What Lent disciplines do we need to embrace?

Lent.AJ.620One of the constant temptations of evangelicalism is to decide that we have all the answers and so do not need to listen very carefully to what others say. A parallel temptation is to have the same attitude to God. He has revealed himself in Scripture and has made his will evident—so surely we just need to get on with it? Ironically, this attitude is potentially made worse by recent research on church growth. The Centre for Church Growth in Durham has identified key strategies and practices that lead to growth—so surely all we need to get on an implement them, don’t we?

This attitude is evidenced in four tendencies:

Individualism Evangelicals are not unique in this, but we have often valued strong leaders and heroic individuals. If there is a sense that God has raised up a ‘charismatic’ (in terms of personality) leader, then evangelical culture often makes it hard to ask appropriate questions, and shared leadership doesn’t appear to come naturally.

Modernist rationalism. Evangelical commitment to doctrinal expressions of faith can be very helpful in clarifying issues and positions. But it can also be a sign that the underlying philosophical assumptions are highly rationalist, and assume that the autonomy of the sensing subject at the centre of the process of acquiring knowledge. This rationalist approach can also mark some evangelical approaches to the interpretation of Scripture. As long as we have mastered the text, and have the appropriate techniques of interpretation, then we can have complete certainty about what texts might mean in new contexts. In this approach, there is little room for ambiguity or uncertainty.

Resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit. Whilst many evangelicals have been shaped by the charismatic renewal movements that have influenced western churches since the 1960s, others remain highly suspicious. This can be the result of a healthy skepticism about the latest spiritual ‘fad’, or a positive decision to reflect critically on teaching which is not rooted in Scripture. But it can also be an expression of a reluctance to relinquish control, including a reluctance to live in active dependence on the action of God.

Shallow spirituality—or at least the perception of such. Derek Tidball expresses this perception well in Who Are the Evangelicals?:

Many would…question whether evangelicals have much to offer by way of spirituality. Evangelicalism appears to be such an activist faith that the essential characteristics of spirituality can too easily appear to be squeezed out (p 196).

When told someone was giving a talk on evangelical spirituality, Michael Green (former principal of St John’s Nottingham and rector of St Aldate’s, Oxford) responded ‘That will be a short talk then!’. Gerard Hegarty explains why this might be the case:

Roman Catholic usage has come to associate ‘spirituality’ with the ‘inner life’, or the ‘interior life’, thus making the connection with the mystical tradition…It is not difficult to see how this sits ill at ease with the evangelical emphasis upon practical devotion having a direct influence on character and ‘good works’.

And yet if evangelical leaders lose their vital connection with the life of God, the outward focus of evangelical activity becomes a hollow shell and loses the vital touch of grace. David Watson’s constant struggle, recorded honestly in his final, biographical book Fear No Evil, was to love God more than loving the things of God. The ‘good news’ from which evangelicals get their name is not so much a thing as an act of personal communication from the Creator to his creatures. To understand and communicate this message requires a constant deepening of understanding the person who has sent it.

A good way to reflect on our engagement with God is by considering some of the classic spiritual disciplines.

1. Sabbath

The discipline of keeping Sabbath is one of the oldest spiritual disciplines of God’s people, given as part of the pattern of their life in desert and promised land following the exodus from slavery in Egypt. Over the centuries it became one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Jewish people, and in the Second Temple period set them apart from other peoples in the Roman Empire. Despite the advent of Sunday trading, it is still a significant part of Western culture.

For church leaders, there is no small irony in the fact that Sundays can never be a day of rest. To have a pattern of one day a week away from work or ministry therefore requires a act of discipline, a decision to set a day aside. I once remember a conversation with a colleague who said (with some pride) ‘Oh I haven’t had a day off in years.’ The problem with this goes back to the origins of the Sabbath command: in an agrarian subsistence lifestyle, to refrain from work is an explicit act of trust in God’s provision. If we refuse to take time off, we are communicating that our ministry belongs to us, and depends on our own power and effectiveness, rather than depending on God to give the growth (‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth’ 1 Cor 3.6).

