Disciplines of Abstinence

Since the beginning of the year we’ve been talking about transforming the inner part of our lives. How do we change the inside of us? My friend Jody Anderson passed along a quote to me yesterday from poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said…

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us!”

How do we become the people on the inside we really want to be? And there are far too many people who have just resigned themselves to this idea that change is impossible. Including Christians. Far too many people who confess to being followers of Jesus have resigned themselves to this idea that I am who I am and even God cannot change me.

Of course he can. Nothing is impossible with God. He can change you. He can make you more loving, less angry, more patient, less worried, more joyful, or less selfish. He can change you and free you from your addictions. He really can free you from drugs, porn, booze, tobacco, gambling… he can free you. He can change your desires.

But here’s the deal – like we talked about last week – it isn’t likely to happen with a lightning strike from heaven. It’s not likely to happen that way. It sometimes happens that way – and my guess is that here this morning someone could stand up and say – it happened that way for me. I gave my life to God and shazam! I was immediately freed.

And that’s wonderful but rare. And our problem as churches is that often we put those people up on the stage and they share it and then others in the room who aren’t immediately freed wonder what we are doing wrong, right? Why haven’t I been freed like that? Didn’t it take? Is there something wrong with me or is there something wrong with my faith? Am I not chosen by God? Has he forgotten or forsaken me?

And the answer of course is no – that it takes time and energy, working alongside and with the Holy Spirit as Christ is formed in us.

That term – Christ formed in us – comes from the bible and it is uttered by a man named Paul in Galatians 4 – and it is written by Paul to a church he started that was going through a time of being tested by false teachers who wanted to lead them back into religiousity – but listen to Paul’s heart as he urges them to heed his advice.

19 Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. 20 I wish I were with you right now so I could change my tone. But at this distance I don’t know how else to help you.

Paul is writing to a group of believers who are yet to be fully developed – it takes hard work and energy. Spiritual formation is far more like labor pains, than lightning bolts.

Now if this is your first week here at Journey – allow me to give you the bottom line for the past three talks. Three weeks ago we learned that our soul is comprised of three parts. A will, our mind – including our thoughts and feelings, and our body – including habits and appetites and sometimes addictions.

A healthy soul – an integrated soul, has all three parts working together – heading in the same direction.

But often we find that our soul is not integrated, but rather – disintegrated. The will says I want to do the right thing – but it is bullied by our mind, or our body, that says, we want something different.

We looked at Romans chapter 7 – that described this condition of a disintegrated soul – and the author – Paul again – wrote that this condition of willing what is right but doing what is wrong – has led him to become a miserable man. What a miserable man I am – and he asks the question – who will save me from this mess?

Last week we looked at the answer. Jesus Christ my Lord. He is the one who leads us out of miserable disintegrated soul life and into one that is integrated, happy, healthy and whole.

So last week we talked about Romans 8 – the role of the Holy Spirit to form Christ in us – as we come alongside and work alongside him. Last week we learned about the fallacy of the lightning bolt – and the reality that having Christ formed in us – (Also called sanctification in theological terms) is a process that takes time and energy and persistence.

So now you are caught up. And if you want to learn more you can always go to our website and download the sermon and the even the sermon transcripts – so you can read exactly what I meant to say.

So today and next Sunday we are going to learn very practical spiritual tools that we can apply to ourselves that are time tested and biblical – in the jargon of the church they are often called spiritual disciplines – though I’m fine with calling them spiritual tools to help Christ be formed inside of us.

What is a spiritual discipline? It is a consciously chosen activity that will enable us to do what we cannot do by “will power” alone.

We find in the bible many different kinds of spiritual tools that, if properly applied to the project, will shape our souls – and aid in the process of Christ being formed in us.

Every homeowner has a tool chest right? And inside of it are tools. Hopefully. And hopefully the right tools. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to tackle a project only to discover you don’t own the right tool for the job. It makes it so much more difficult.

But if you have the right tool, and you know how to use it, then you are going to see alot more progress in the project.

Today we are going to take a close look at four very practical spiritual tools that we can use to help Christ be formed in us. Super practical, time tested, biblical and centuries old tools for Spiritual progress.

But before I jump into the tool chest – let me be very very clear – I need everyone to hear what I am about to say. These disciplines are activities we choose in order that Christ might be formed in us. They are not magic- and they do not put us in a place where “Now God owes me one.” These tools help me – they do not force God’s hand in any way.

This week we are going to look at four spiritual tools of abstinence. 1 Peter 2:11 tells us to “Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against our souls”. So these tools we will look at today are really four things we are going to keep ourselves from. Four things we are stopping ourselves from doing for a period of time.

