spiritual disciplines

Spiritual Disciplines: BIBLE READING

spiritual disciplines-5.jpg

In a recent survey, I asked some people from our congregation to anonymously answer a few questions about their Bible reading. The results weren't too surprising:

  • 62% Read their Bibles between the hours of 5am and 9am
  • 15% Read their Bibles after 9am in the morning
  • 15% Read their Bibles in the evening
  • 8% Read their Bibles late at night
  • 54% Spend about 20-30 minutes reading
  • 31% Read for about 10-20 minutes
  • 8% Read for more than 30 minutes
  • 8% Read for less than 10 minutes

The majority of Christians are reading their Bibles daily, in the early morning, for about 30 minutes or less, but how many of them are memorizing Scripture?

We have been studying the "Spiritual Disciplines" and up until now have discussed "Fasting," "Prayer," "Confession," and what the Spiritual Disciplines are in general. We've pointed out how important it is to our walk with Christ that we’re practicing various disciplines in order to grow in the knowledge of Jesus (2 Peter 1:3-11). But none of the disciplines are as effective against temptation--or in building us up in our faith--as the discipline of Scripture Reading & Memorization.

How Did Jesus Overcome Temptation?

In the wilderness, as Jesus was being tempted after 40 days of fasting, Satan came and suggested that He turn stones into bread and satiate His physical hunger. Jesus responded with Scripture. Later, Satan brings Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and encourages Him to throw Himself down (himself quoting Scripture out of context)--and Jesus' response is to defend Himself by quoting Scripture. Finally, as Satan parades all the kingdoms that have ever been established on the earth, he offers them to Jesus if only He would bow down and worship him. Jesus says, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Matthew 4:10).

At this point, Satan exits stage right, until another opportune time. How did Jesus defeat Satan's attacks? By quoting Scripture!

In the longest Psalm (and chapter of our Bibles for that matter!), David expresses his love, appreciation, and reverence for the Scriptures. One of the major ideas he points out in Psalm 119 is the reality of hiding God's Word in his heart:

9 How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.

10 With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!

11 I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.

Notice that the remedy for an impure lifestyle as a young man is to guard against temptation with Scripture. David implores the Lord not to let him wander from the commands of God laid out in the law. He explains that the secret to victory over sin is to "store up Your word in my heart". How do we store up God's Word in our hearts? How do we--like Jesus--readily quote Scripture depending on the temptation?

The answer is reading and memorizing the Bible.

Reading and Memorizing

One year I made it a goal to memorize the entire book of Ephesians with the aim of reciting the entire book to our students at youth group on New Year's Eve at the end of the year. Falling behind during the holidays, I went into the final week of the year with all of chapter 5 and 6 still unfinished. So I decided to print up cards that had about 5-10 verses on each of them, and at every stop light on my morning and late afternoon commute I would read through the verses until I could recite them. By the end of that week, I had succeeded! Scripture memory was not insurmountable; I simply needed a goal--even one that seemed impossible--and a daily commitment to read and commit to the task.

Is it important to pick a translation you enjoy. At Shoreline, we teach from the NKJV, but in my personal devotional time, I read the ESV. I have always liked memorizing the NIV(84), but that translation is no longer in print. So currently I am working on memorizing Romans in the ESV. There are lots of great tactics and tricks that can help you with memorization, and I employ many of these to assist me. But I also find the value in memorizing various verses throughout the Bible.

(This is a flashcard set of 365 important verses in the Bible and a great way to learn a verse a day for the next year! https://quizlet.com/16217081/flashcards)

Are you reading and memorizing Scripture? For our next blog post, we will dive into the importance of meditating on the Word, and the discipline of Bible study.

Pilgrim Benham

Spiritual Disciplines: PRAYER

Leonard Ravenhill said, "No man is greater than his prayer life. The pastor who is not praying is playing; the people who are not praying are straying. We have many organizers, but few agonizers; many players and payers, few pray-ers; many singers, few clingers; lots of pastors, few wrestlers; many fears, few tears; much fashion, little passion; many interferers, few intercessors; many writers, but few fighters. Failing here, we fail everywhere.”

