Chapter 4

Personal Spiritual Disciplines

Although it began in 1897 with just 15 participants, recent Boston Marathons average 30,000 runners navigating the 26.2-mile course. While it may appear to be a massive, homogenous crowd of people weaving through the streets as they head for the finish line, each runner has a unique number that distinguishes them in the crowd.

Our spiritual journeys feel similar. We are part of larger communities of people heading toward a common goal, but it is also a deeply personal and unique experience. The dual perspective of the individual among the throng is celebrated in Psalm 121, a song the Israelites sang on their way to the temple to worship God as part of annual religious festivals. The Lord, who “watches over Israel” (psalm 121:4), also “watches over you” (v. 5). In Hebrew, “you” in verse five is singular, emphasizing how God lovingly oversees both the whole nation and each individual.

While the spiritual disciplines all inform and interact with other disciplines, it’s helpful to separate the remaining disciplines into two groups: the personal spiritual disciplines that focus on each person’s individual relationship with God, and the relational spiritual disciplines often practiced in the communities of faith journeying alongside us. Here we highlight the disciplines of solitude and fasting because they feel particularly relevant to current issues.

Solitude

Most of us live in the new reality of instant communication, an abundance of easily accessible information and media, and the constant introduction of devices designed to help us accomplish tasks at home and work. While we are grateful for technological advances, a constant clatter of beeps, dings, alerts, and distractions can also easily overwhelm and distract us.

God often speaks to us not in a loud thundering boom or crackling lighting but in the “gentle whisper” the Old Testament prophet Elijah heard after the storm had passed (1 kings 19:12).

Into the noise of our lives, solitude is the intentional decision to spend time apart from the responsibilities and distractions of everyday life, whether just a few minutes or a longer period, in order to engage with God. Author Henri Nouwen wrote, “Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life,” reflecting not only his personal experience but the example set by Jesus.

The Bible gives us many glimpses into Jesus’s pattern of prioritizing solitude despite facing pressing ministry opportunities. When we read Luke’s account that “news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses” (luke 5:15), we might expect Jesus to be constantly available to the people. How does Jesus actually respond? “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (v. 16).

If Jesus needed solitude to pray, we should not be surprised that we need it as well. During solitude, God invites us to listen, which might come as we engage in other spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading, or meditating on Scripture. Solitude provides an opportunity to experience “deep call[ing] to deep” (psalm 42:7) as we allow the innermost desires of our souls to express themselves to the Lord.

Finding solitude sometimes requires creativity, but it’s usually possible. Perhaps you need a comfy chair in a small corner of the attic that can be off limits to other family members in the early morning. Many churches offer space for solitude and prayer, and even hospitals have areas set aside for reflection and quiet. A walk in the outdoors can be a “lonely place” offering space for reflection and prayer. Even in a chaotic break room, earplugs and a well-placed chair can create a quiet area.

Whenever we carve out time and space to hear God’s voice, we can experience the reality of our loving God’s constant presence and be reminded that He delights to meet with His children.

In the New Testament, Jesus affirms His guidance is available to Christians with the reminder that He is our Good Shepherd and that we, His sheep, “follow him because [we] know his voice” (john 10:4). This is all possible because of Jesus’s Spirit, whom He promises to all believers (john 10:26). As we rely on God’s Spirit to practice the spiritual disciplines, we can affirm it is God who directs and guides us.

Fasting

The spiritual discipline of fasting is designed to free us from the control of anything that competes with God for our trust and affections. Choosing to relinquish something we depend on is a small way of affirming and reminding ourselves that God is our only true provider and sustainer.

Fasting is found frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. Fasting in the Old Testament often involved abstaining from food. Hannah fasted and prayed for a child (1 samuel 1). When the prophet Nehemiah learned the walls of the city of Jerusalem had fallen into disrepair, he fasted and prayed as he sought guidance from God (nehemiah 1:1–11). King David fasted regularly, as well as at specific times when he faced overwhelming circumstances (2 samuel 12:16–23; psalm 35:13; 69:10). The prophet Daniel fasted and prayed on several occasions (daniel 9:3; 10:2–3).

In Matthew 6:16–18, Jesus gave His disciples an explicit encouragement to fast, along with specific guidelines as part of a sermon on living a spiritual life. Jesus started his discussion with, “When you fast” (v. 16), not “if you fast.” In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer agrees: “Jesus takes it for granted that His disciples will observe the pious custom of fasting.”

Following Jesus’s resurrection, we read of several occasions when leaders in the early church fasted (acts 13:2–3; 14:23). And Paul encouraged married believers to occasionally fast from sexual intimacy “so that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (1 corinthians 7:5).

While fasting in the Bible often involved abstaining from food, British pastor Martyn-Lloyd Jones helpfully explains the definition can be expanded to include “abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.”

If we are medically able to do so, a gentle way to begin the spiritual discipline of fasting from food might be to skip lunch and use that time to read the Bible or pray. Consider not eating breakfast and lunch on a day reserved for fasting, before moving to longer fasts. When fasting from food, it’s important to still drink plenty of fluids.

Non-food fasts might include fasting from social media one day per month and gradually increasing to one day per week. Some find it meaningful to fast from email or texting for several hours each evening. They might use that time to engage with family, read the Bible or an inspiring book, or even go to bed early!

Whatever type of fast we explore as part of our spiritual journeys, the opportunity is to use the time for a spiritual purpose such as concentrated prayer (ezra 8:23), listening for guidance or direction (acts 13:2), asking for protection (esther 4:16), confessing sin (1 samuel 7:6), or worshiping (luke 2:37). I have also discovered when I seek God through the spiritual disciplines, He affirms and provides the spiritual blessing of rest (matthew 11:28–30).

After the fast, as we again enjoy food or engage with technology, we are also reminded anew of the truth that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (james 1:17).

In the Old Testament, God made a covenant with Abraham. This unconditional covenant outlined God’s promise to bless Abraham, his descendants, and all the nations of the world (genesis 15:6–21). Later, God made a conditional covenant with Moses that promised additional blessings but also required the Israelites to fulfill certain requirements (exodus 19:3–6). This is called the Mosaic law.

When Israel was unable to keep the Law, God revealed through the prophet Jeremiah that He would replace the conditional Mosaic covenant with the unconditional new covenant (jeremiah 31:31–34). This prophecy was fulfilled in the person of Jesus (luke 22:20; hebrews 9:15) and made available to all people (galatians 3:26–29). The new covenant is best outlined by Jesus when He said the greatest commandment is to love God and our neighbors (matthew 22:37–40).

Study Question: In the section on fasting found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:16–18, Jesus gave several guidelines for fasting. What are these guidelines and how might we incorporate them when we fast?

Reflection Questions: What are the biggest challenges you face in creating space for solitude? How might you ask God to help you overcome those obstacles?

Application: Consider choosing one item to fast from in the coming week. When you complete your fast, take time to reflect on your experience.

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