Monthly Archives: January 2013

Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Fasting challenges self-gratification. In fasting we are telling our bodies to temporarily give up one of our most basic needs in order to seek first the kingdom of God.

Confession: I am speaking purely theoretically. On a few occasions I have fasted a single meal, never more than that, and I have not done so recently. Indeed, this little study has convicted me of my own bent toward self-gratification. Perhaps I should put some of this into practice. Another word of warning: Since I haven’t incorporated this practice into my regular Christian life, and because I don’t know many people who have, I haven’t had to refine my thinking on the subject. The thoughts below are brief and preliminary and open to critique.

I first started thinking about fasting after reading Maslow’s A Theory of Human Motivation (see an introduction here). Essentially, Maslow postulates the so-called pyramid of needs, the fulfillment of which lead to health and happiness. These needs are fulfilled in order. Our most basic needs are physiological needs – hunger, thirst, etc. These needs are “pre-potent,” that is, “higher” needs (esteem, love, self-actualization) do not become conscious until we have gratified these basic needs. For a chronically hungry man “freedom, love, community feeling, respect, philosophy, may all be waved aside as fripperies which are useless since they fail to fill the stomach. Such a man may fairly be said to live on bread alone.” (emphasis mine) [1]

Immediately I thought of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” By far Jesus’ most pressing need was for food. By Maslow’s estimation, he should have had no other thought, no other desire, than to fill his stomach. At that moment, “The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread’” Jesus, being the Son of God, could have made it happen. Instead he responded:

“It is written: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

I don’t believe Jesus was invoking some superhuman ability at this point. He did not lay aside his humanity for the moment while he was being tempted. He was able to resist temptation because he relied on the Holy Spirit and, I believe, because His values were aligned with the values of the Father. He knew that his greatest need was not to fill his belly, but to be sustained by the very word of God and walk in obedience to the Father.

This brings us to what I think it is one of the most interesting paragraphs in A Theory of Human Motivation. In seeking to explain why his ordering doesn’t always appear to translate in the real world he states:

Perhaps more important than all these exceptions are the ones that involve ideals, high social standards, high values and the like. With such values people become martyrs; they give up everything for the sake of a particular ideal, or value. These people may be understood, at least in part, by reference to one basic concept (or hypothesis) which may be called ‘increased frustration-tolerance through early gratification’. People who have been satisfied in their basic needs throughout their lives, particularly in their earlier years, seem to develop exceptional power to withstand present or future thwarting of these needs simply because they have strong, healthy character structure as a result of basic satisfaction. They are the ‘strong’ people who can easily weather disagreement or opposition, who can swim against the stream of public opinion and who can stand up for the truth at great personal cost. It is just the ones who have loved and been well loved, and who have had many deep friendships who can hold out against hatred, rejection or persecution.[2]

There are two essential points here for the Christian walk. First, commitment to high values is essential if we don’t want to be ruled by our base desires. This should not surprise us since central to obedience is the command to “love (value) the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” Re-ordered love/value is essential to spiritual formation. Jesus most certainly was a man of strong moral conviction. His ordered values allowed him to place obedience to God over filling his stomach in the midst of what must have been crushing hunger.

Second, in the words of Maslow, “it is just the ones who have loved and been well loved… who can hold out against hatred, rejection or persecution.” While Maslow saw this from a human perspective, I think the spiritual principle holds as well. Because Jesus loved the Father and was well loved by the Father, he was able to stand in the midst of suffering. Because He was sustained by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” he was able to forgo, for a time, filling his belly with bread.

There are many implications for the Christian walk (maybe to be expanded later). But I set out to apply this to the spiritual discipline of fasting so let me try to fulfill that goal.

First, in the Bible, fasting was often accompanied with prayer. It’s a time to practice Jesus’ command to “seek first the kingdom of God.” It is a time to consciously remind ourselves that communion with the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit, is more essential to our lives than even our most basic physiological needs.

Second, in an age of consumerism (You need to fulfill your desires now! Buy this product!) fasting can help us add some much needed self-discipline and teach us to wait on God and to seek obedience to Him over quick self-gratification, a skill that can carry over into other areas of the Christian walk.

[1] Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation.

[2] Ibid.

Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer

See the introduction here.

Prayer challenges self-sufficiency. In prayer we call for help from outside ourselves. It also challenges materialism. Indeed, prayer is completely meaningless apart from the existence of a real spiritual world.

Another pastor said this to me the other day: “Everything seems more urgent than prayer.”

How true.