A Survey on Prayer

In a recent survey, people were asked some specific questions about their prayer life. This was fascinating:

  • Of those who say God exists, 70% pray daily, as do 10% of those who don't believe in God. 
  • 42% ask for material things when they pray
  • 45% of 18 to 24 year olds pray meditatively
  • 91% of women pray, as do 85% of men. 
  • 32% regularly feel a deep sense of peace: 12% never experience this. 
  • 26% regularly sense the strong presence of God: 21% never do. 
  • 15% regularly receive a definite answer to a specific prayer, 27% never have, 25% have once or twice. 

Ask the average Christian, and most of them would say they are praying daily. They may pray in one spot at a repeated time, or "reflexively" throughout the day as situations arise. Certainly Scripture exhorts us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." How does one 'pray without ceasing'? By living in a constant communion with the Lord--from the opening of the eyes each morning to the close at the end of day--you are relying on God for your daily bread and are perpetually crying out to Him in adoration, confession, and thanksgiving.

The Sermon on the Mount

The spiritual discipline of prayer is something Jesus specifically instructs us about in His sermon on the mount, In Matthew 6:5-18, Jesus says, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full."

The Pharisees (to whom Jesus is referring to here as hypocrites) loved to pray in front of others.  They were expert actors in the art of religiosity.  I wonder how many Christians today are the same way--expert actors--fooling everyone that they really love God, but behind closed doors, they take off the mask and are just like the world. Jesus says they have received their reward in full.  That means the reward they get is just some guy walking by saying, “Oh, wow, he’s praying.  Cool. Man, what a guy”. But Jesus says we are to be different than the religious hypocrites who are fakes:

"But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

The Prayer Closet

Not "if" you pray. But 'when'. Jesus encourages us to go to a private place, and spend time speaking with our Father in heaven. This is what we call ‘the prayer closet’.  This is not the location where your wife's dozens of shoes are tucked away, but where you go away and get alone with God.  Do you have that place? Maybe it’s your room, or maybe a place under a tree or on the beach. For many, their prayer "closet" is simply that same chair where they sit down and seek the Lord. For others, it is the driver's seat of an empty car during a morning commute. Wherever it is, it is a place where only God sees you, and you aren’t praying simply to impress others. Notice verse 7:

"And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

Short and Simple

For many years, I thought that the longer and more 'spiritual' a prayer, the more spiritual the person.  But this is simply not true. Sometimes people start their prayers with, “Oh God, Ruler and Master of the Universe…”  They use formal titles of respect for a God they are completely unfamiliar with.  I love prayers that are short and simple and direct.  I think that is the picture here also that Jesus is striking in our dependent, reflexive prayer life of communion with the Father.  When you read through the Psalms, you see short, simple and direct prayers that are true to David’s heart:

“Oh God, save me!”

“Help me Lord!”

“My heart is thirsty for you God!”

We often think that we need to pray long, drawn out prayers so God will stop running the universe and say, “Wow!  THAT is a prayer!  Gabriel, Michael, come here!  Listen to this!  This woman is using such eloquent speech when she prays!  I’ll definitely answer her prayers from now on!”

The pagans would pray to their false gods by babbling phrases over and over, in a sort of incantation that would invoke empathy or mercy. But Jesus says that our Father knows what we need before we even ask.  So if He knows, why do we bother asking?

Why Pray?

I believe it is to commune with Him. Jesus was equal with the Father, and yet completely dependent upon Him (John 5:30). Why did Jesus bother to pray constantly throughout His public ministry? Because it afforded time to speak with and fellowship with His heavenly Father.

A.W. Tozer said, “Sometimes I go to God and say, "God, if Thou dost never answer another prayer while I live on this earth, I will still worship Thee as long as I live and in the ages to come for what Thou hast done already. God’s already put me so far in debt that if I were to live one million millenniums I couldn’t pay Him for what He’s done for me.” 

Often God will not answer our prayers--not because He is unable or is too busy--but because we are praying with wrong intention. James said in his letter, “You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures" (James 4:2-3).

God simply wants us to ask.  But when we do ask, sometimes we don’t receive what we are asking for because we are asking with the wrong motives.