Next week we will talk about “Spiritual Tools of engagement.” Things we can do – activities we can start doing to help Jesus be formed in us.

But we are starting with tools of abstinence. And here’s why. Sometimes, if left unchecked – our souls can be so occupied with food, sex, society, sound – our souls are so occupied that there is little room left for God.

So these tools of abstinence – in a way, they free up storage space on the hard drive of our soul.

Speaking of computers – have you ever had an evening where you sat down and you jumped on your computer and you start surfing around and here’s a funny video – and that’s an interesting article and all of a sudden it’s bedtime? And for the life of you you think – what just happened? I burned three hours of my life just flipping around pages on the internet? Your mind becomes so pre-occupied and busy that the time just flies past? You get to the end of the night and you’ve done really nothing? Anyone?

Listen, our souls can be so preoccupied with everything other than God that I fear some people may get to the end of their life and look back and realize – what have I been doing with my life – it has flown past and I’ve been so preoccupied with culture and life and appointments and calendars…

And listen, don’t get me wrong here. Our souls might be filled up with things that in and of themselves are harmless – they might even be normal and legitimate – but they are keeping us from God.

In the disciplines of abstinence, we abstain to some degree and for some time from the satisfaction of what we generally regard as normal and legitimate desires.

Even though there may be nothing inherently wrong with the desires – we choose to abstain from them for a time, because sometimes these normal and legitimate desires come between us and God – they grow inside of our soul and occupy too much room. So we abstain for a time in order to bring these desires back into their proper place.

Let me give you an example here by talking about our first spiritual tool – our first discipline – Solitude.

In solitude we purposely abstain from interaction with other human beings. We deny ourselves companionship for a time. Solitude is choosing to be alone and then to think about the experience.

Solitude – being alone for a time period, can be a very useful tool in shaping Christ in us.

Now did you hear that? I think I just heard the tiny hearts of all the introverts in the room Golf clapping. Yay! We get to be alone! Do tell – Finally a sermon for the introvert! Your heart is singing – All by myself… i wanna be… all by myself….

Meanwhile the extroverts in here – your hearts are like Boo – you stink! Because when you here the word solitude you think to yourself – isn’t that like, the cruelest form of punishment? Isn’t solitary confinement like outlawed by the Geneva convention – don’t people lose their minds in solitude? And you are starting to lose you mind even thinking about it! Get me out of here man!

But the introvert – For you the worst form of punishment is the half hour between services eating a donut and having to make, gulp, small talk.

Now I will admit that this spiritual tool of solitude is going to be a bigger stretch for some than others. But it would be a huge mistake to just announce – that “Well, that’s not my cup of tea” and then throw the tool aside.

Jesus used solitude. Remember that he spent forty days alone in the desert preparing for his showdown with the devil. The Holy Spirit led him to solitude. Luke 5:16 tells us that 16Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Often – Jesus spent time alone. Of course he was never alone – the Father was there – and that’s indeed the point.

Matthew 6 But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Now one must be careful that we don’t use this as an excuse to withdraw from our family and friends. No one ever legitimately said – well after the sermon I went out and book a week in Vegas – just by myself – you know – the pastor suggested it would be good for my soul to vacation by myself. Don’t even try that, you punk!

Instead – here’s an idea. What if you booked one hour by yourself to just go and be somewhere. Don’t bring a book along. Don’t plug your earbuds in. Just go and sit and think and be.

One hour where you don’t talk to anyone. You don’t listen to anyone. You aren’t swiping or checking or tapping or emoting, one hour to just be a human being – unplugged from the world as much as possible.

Now let me run into the second tool – because I kind of feel like these things go together. Kind of like having a chisel is great, but if you have a hammer and a chiel together it’s even better.

The second spiritual tool of abstinence is silence. And the reason I say that they go together is because without silence – solitude has little effect on a soul. They really need to team up together. Solitude and silence.

In silence we close off our souls from sound. As much as possible. Whether it be music or tv or environment or whatever. Silence might be the most commodity on earth right now. Many of us have never really experienced it. Our houses are humming with contraptions. I even sleep with a fan. I have to be careful walking through Lowes in the summer – I hear a fan and I start falling asleep.

We live in a loud world. Which becomes a real problem when it comes to hearing God’s voice.

 You might be familiar with the story of Elijah hearing from God in 1 Kings 19:11-13? Elijah was an Old Testament prophet 11 “Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

And a voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

 Let me ask you – in all sincerity – If God were to always speaks in a whisper – would we ever be able to hear him?