It is one of the tenets of modernity that the true power in the universe lies in man, individually or collectively. If we want some that to change we have to make it happen.

That kind of thinking easily finds its way into the Christian mind. Consciously or unconsciously we think things like, “I can make myself good.” “I can make the church grow.” “I can win enough arguments to win over skeptics.” “My political party can make our nation moral again.” “My church can bring about the spiritual renewal of the city.” “Our movement can end world hunger.” I’m not speaking just of rugged individualism (though this, too, is problematic) but of the belief that the true power of the universe to bring about positive change resides in human will and intelligence.

The truth is that God is the one in control of all things. He does, indeed, give us free will. By his common grace all people do act in meaningful and responsible ways – though more often than not our free actions bring disorder instead of order. And, by His special grace, God empowers His people for good works. But, any power we do have is strictly derivative. It all comes from God.

It takes energy to consistently remember this. It takes effort. It takes… discipline.

The discipline of prayer draws our minds to this spiritual reality.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name

We have a Father in heaven who loves us. He is the uncreated Creator. All power comes from Him.

“your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

We seek His will, not the will of man. He will being about that will, not us.

Give us today our daily bread.”

He supplies all of our needs. Every good and perfect gift comes from Him.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors

When we do try to act independently, autonomously, apart from and in rebellion to the will of God, it’s only through Him that our sins can be forgiven.

“And lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from the evil one.”

There are other powers in this world (human and spiritual evil). God is able to deliver us from all sources of evil.

Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines: Bible Reading

See the introduction here.

Bible Reading challenges autonomous reason. In the study of Scripture we accept revelation from outside ourselves. Bible reading also challenges self-law as it calls us not only to receive information, but also submit to the authority of Jesus.

How you read the Bible makes all the difference. You can read it as the Word of God or as just another word of man. If you read it in the former manner, as the revelation of God, the consistent practice of reading (and study, contemplation, memorization, etc.) will reinforce the idea that God has revealed His will to us, that our own conceptions of truth need to be continually renewed (Rom 12:2), and that God really is in charge. It is also possible to read the Bible from the other perspective – that it is just another word of man. Doing this will reinforce the idea that your reason and intelligence are the truly authoritative sources of knowledge over and against whatever the Bible might say.

This appears to be a sort of chicken-and-egg sort of scenario: To train our minds to think of the Bible as God’s Word, we have to come at it with the prior belief that it is God’s Word. But this would only be the case in a purely closed system where God does not play a role. This is not the case with the Bible.

This highlights why it is always important to talk about the Holy Spirit every time you talk about the spiritual disciplines. True spiritual transformation always takes place because God is doing it. In the case of Bible reading the Holy Spirit sheds light on the Scripture so that we can (1) recognize it as God’s Word, (2) see how we fall short (conviction of sin), and (3) understand how we need to respond in obedience. In short, because of the Holy Spirit, God’s Word is “sharper than any double-edged sword.” It goes out and does not return void. It is self-authenticating.

So it is possible to come to Scripture with the wrong attitude and walk away with the right attitude. This has happened to me countless times. I have come at Scripture either with a rebellious spirit or, more often than not, just mentally disconnected and walked away feeling convicted, renewed, encouraged, etc. This was the work of the Holy Spirit.

This is why Bible reading is an important spiritual discipline. Because of our desire for autonomous reason (I know it all) and self-law (I’m in charge of me) – desires that are basic to our fallen nature and, I believe, are amplified by the spirit of the age – we are prone to come to the Bible with the wrong attitude. The task of correcting that attitude comes by the (often) slow but (always) continual work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The discipline, faith-fueled effort[1], of consistent Bible reading, is what ensures we come to Scripture through the ups and downs of life.

[1] to borrow the language of Kevin DeYoung in The Hole in Our Holiness.

Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines

Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines

A brief definition:

While I was researching[1] this topic I discovered that my understanding of the term “spiritual disciplines” was somewhat, and significantly, different from how others use the term. It turns out there is a fairly strong polemic from some evangelicals against the theology of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Specifically, some charge that they are calling for something extra-biblical that borders on paganism/mysticism. I read Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines in Seminary and, though it has been a while, I think some of the stronger criticism is overblown. Nevertheless, I do want to distinguish my use of the terminology “spiritual disciplines” in this series from that of Willard/Foster, or at least what others perceive of them.