Have you ever prayed for something that you never got? Did you end up grateful that you didn’tget it when things turned out later?

“Lord, please let this guy propose to me and marry me!”

“Lord, please let this business deal go through!"

“God, I beseech you, by your authority in heaven and earth, please give me a new Camaro."

We ask with the wrong motives, so often God is gracious to not answer our prayers in the affirmative. We are to pray "in Jesus' name", which simply means to ask as if Jesus Himself were interceding. Ask yourself this question: Is this a prayer that is in line with what Jesus would pray? Is this a Biblical prayer? Will the answer to this prayer conform me into the image of Christ? Will it help glorify God through my life?

Keep Asking

In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus nears the conclusion of the sermon on the mount with these words:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."

Asking is very general.  You askthe store clerk to help you find vegan pancake mix (which sounds like a mistake).  But seekingis a little more intense.  You’ve asked, but now you are vigorously seeking after it, pacing up and down the aisles at Whole Foods desperate for your breakfast. Knocking is even more persistent still: now you are pounding on the manager’s office door, saying, “I need my V-cakes!"

That's a silly example, but I wonder how many of us view prayer the way Jesus describes it in Matthew 7. Asking, seeking, knocking. The Greek tense implies a continual asking, a continual seeking, a persistent, unending knock on the door of Heaven.

We aren't to give up on God because he hasn’t answered one of your prayers.

Often I'll ask someone how many times they have prayed for this? They answer, “once.” No! We should be constantly praying, submitting our prayer requests to the Lord. Often we don't pray but talk to others about the problem rather than the One who can resolve it in an instant.

The Lord's Prayer

On one occasion, Jesus' disciples wanted to know HOW to pray.  They asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, and Jesus did.  In Matthew 6 verse 9, Jesus gives them what we call "The Lord's Prayer". It is actually more accurately known as 'the disciples' prayer": 

9 "This, then, is how you should pray: 
"'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 
10 your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
11 Give us today our daily bread. 
12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.' 
14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. 

Does it get more simple than that? Jesus says prayer is this:

  1. Submit your life to your heavenly Father.
  2. Give Him the honor and glory He is due.
  3. Trust His will and invite Him to do His work in His way.
  4. Ask for Him to provide for your needs today.
  5. Confess your sins and in prayer forgive others who have sinned against you.
  6. Beseech Him to protect you and direct you away from the path of evil.

And notice that Jesus tells us to ask for 'daily' bread? That means we need to go to Him today. And tomorrow. And every new day until we are with Him in glory. We have the privilege of seeking the Father in prayer and trusting Him to answer. No man is greater than his prayer life. So rise up, and be greater today!

Pastor Pilgrim

Spiritual Disciplines: FASTING

spiritual disciplines-3.jpg

Fasting: Receipt through abstention

Guest Writer: Joe Beery

Sanctify a fast...and...say, Spare Thy people, O Lord, and give not Thine heritage to reproach...Then will the Lord...answer and say...Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice: for the Lord will do great things" (Joel 2:12-32) 

When I was at a music festival in high school, I heard a speaker say that, “fasting was like pouring gasoline on the fire of your prayers.” Being the 16-year-old pyromaniac that I was, this image was burned into my memory. That story jumps to my mind often, and I share it with people at least once every few months. And yet—I suck at fasting. I don’t have anything close to a schedule that I follow, and I’ll usually only remember that I should fast when I want God to give me something or when I feel like the world’s crashing down around me. 

I’m also pretty sure that I’m not alone on this one. I contend that most Christians in the West today only think of the discipline of fasting when they’re considering a fad diet. (And that’s not to let my Eastern brothers and sisters off the hook; I’m only speaking for what I know). This isn’t a dig on the health benefits of fasting—often God’s commandments prove to beneficial to our bodies and our souls. But the abandonment of such a powerful discipline is concerning: more than begrudgingly turning the discipline into a ritual (like prayer) or failing to follow the discipline but recognizing that it should be done (like giving sacrificially), fasting seems to have fallen totally off the radar. 

Scripture provides a 3-chord understanding of the practice in the form of answering 3 “W” questions. 