What does it say about the inner emptiness of our soul if we must continually sedate it with music in our earbuds, or visual stimulation from our phones. (Which in my opinion is a different kind of noise)

For the sake of our souls, we must learn how to consciously choose silence – to abstain from noise.

So how can we embrace solitude and silence? Here’s an idea – again – small – start small. The next time that God wakes you up in the middle of the night – God not your baby – right? As a matter of fact this will only work I think for people whose kids are sleeping all night – if you have little kids that are waking you all the time you might need all the sleep you an get – but if able – the next time God wakes you up at 3am? Get up and quietly go to your living room and sit there for 30 minutes.

30 minutes of quiet. No reading. No scripture. No cleaning. No planning – Just solitude and silence. What should you do? How about we take a line from Samuel – and say, Speak Lord, if you’d like. Your servant is listening.

Then in the morning maybe take a minute to journal about it. Write out some thoughts.

It’s an experiment – learning how to live without having to speak.

Third discipline of abstinence is fasting. Fasting will teach us alot about ourselves very quickly. For many of us it will reveal just how much we depend on eating to bring happiness to our lives. For many, much of our peace depends on the pleasures of eating.

If nothing else we learn just how much of a bully the body really can be. Me want! Me take!

Now in the bible there are different kinds of fasting – Daniel fasted from certain kinds of foods. He ate nothing but vegetables and water for a time period. Jesus in the desert fasted from food for about a month. And he fast quite a bit throughout the gospels.

Fasting teaches our bodies that man does not live on bread alone. Fasting reminds us that our belly is not our God. Fasting also teaches us how to live with suffering. And that alone is good to learn because all of our lives will taste suffering. Fasting is training ourselves how to respond when we don’t have what we think we need.

Fasting teaches us temperance and self-control. It teaches us moderation and restraint when it comes to our fundamental drives. It is a very powerful tool to shape us into the image of Jesus.

Now interestingly, this is one of those tools that comes with a warning – see, when we fast it’s easy for our mind to be completely wrapped up with thinking about the fasting. It can consume our attention. Yet the purpose of fasting is to have our attention directed to God – not our hunger. So we have to be careful that it doesn’t consume our thoughts – and also we need to be careful that we don’t make a big show of it to everyone.

Jesus gave us this warning about fasting: Matthew 6:16 “And when you fast, that alone means that Jesus would expect us to include this discipline in our lives… don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Wait – God will reward me? How? Will God give me anything I want as a reward? No – but if you consider it a reward to be shaped into Christikeness then yes, you will receive a reward.

So here’s an idea. Perhaps the Spirit would lead you to consider a fast. Don’t eat – skip a meal. Pray instead. Write about what you thought about it. Maybe later fast for an entire day and try not to let anyone know about it. Fast in secrecy. And see if it doesn’t help loosen the grip the body might have on your soul…

Fourth. Secrecy  

Purposes— we abstain from seeking attention for our good deeds. So long as it doesn’t involve deceit, we are going to try to abstain from self promotion. Now this – as really almost all of these disciplines, work closely with others – in this case the discipline of service and secrecy work together. But the goal here is to not seek attention – and therefore the approval – of others.

The practice of secrecy involves us doing stuff for the only audience that matters – God himself. Jesus himself speaks about this attitude in Matthew 6…

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get.But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

One of the biggest problems humans face in their fallen condition is the desire for self-promotion. Hey everybody – look at me! I’m trying to present myself in the best possible light in order to get you to think more highly of me than is probably warranted!

So in secrecy we are unplugging ourselves from the selfie-papparazi.

We allow God to decide when our deeds will be known.

We strive to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than ourselves,” as Philippians 2: 3 advises. And what a relief that can be!

Okay so try this out…

If you want to experience the flow of love as never before, the next time you are in a competitive situation, pray that the others around you will be more outstanding, more praised, and more used of God than yourself. Really pull for them and rejoice for their successes.

Next time you come across an opportunity to not take credit for something you deserve to receive – say nothing – see if you can let it slide…

And just like fasting – it’ll hurt for a moment – it kind of needs to really. But it will shape you and train your mind that there is only one person who’s opinion counts. And it will free you from the chains of the approval of others.

So these are the four disciplines we will look at today. There are others. but these are disciplines of abstinance 101 categories.

Solitude

Silence

Fasting

Secrecy

So this week is experimental mode. Chose one – and then write about it in a journal or something. Write down your thoughts afterward -it’s good to review – right? After doing this, how can this discipline help integrate your soul? How can this discipline be useful in forming Christ inside of us?

I’d love to hear from some of you too. Feel free to drop me a note. It would be fun to hear about it.

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