On noticeboards, website and newssheets, proclaiming loudly ‘Thursday is my day off!’ might not be the first thing to communicate. But it does demonstrate a commitment to this discipline. What about members of our congregations? With sound systems to man, welcome desks to staff, coffee to be made and chairs to be moved, ‘every member ministry’ can easily become ‘every member busyness.’ We need to reclaim Sabbath rest as part of our communal inheritance in the body of Christ.

fasting2. Fasting

Fasting has been a classic evangelical spiritual discipline. John Wesley would not ordain anyone who was not in the habit of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Fasting continues to be a regular discipline for some evangelicals, but it has become marginalized, and is discussed much less often in evangelical congregations. And strangely, where it is talked about, the pattern of fasting is usually that found in the Old Testament—of occasional, intensive fasting related to particular issues or occasions.

In fact, Jesus appears to have expected his followers to fast, and to fast often. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus warns against doing our ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, as a way of parading our spirituality. And what does he mention as these regular, frequent spiritual habits? Giving, praying…and fasting. If we read the gospels carefully, we can see that the disciples of John and the Pharisees fasted ‘often’ (Luke 5.33), and Luke even goes on to tell us exactly how often: ‘twice a week’ (Luke 18.12). (This regular fasting would usually have been from after breakfast until a light evening meal.) We need to look outside the gospels, to the early Christian document The Didache, to find out on which days: Mondays and Thursdays. The document (whose name means ‘Teaching’) goes on to specify how followers of Jesus should distinguish themselves from these Jewish ‘hypocrites’: by fasting instead on Wednesdays and Fridays!

The change in pattern of fasting from Old Testament to New was linked with the growth in expectation of God’s deliverance of his people, possibly by means of an ‘anointed’ leader. This link with messianic expectation is confirmed by Jesus’ response to the question about fasting:

How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast. (Mark 2.19–20)

In other words, Jesus associates fasting with expectation of the coming of messiah, the bridegroom, either for the first time, or on his return. In the ancient world, eating signified engagement with the world, and ascetic practices like going without food signified detachment from the world. Regular, intermittent fasting then signifies both an attachment with this world but a longing for the world to come—it is a tangible, dietary way of being ‘in the world, but not of the world’ (John 17.16).

By a wonderful providential coincidence, this pattern of fasting is the kind proposed by Michael Mosley in The Fast Diet. It has physical benefits—but most of all it keeps us rooted in the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ of the kingdom of God. It is a practical way to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (Matt 5.6).

3. Silence

In A Passage to India, E M Forster describes how one character, Mrs Moore, enters a cave and hears all the echoes that her sounds make. She realises that this is how she feels about ‘poor little talkative Christianity’—that is consists of a constant echoing of the same sounds again and again. If Christianity is talkative, then evangelicalism is, perhaps, the most talkative variety. At one level, this arises from a commitment to the value of words. But, like money supply in the economy, if there are too many of them, their value diminishes.

Practising the discipline of keeping silence before others will develop our ability to listen well, to offer hospitable space to the views of others. It will help us to learn that, in a world of social media connectivity, it isn’t actually necessary to correct every wrong view that is out there.

Practising the discipline of keeping silence before God will develop our ability to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, and take us away from prayer as a shopping list of requests.

Membership-hands4. Mutuality

‘Mutuality’ might sound strange as a spiritual discipline, but it is vital to continued personal spiritual health. One thing that is very striking about Paul’s ministry is that (contrary to Mr Incredible!) he never worked alone. In his ‘missionary journeys’ he always worked with at least one partner. The one exception to this was his time in Athens (Acts 17)—which is notable by the small effect it had compared with his ministry in other places. Many of Paul’s letters are co-authored (1 Corinthians with Sosthenes, Colossians and Philippians with Timothy, 1 and 2 Thessalonians with Silas and Timothy), and Romans 16 offers us a long parade of Paul’s co-workers and partners in mission. There is little evidence of monarchical leadership in Pauline churches; the more typical pattern is of shared leadership like that in Antioch (Acts 13.1).