I recommend reading D.A. Carson’s post on the topic here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/spiritual_disciplines/. Carson observes: “What is universally presupposed by the expression ‘spiritual discipline’ is that such disciplines are intended to increase our spirituality.” I would submit that that is not universally presupposed since I did not previously presuppose it, nor have I ever heard it described that way. It is, of course, quite possible that I am seriously ignorant of the state of public debate in this area.

Instead, when I refer to “spiritual disciplines” I am referring to biblically prescribed activities that require some level of systematic effort on our part (discipline) and which contribute, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to our progressive sanctification (spiritual). It’s quite probable that D.A. Carson would call these efforts “means of grace,” which he offers at the end of his article as preferable terminology.

I elect to use “spiritual disciplines” instead of “means of grace” because the most likely readers of this blog have the same contextual understanding of spiritual disciplines as I do and because the language of “means of grace” is, by comparison, not widely used and could be misunderstood and related to some kind of works-salvation.

Ironically, whichever direction I went with my choice of semantics I was going to have to offer an explanation. I elected to offer an explanation to those “outside” (the broader community) instead of those “inside” (those in my own community who use the language in a similar way as I do/have). What makes this even more ironic is that my most likely readers won’t need this explanation and will not have thought that I was referring to any sort of mystical practice.

Oh well, at least that was a good exercise which helped me clarify my own thinking in the matter.

The Purpose of Spiritual Disciplines Expanded:

As I noted above, I am using the term “spiritual disciplines” to refer to practices that, by the work of the Holy Spirit, contribute to our progressive sanctification, that is, having once-for-all been justified, these practices ought to be instrumental as we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2). They contribute to our transformation[2] in several ways. First and foremost, as Carson writes, “the truly transformative element is not the discipline itself, but the worthiness of the task undertaken: the value of prayer, the value of reading God’s Word.”That is, prayer and the Bible reading are intrinsically good things to do. Regardless of my thesis below, that a regular practice of the spiritual disciplines can tear down false patterns of thought found in modernity and build up the truth of God’s Word, these practices are still intrinsically valuable. I only mean to highlight a few ways that they are even more valuable to today’s generation than are often discussed.

Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Spiritual formation is very much a transformation (or a renewing) of the mind. In our sin, our whole persons experience brokenness, including our patterns of thought. This is true on both the personal and the cultural level. That is not to say that every thought someone has apart from Christ is wrong. God gives a great deal of common grace. For that reason every culture is a mixed-bag of error and insight. Nevertheless, every thought needs to be brought into conformity with Truth. Some just need to be corrected more than others.

Our cultural mindset, let’s use the term modernity[3] for now, espouses several core beliefs which pose a risk to the believer in regard to his or her spiritual growth. Here is a short, non-comprehensive list:

Autonomous reason: The belief that the individual has the capacity to make completely rational decisions based only on empirical evidence.

Self-sufficiency: The belief that the individual has the ability to provide for all of his or her own needs.

Materialism: The belief that the material world is all there is.

Self-gratification: The belief that our first priority is to gratify our desires.

Self-law (autonomy): The belief that we are our own bosses and that no one has the right to tell us what to do.

Self-worship: The belief that the individual is the highest good.

Engaging in the spiritual disciplines provides a way for us to tear down, or at least whittle down, these deeply held beliefs that we all hold, to some degree or another either in practice or in creed. I will expand on the “how” of this in later posts but here’s a quick overview:

Bible Reading challenges autonomous reason. In the study of Scripture we accept revelation from outside ourselves. Bible reading also challenges self-law as it calls us not only to receive information, but also submit to the authority of Jesus.

Prayer challenges self-sufficiency. In prayer we call for help from outside ourselves. It also challenges materialism. Indeed, prayer is completely meaningless apart from the existence of a real spiritual world.

Fasting challenges self-gratification. In fasting we are telling our bodies to temporarily give up one of our most basic needs in order to seek first the kingdom of God.

Worship challenges self-worship. We are called to bow down to God as the ultimate good. In worship we see ourselves in relation to God – as created is to Creator, a necessarily humbling experience. Worship also challenges materialism as the people of God gather together in the presence the God through the Spirit of God.

Service challenges self-gratification. It forces us to look outward with the goal of fulfilling the needs of others, instead of the self.

Tithing challenges self-sufficiency. When you tithe you are saying – “God can do more with my 90% than I can do with my 100%” and “I stand in a place of gratitude for all that God has already given to me.”

I’m sure the list could continue and, since I am not writing all of these at once, I may add some later.

If you’ve made it this far, remember that feedback (positive or negative) along the way is appreciated.