1. What is fasting? 

In more vivid colors, the question reads, “Is fasting purely an abstention from food, or are there other manifestations of this practice?” The typical biblical fast is certainly one from food; there are also instances where God’s people engage in absolute fasts, abstaining from food andwater. Furthermore, there are some examples of abstaining beyond food and drink; for example, Paul encourages married couples to abstain from giving their bodies to one another for a season of spiritual formation, and then to come together again.[1]

One of the most important take-aways here is that fasting is not abstaining from sin. The joining of a husband and wife, or the taking in of food for sustenance, are both high-order goods. These are gifts from God. You don’t “fast” from porn or from gluttony—you mortify these sins through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Fasting is something else entirely. In order to “discipline the flesh” and “make it a slave,” (i Cor. 9:27), we are called to spend time denying ourselves goodthings that werightlydesire for a season as a reminder that they are not ultimatethings. This discipline has been furniture in the house of Orthodoxy since the earliest days: Tertullian wrote a treatise on the subject in A.D. 210. In it, he defended fasting as a better aid to religion than feasting. Polycarp, the disciple of John, urged fasting upon the saints as a powerful aid against temptation and fleshly lusts in A.D. 110. 

2. Who should fast? 

When reading about the biblical description of fasting, it should be immediately apparent how counter-cultural this discipline is. We live in the midst of a call to hedonism— “happiness” and “pleasure” are the ultimate aims of society. Spiritual formation as counter cultural isn’t unique, though. Jesus laid out the three essential components to Christian living that likely struck the same recalcitrance in His audience that it strikes in us: prayer, alms-giving, and fasting.[2]Christ’s command is, of course, backed by his practice—before beginning his ministry, Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the desert, enduring our temptation (Matt. 4:1–11). There’s no wiggle room: both Jesus’s actions and his teaching indicate the essential nature of fasting in the Christian life. 

There are also only one circumstance that the Bible says is not a time to fast: when the incarnated Logos is bodily with you (Mk. 2:19). Jesus, then says, once He’s departed, then his disciples will fast (Mk. 2:20). Essentially every other circumstance is demonstrated to be one where fasting is warranted. Mourning? “[The Israelites] mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the LORD and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.”[3]Worshipping? “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”[4]In a season of preparation? “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me … When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”[5]Old? “Anna … was very old … She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”[6]

3. Why should we fast? 

When Jesus teaches on fasting, there’s a promise linked with the commandment—as Paul reminds us in Eph. 6:1–3 (discussing obedience to parents), we should always be mindful of promises linked with commandments because God does not lie; His promises can be relied upon. Therefore, when Christ says in v. 18 that “your Father who sees [you fasting] in secret will reward you,” we can rely on that promise. 

Furthermore, we should fast for the very reason that I was told to fast at the music festival all those years ago: fasting is gasoline on the fire of our prayers. Historically, when men and women have linked fasting with prayer, they have witnessed the Shekinah glory—God’s manifest presence. From John Wesley to John Calvin, regular practices of fasting has led to revival, reconciliation, and reformation as the eyes of God’s people are lifted from the ordinary and set on the extraordinary.

Consider the words from Joel at the head of this blog: “Sanctify a fast...and...say, Spare Thy people, O Lord, and give not Thine heritage to reproach...Then will the Lord...answer and say...Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice: for the Lord will do great things." This is an interpolation of a passage instructing the Israelites in pleading with the Lord for mercy and for the presence of God. We mustfast because we’re called to fasting; we must fast because we live in world woven through with the curses of Genesis 3, the “sin that so easily ensnares us,” with “an enemy that prowls like a hungry lion, seeking to devour us”; we must fast because the Church has been given a way to conform our hearts with the heart of our Creator, and to create immeasurable intimacy with Him. “Why should we fast?” Why wouldn’t we? 

-----

[1]i Cor. 7:5. It is debatable whether this call to abstain from intimacy is “fasting” in the purest sense of the word, however the heart motive appears to be the same—denying that which is not forbidden in order to further commit oneself to God.

[2]Matt. 6.

[3]2 Samuel 1:12.