For some, a small cell group of people who trained together in leadership offers a robust context for mutual accountability and support where the depth of friendship grows over the years. For others, having a ‘spiritual director’ or mentor, who is outside the immediate context of ministry, offers something similar. For others still, long-term friendships can provide this kind of mutuality.

Mutuality in ministry needs to extend not just to peers in leadership but also within congregations. I am not sure Paul, who was ‘in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed’ in the Galatian Christians (Gal 4.19) would recognize the clergy/lay divide expressed in the idea that ‘You cannot make friends with members of your congregation.’

These four disciplines of Sabbath, fasting, silence and mutuality are the spiritual antidote to workaholism, autonomy, talkativeness and individualism which are the frequent failings of evangelical leadership. Instead of pushing power, ideas and language out from the leader, they create a hospitable space of welcome for both the other and The Other to be received.

Questions for reflection

Personal: how far have you embraced these spiritual disciplines? Do you have a mature and developing ‘rule of life’, a pattern of spiritual disciplines which nourish your own discipleship and your life in God? Do you give space to God, and not just to the things of God?

Communal: is there an awareness within the community you lead of the Christian life having shape and texture through a shared sense of spirituality? Is coming to faith seen as induction into communal spiritual disciplines?

Programme: what opportunities are there within your community for people to develop their ministry, and share in leadership? Where do you explore spiritual disciplines together?

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7 thoughts on “What Lent disciplines do we need to embrace?”

  1. This is mainly a comment about your point 4, “Mutuality” – with a look backwards towards 1 to 3, but also towards bible-reading and personal prayer since these are the spiritual disciplines with which many of us are most familiar.

    On recently moving to a new city I was impressed to get a year-end circular email from the vicar of our new parish inviting us to share our own experiences of bible-reading and personal prayer with him. So, after 45 years in Christian Unions and evangelical churches, at least there is one person who now knows how many chapters of the Bible I read in a month and how many hours I spend in prayer in the same month. But there is no-one out there, for whom I know the corresponding answers about them. Let alone their practices around Sabbath, Fasting and Silence.

    There’s a prayer on the internet, written (in 2009) by someone who longed to be sharing this kind of information, among other things, with just a few special friends.

  2. Thanks Ian. I really enjoyed your article although I felt you went over some quite familiar old ground and gave all the usual pot shots about the lack of ‘evangelical spirituality’? As someone who came to faith a young adult I’ve found quite the opposite! Every since reading ‘Among God’s Giants: Puritan Vision of the Christian Life’ by Packer as a young Christian I discovered an amazing world of evangelical depth in what John Murray I think called ‘biblical mystiscism’ (Christianity I quickly found out was too mystical to fall into rationalism but too rational to fall into mysticism) through evangelicals like Jonathan Edwards and John Owen onwards into the mid 20th century etc.. I found a rich mine of rigorous evangelical spirituality – Not least prayerful meditation on scripture (moving from the head to the warming of the heart to integrating into life). an incredible focus on the inner life, self examination and personal reflection not only individually but in community (modeled in Wesley’s accountability bands – the precursor of small groups – another evangelical spirituality), and an emphasises of Union with Christ – enjoying and delighting in the life of the Trinity (as well as the spirituality of engagement and ‘activism’ modelled in Jesus’ life and noted in Bebbington quad.) The core of evangelical spirituality comes from the focus on the need for conversion – ‘the new birth’ – new DNA life by grace resulting in a completely new life -style with all the riches that come from this – which sadly in today’s evangelical scene has been significantly obscured and fotgotten. For me it’s not that evangelicals never had a deep spirituality, rather its been lost and overlooked (my reading is that for conservative evangelicals this happened post 2nd WW as it feel into a spirit of rationalism – a shift from a earlier ‘warmer faith’ and on the charismatic end the post-modern mood with its hyper-individualism and immediacy – a fall into mysticism?). The apsotle Paul was always on the look out for ‘evidence of the grace of God’ in his churches and it’s a wonderful model.