[1] I am using this term lightly. In Seminary, research meant hours of scholarly research at the library of Cornerstone University. Now, research means a little light reading and a few internet searches. This is a function of my available time and energy. I clarify this here so that the reader does not put too much stock in my “research,” though I hope my logic and use of Scripture is still valid.

[2] I am attempting to be careful with my language here. Spiritual disciplines do not transform us – only God transforms us.

[3] I am using this term broadly, and probably not technically, to refer to the subset beliefs commonly held and valued in Western society in the 21st century.

On Faith: A Painful Story

Attic After School starts up this week, so here’s the next installment of “On Faith” from Hebrews 11.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. Hebrews 11:17-19

When I was in Seminary I had to translate Genesis 22:1-14 (God testing Abraham). Translation requires slow and careful attention to every word. It’s impossible to translate (for non-experts) quickly. The problem is that Genesis 22:1-14 is one of those stories you want to get to the end of quickly. You want to get to the part where God stops Abraham from killing Isaac and provides a ram for the offering. You do NOT want to dwell on what precedes that – God’s command to Abraham, Abraham and Isaac setting out, Isaac’s question; “the fire and the wood are here but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Isaac is bound. Abraham raises the knife… I winced every time I translated the words “son” and “father.” I believe the writer wanted this response. He wanted us to feel anxiety, pain, worry, even sickness in the pit of our stomachs.

I am, to this day, still blown away by Abraham’s response. He responded with a faith I will probably never fully grasp. He could have responded in so many different ways. He could have argued – “this is the son of the promise!” Yet, the only record we have is that he simply obeyed.

Somehow, Abraham held two (apparently) competing concepts in his head. First, he really did fear God enough to give his own son (Gen 22:12). Second, he was absolutely confident that God was true to his promise that Isaac would be the son of the promise. The text of Genesis makes this second point clear. Abraham told his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and we will come back to you.” And, in response to Isaac’s questions Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb,” a phrase that prophetically echoes through the ages.

Hebrews 11:19 explains “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead.”

I’m not sure how he worked it all out, but as Abraham held the knife over his son, his only son, he was both prepared to act and certain that he would be returning with Isaac down the mountain. Now that is incredible faith! I can think of no contemporary example or application but I’m not sure that I should. No other story is like it.

except one…

God the Father sent His Son, His one and only Son, the Son who he loved, into the world. There was no closer father/son relationship than this. And yet, both knew the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation was to be the perfect once-for-all sacrifice. Imagine the Father’s heart when his Son cried out in the garden, “please take this cup from me… but not my will, but yours be done.” Make no mistake, God did not force Jesus to go to the cross. The Son acted of his own accord. He laid down his life willingly – spurred on by the same motivations as the Father; the ultimate glory of God and love for the lost sheep. And yet, though they both acted willingly and in one accord this ought not cause us to think that the Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was not really full of anguish. The Christ, fully God, fully man, experienced the full weight of the curse, of hell, as he took the guilt of our sin. He was crushed for our sake, and by his stripes we are healed.

God himself had provided the lamb for the offering, and it was His Son.

Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” If God demonstrated His to us by giving us own Son, how much more will His love continue to work for our good? Indeed, Romans 8 continues “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Though he did not fully understand, this “love of God in Christ Jesus” was the object of Abraham’s faith. He reasoned that God Himself would provide the offering (which He did both with the ram in the thicket and in the once-for-all offering of His Son) and that God could raise the dead (which He did figuratively of Isaac and literally of Christ.) Because of Abraham’s faith, God credited to him as righteousness. Abraham only saw from a distance, but at this stage in history we see fully. And God now offers to us salvation through faith, faith in His promise, faith in His Son, and faith that He can, and did, raise the dead. And, like Abraham, this faith will be credited to us as righteousness because of the grace of God in Jesus.

More on the impact of individualism

I came across this quote from Roxburgh/Boren while reading Timothy Keller’s Center Church

On the impact of individualism…

“When we attend to the way people talk about the gospel, it does not take long to discover just how much the focus lies on meeting personal needs. During testimony sessions about ministry trips, people explain how it changed them or how it gave them an experience they will never forget. In modernity the purpose of life is to fulfill one’s personal destiny, goals, or needs… For moderns, it’s almost impossible to read the biblical narrative without assimilating it to the modern categories of the self and the fulfillment of its needs.