[4]Acts 13:2.

[5]Esther 4:16.

[6]Luke 2:36–37. 

Spiritual Disciplines: CONFESSION

spiritual disciplines-2.jpg

The Potency of a Gracious Weapon: Practicing Confession

Guest Writer: Joe Beery

To shamelessly borrow an idea from Kathy Keller, if someone told me that there was a pill I could take that would enrich my friendships and arm me against temptation, I doubt I would hesitate to sign-up. Like many in my generation, I have found it difficult to make friends as I’ve moved out of the academic melting pot of high school and university, and I’ve also seen the staggering grip that sin has on our world. Even in the church, I’ve often found it difficult to move past awkward handshakes and a commentary on the weather with the people I think are genuinely interesting. In light of this discovery, I set out to find any common threads in the rich, deep friendships that I’ve made in my life. The answer? An earnest and frequent practice of mutually confessing our sins.

The Reformation and Confession

Confident that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, I decided to ask around. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, I learned that confession was just as rare amongst the people I asked as in my own circles. I fear that, especially as Protestants, we threw the baby out with the bath water during the Reformation—we rejected exclusive confession to the Catholic Priests, but failed to embrace our counter argument: that we must, then, confess our sins to fellow believers in our community. When we confess our sins to one another, we forge trust. By taking off the carefully crafted masks that we show to the world, and having other people reciprocate, we are free to plumb the depths of nearly any topic because we genuinely know one another. Then, we can mutually delight in a broader range of topics. Literary genius C.S. Lewis wrote that friendship is the product of one person turning to another as they both enjoy some object or display and saying, “You too!? I thought I was the only one.” When we open our hearts to confess our sins to one another, we find the same sense of companionship in that moment of confession and in the subsequent conversations that our relationships are no longer marred by a sense of fake, or the unknown.

Confession is a Weapon!

The profound power of confession goes beyond grounding deep friendships. God reveals to us throughout the Scriptures that confession is a weapon we wield against sin, and the by-product is the refining of our hearts. Ephesians 5:11–14 (ESV) says, 

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ’Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’

When we allow our sins to remain in darkness, they fester like a wound—the infection spreads from what we thought was a discrete area of our lives out into the rest of us. However, when we confess our sins, “exposing them to light,” then, “Christ shines on us,” and our hearts are brought into conformity with the will and purposes of God. Solomon warns that “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.” (Proverbs 28:13). 

Oh! If we could understand the incredible power of confession! John says in his letter, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (i John 1:9). James exhorts us to “therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (James 5:16 ). And the Psalmist, amidst war with his sin nature, writes, “I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ’I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’; And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah.” (Psalm 32:5). When we feel as though we are at the mercy of our temptations, God tells us that we have been not a shield, but a weapon that the Holy Spirit, through the blood of Jesus Christ, empowers us to wield ferociously: by confessing our sins to one another, we are “cleansed of all unrighteousness,” and our prayers become the efficacious prayers of the righteous lauded in James. 

Are you willing?

Brother or sister, if you are willing to lay aside your pride and lean into the biblical practice of confessing your sins to other believers, you take a necessary step on the road toward glorification. Confession is more than mere ritual—it is the process by which you discover and uproot the “sin that so easily ensnares you.” (Heb. 12:1). You must spend time reflecting on the desires of your heart and the motivations of your actions to confess your sin and drown it in Christ’s blood. This point is important: you must confess the sins of your heart, for they are your sins. Unlike some other practices that can carried by a group, confession requires you to invert your internal walls of privacy—a solo act. 

To survive as the bride of Christ in the aftermath of Genesis 3, a world war torn by sin and temptation, we must lay claim to every weapon in our arsenal. The need to mortify sin and remain steadfast in our relationships with other believers is a primary concern in the Church, yet we have all but abandoned a spiritual discipline that directly leads to success in these areas. If we take the Bible seriously, and if we really care about holiness and our relationships, then we must seriously pursue the practice of confessing our sins. We must, quickly, seek out believers and build relationships upon the bedrock of confession to firm up our own souls, lest we abandon one of our greatest advantages out of synthetic, selfish pride.