    One of my frustrations has long been how evangelicals are always being told how impoverished their spirituality is and are so directed to look elsewhere for depth in other traditions of spirituality – this is not bad in itself – but its such a shame as many so unaware of such a rich history. Putting it other way God used evangelical faith and its rich resources to literally transform Britain in earlier ages and so we need to contextualise this for 21st Christians – to reveal its riches, recover its vitality, dynamism and depth rather than rehearsing the idea (quite wrongly I feel) that evangelicals don’t have a decent spirituality. Wouldn’t that be a wonderfully positive agenda? 🙂

    • Thanks Andy…though the pot shots are others’ rather than mine! I have a Grove booklet on evangelical spirituality in draft, but need to revisit it. Will bear in mind your observations!

  3. Ian,
    I would like to suggest that you don’t plug Amazon, or indeed any other web-based supplier, when it comes to advertising your forthcoming book. All over the country, there are Christian bookshops struggling to survive, and which we will, eventually, lose completely if people cannot be bothered to use them. And they won’t be bothered if all they need is a couple of clicks on their tablet.

    • Thanks Richard—but the books are a couple of clicks away whether I mention that or not! I do sometimes link direct to the publisher (as with my book on Messy Church with BRF).

      But the difficulty with actual book shops on a blog is that by definition I cannot link to them! I know some Christians prefer not to use Amazon at all…

  4. This is purely personal, expressive individualism in action I suppose. I came to the Lord through the Alpha Course, so charismatic evangelicalism, to pigeon hole me, was at the base of faith along with what I’d name now as Communion with God. This was fed by books from Andrew Murray, (The Practice of the Presence of God being one) E M Bounds on prayer, even from Thomas Merton ( before he veers off into eastern mysticism) and from meditating on scripture, Lectio Divina, quiet time, journalling (neglected now).

    Over recent years I’ve benefitted greatly from teaching on Union with Christ, from Mike Reeves, Sinclair Ferguson and others, and from John Owen’s Communion with God.

    Much of this is derided and dismissed in some evangelical circles, as pietism, and mysticism, to be avoided at all costs.

    However, the more I’ve studied scripture, at times, I’ve fallen into the spirit of rationalism, as Andy Atkins so well expresses it above. It is far to easy to do, to rest on self effort and gifts than in the gracious Giver. Isn’t Christianity, particulary over this season, more about giving-in, surrender, to God, to His loving Lordship over every sphere of our lives?. About being jars of clay.

  5. Lenten reflection:
    ‘If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink’ (John 7:37)

    A human can go for more than three weeks without food. (For example, Mahatma Gandhi survived 21 days of complete starvation), but water is a different story.

    At least 60% of the adult body is made of it and every living cell in the body needs it to keep functioning. Water acts as a lubricant for our joints, regulates our body temperature through sweating and respiration, and helps to flush waste.

    The maximum time an individual can go without water seems to be a week. Our bodies lose water through perspiration and excretion. If it is not replenished, the volume of blood (that is required to sustain vital organs) will fall dramatically.

    So, when Jesus used the metaphor of thirst, he was referring to a similarly instinctive craving for vital sustenance.

    We can get a better understanding of this metaphor as we read Proverbs 13:12: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.’

    So, this thirst which makes the heart sick, but which Christ offers to satisfy, is frustrated, unfulfilled hope.