“In Scripture, mission calls a people into a radically different vision on a journey bigger and other than ourselves. Scripture calls us into the memory of an amazing story … not for ourselves but for the sake of the world. The strangeness of this story is its illogical and irresponsible meaning: find life by losing it; only by leaving the places of security are the purposes of God discovered. The God revealed in Scripture gives himself away for the sake of the world” – Alan J Roxburgh and M Scott Boren, Introducing The Missional Church

Humanism in the church

 

Humanism, specifically secular humanism, is prevalent in our culture. Inevitably, the dominant culture will impact the church, for better or for worse. Since much of secular humanism is contrary to biblical teaching we ought to be critical (or at least aware) of how a culture of humanism has affected church practice.

Every church is different. Different churches, and different individual Christians, are affected in different ways. I am not intending to be critical of the Church, or even of the American Church. I am simply attempting to show how humanism can, and sometimes does, impact church practice and values.

Devaluation of church participation: Humanism is fundamentally individualistic and value is placed on church activities and participation to the extent that they benefit the individual. Church participation, then, is seen only as one way to satisfy felt needs or, stated more pietistically, “to grow in your relationship with God.” So you go to church to learn, to feel like you’re part of a community, to be entertained, or to get a feeling of worship. If your church doesn’t sufficiently fill these needs, or it does but getting up on Sunday morning is just too much of a cost for the benefit, then you either drop out or fall into the ever prevalent pattern of a “church hopper.” This is the culture of the consumer church and, much like consumerism, comes out of a culture of humanism that places a high value on self-gratification.

Devaluing of spiritual disciplines: The spiritual disciplines – prayer, Bible reading, fasting, Christian fellowship, confession, etc. – all, to some degree or another, carry with them the theme of self-denial. Humanism, however, is all about self-gratification. Maslow puts food at the bottom of his hierarchy of needs as our most basic need (and therefore as a prerequisite for happiness). In this system fasting just doesn’t make sense and, indeed, becomes a hindrance to growth. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of self-denial, then, have the power to teach us that our physical needs, and gratification of our physical desires, comes second to “seeking first the kingdom of God.” I have been convicted of this recently. If this little research project has taught be anything, it’s that I need to start fasting.

Fear of, or capitulation to, our culture’s sexual ethic: Few things are more unpopular in the world today than the (historic) Christian vision of marriage and sexuality. Why? Christianity views sexuality in relation to obedience to God and giving of one’s self sacrificially to the other. Both these concepts are foreign to humanism. Obedience to God’s law, which is of utmost importance to the believer, is completely absent from Maslow’s pyramid. This tension has caused some segments of the Christian church to capitulate to the humanist model of sexuality which essentially views sexuality as just another means of self-fulfillment.

Devaluing of obedience as discipleship: Speaking of obedience, some churches prefer to view discipleship exclusively as a “relationship.” Certainly, discipleship is dependent upon a relationship with God, but that relationship also entails an expectation of increased obedience to God’s law. So what does this have to do with humanism? Well, one of the “needs” in Maslow’s pyramid is the need for relationship. So, having a “relationship with God” and “loving God” is seen as a way to fulfill their need for relationship. While this is not an invalid way to speak about discipleship and reconciliation with God really does fulfill one of our most basic real and felt needs a problem arises when it’s our only model for discipleship. As said before, while the concept of obedience is absent from the humanist model, it’s an essential biblical theme.

Church as (primarily) a means of satisfying needs: Think for a moment from the perspective of pastor or church leader. What would you steer your church to do? Many churches see their mission as primarily a way to satisfy the felt needs of those who attend or, if they are concerned about the neighborhood, to satisfy the needs of those in the community. So, churches will seek to meet the physical needs (benevolent giving), social needs (potlucks), esteem needs (uplifting sermons), and self-actualization needs (providing a way to develop talents). None of these are illegitimate, but these aren’t the primary or unique mission of the church; to make disciples for the glory of God. When “meeting needs” becomes the primary focus for churches, they are in danger of simply becoming one more service organization that fails to point people to God.

Speaking of sin exclusively in terms of sickness: Jesus himself uses the language of sickness when he says “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” In our church, we are fond of saying that we are a hospital where everyone is sick and in need of healing. So, I do not mean to say that it is incorrect to speak of sin as spiritual sickness. The problem arises when you don’t speak of sin in other terms, like rebellion, or idolatry. Especially in today’s usage, speaking of sin exclusively as sickness implies that we are simply victims and are not responsible agents. We don’t blame someone for getting physically sick (usually) so why would we blame someone for being spiritually sick? This kind of language produces a one-sided view of sin that ignores our responsibility before God. We do need to be spiritually healed – from our own willful rebellion.

What do you think? How else have you seen church life affected by secular humanism?