommend praying over what is revealed in your own heart. Confess this and remember that God considers you valuable not because of what you contribute, but because of who you are in Christ. You might think about incorporating the following regimen into your time of secrecy and making it into a covenant with the Lord:

  • Decline adding to any conversation with stories that put you in a good light or trying to one-up someone else.

  • Avoid wanting to know more in most cases. There is a kind of curiosity for the sake of wanting to be “in,” which is a vice

  • Practice your devotional time in seclusion

  • Give to another in secret

  • Refraining from telling others about your talents, skills, or good deeds.

  • Refrain from trying to be funny to get people to accept you.

 

SIMPLICITY

 

We often deal with crazy schedules and responsibilities that pull us in endless directions. Our lives sometimes seem like they are full of clutter that actually makes us feel more enslaved. What becomes valued more is comfort and ease. Ironically, we who have much as a nation in terms of the world’s wealth are often the most distracted, miserable people on the earth.

The truth is that Christians throughout history have had to intentionally carve out a life that was simpler. Some left cities to live in the desert (the Desert Fathers) as a way to reject the temptation of accruing possessions and power. Some fled to monasteries and convents to build communities where, without distraction, God could be found in the present moment.

Jesus reminded us of the power of treasure. He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven”(Matt. 6:19-21). Our real treasure is not found in this life but rather in God’s kingdom. The practice of simplicity is necessary to remind us that our treasure is not what we accumulate, but what we already have access to. We actually get to practice caring less about material possessions and caring more about offering ourselves to our heavenly Father.

When we practice simplicity, we are engaging in a regimen that is counter-cultural. You should always expect some spiritual pushback when you enter into any regimen, especially one of simplicity. In this practice we are rejecting our sinful desire to accumulate more and our feeling of entitlement in order to place our identity squarely on how we are already declared to be spiritually rich because of Christ’s poverty (2 Corinthians 8:9). Richard Foster in his article, “The Discipline of Simplicity” writes, “The Christian Discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.”

For a season, think about specific ways you could release possessions, power, and privilege. Focus on ways in which you could give away more, downsize your current standard of living, or trade out one weekly activity for one where you serve the poor. Others find ways of limiting consumption – food, entertainment choices, adult gadgets, simplifying leisure choices. The point is to find ways to trim your life down and make an effort to live more simply than you currently do.

 

SHORT TERM MISSION TRIPS

 

I’m including this as a spiritual regimen because short-term mission trips represent an intense, abrupt experience in a spiritual greenhouse. While our lives should reflect mission as a rhythm (regular witness to others), there are opportunities to step outside your comfort zone to be the hands and feet of Jesus to others in unfamiliar settings around the world.

Mission work is not about fixing others, problems overseas, or yourself. You don’t go on a missions trip to make much of you. You participate in missions because like any regimen, they put you in a place where you get to the end of yourself. It’s only there that you can then “find yourself.” This spiritual regimen emphasizes trusting God because we can’t make it work with our own power and strength.

It’s while you are on a mission trip that you begin to see God’s heart and how much bigger it is than just your happiness. To see orphans, the poor, those who have no access to Christian material, and those who are vulnerable is a reminder that you are blessed to be a blessing to others (Psalm 67). This forms your soul because you not only begin to see the world’s population in a different light, but you begin to see your own life in a different light as well.

The spiritual disciplines are a key means of growth for the Christian. They're how we "get on the road" to becoming more like Jesus. Some are meant to be part of the normal rhythm of daily life. (I wrote about those here.) Others, the regimens, are meant to interrupt our daily life and invite God to something new or different in us. You can see my introduction to the regiments here. 

What is below is a brief picture of a few key regimens. These are not exhaustive descriptions of each practice; they're an entry point. There are some great resources that go deeper into this topic. See the list of resources for the Following the Master curriculum here. The best book for a deep dive on the regimens is Adele Calhoun's Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. 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.[1]

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.”

[1]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.

I've written about spiritual practices, both rhythms and regimens, to supplement to the Following the Masterstudy. Spiritual disciplines do not directly cause growth but rather put us in the stream of God's grace so the Spirit can do His work in our hearts to transform us. In an earlier article, I reference Dallas Willard saying, "God's address is at the end of your rope." What did Willard mean and how does this connect with the spiritual disciplines?

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. 

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:7, "…but train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." There is a rigorous training in the Christian life, but it's not the kind of training that focuses primarily on your will to accomplish something. For instance, one should not look at the fruit of the Spirit, or any command in the Bible to be virtuous and approach it as if they could make themselves be "that".

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