    1. It’s a thirst which overwhelms the mind
    Perhaps, more than any other character in the Old Testament, Hannah exemplified the thirst of frustrated hope. Despite her desire to raise a family, we are told: ’ Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.’ (1 Sam. 1:6 -7)

    As an aside, the last verse in this excerpt demonstrates the instinctive despondency of genuine thirst: Hannah was so overwhelmed by her plight that she wept and lost her appetite. This emotional reaction typifies what the Israelites understood as ‘fasting’. It is not a feat of self-discipline, but an expression of genuine emotion.

    So, when Jesus explained to His followers that they could only overcome certain evils by prayer with fasting, He meant that we need to be emotionally invested in the plight of those for whom we pray. So, let’s be honest. When was the last time that, in prayer, I (or you) wept, as Hannah did, to the point of complete distraction from daily routines and niceties: all due to the situation or condition which I brought before God?

    2. It’s a thirst which provokes our devotion to God
    Further on in 1 Samuel 1, we read: ‘In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
    In her prayer, Hannah promised to dedicate her firstborn to God’s priestly ministry. This was in accordance with the personal consecration to God (the vow of the Nazirite) mentioned in Numbers 6:5: ‘All the days of his vow of Naziriteship there shall no razor come upon his head; until the days be fulfilled, in which he consecrates himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.’

    Is my (or your) thirst characterised by willingness to consecrate God’s provision to his purpose, my (or your) own?

    3. It’s a thirst which can be too intense for words and which some will consider irrational
    We read that: ‘As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”

    We often reject anything we can’t rationalise. Yet, Hannah’s mumbling petitions are a perfect representation of prayer in the Spirit, which Paul describes in Romans: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’

    Initially, the priest Eli mistook Hannah’s sobs and mumbling for symptoms of intoxication and reprimanded her.

    Similarly, just after appointing the apostles and, as He intensified His exertion of divine authority, we read: ‘Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind. And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” (Mark 3:20 – 22)

    Again, on the day of Pentecost, the pilgrims in Jerusalem also mistook for drunkenness the loud and uninhibited praises of the apostles.

    In fact, to this day, the religious or family heritage that we share with others doesn’t prevent them from continuing to exhibit a similar disdain for the plight and authentic spiritual experiences of others. And as before, these reactions are largely fuelled by fear of change, competitiveness and jealousy.

    4. It’s a thirst which God alone can and does quench
    Ultimately, God replied to Hannah’s heartfelt longing as only the Giver of all life can: ‘Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” She said, “May your servant find favour in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.

    Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.” (1 Sam. 1:17-20)

    Consistent with that earlier quote from Proverbs, God’s quenching of Hannah’s thirst with fulfilment was indeed a tree of life, both to herself and, through Samuel’s prophetic ministry, to the people of Israel.

    So, it was on the last day of the Jewish Harvest Pilgrimage, known as Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, that Jesus delivered His invitation, knowing that the prescribed religious rituals were pointing to something far greater than commemorating the nomadic experience of Israel after escaping from Egypt.

    On that day, the crowds reciting Psalm 118:25 (O save now, or Hosanna!) and completing the prescribed seven circuits of the Temple, commemorating the seven most famous and revered, but dead, patriarchs of Israel, may have been enough to provoke Jesus’ declaration. For Jesus knew that these rituals could not quench the kind of desperate, frustrated hope that, like Hannah, most of us will experience in our lives.

    So, ask yourself these questions, to see whether you truly thirst as Hannah did:
    1. Is your need such that God alone can answer it?
    2. Does the need overwhelm you to the point of tears and distracting you from niceties and even some necessities?
    3. Is your need so intense that you can’t articulate it properly?
    4. Are you willing to devote God’s answer to His purposes, as Hannah did?

    If this is your state of mind today, then we are assured that we can come to Christ in prayer with the mumbling desperation of Hannah. Whatever your frustration in life, reach out in garbled sobs, as she did, to grasp Jesus’ promise ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.’.

    I truly believe that the same Christ who overcame death, walking free from the tomb and ascending to the highest place in heaven, will work miraculously to provide the answer, insight and assurance to sustain us in every situation forever. He is Lord of all.


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