It has now been 4 months since I wrote my last post about what “good soil” is. Since then I have been diligently studying and trying to practice the disciplines. As with any worthy endeavor it has been a difficult and bumpy road where more than once I considered giving up or turning back.
The first two months were very exciting. Daily I was encountering God and feeling his pressence anew. Regularly I felt that God was revealing new things to me about who he was and how to follow him, not that it was always easy but it was fruitfull and easy to keep coming back.
It started with reading the Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster and I started taking more time alone in silence, prayer, meditation and reading. This proves difficult with a fulltime job, wife and 3 kids. So I started getting up earlier in the morning and getting ready then helping my wife get the kids ready, then when she took them to school, I would go out on the patio for 30 minutes or so. This is a perfect start to the day, but requires going to bed earlier and getting enough sleep, which has been the biggest challenge to this practice. It has been well worth it though.
I have also dabbled in fasting, first I started with partial fasts where I would only eat salad at lunch, no meat, breads, or sugars. Then I’ve done a few full fasts, but only for a partial day. This would free up my entire lunch to focus on reading, meditation and prayer. I haven’t done this for a few months now, but I do feel that this was intstumental in breaking through a few areas in my life around temptation.
One key aspect of the last few months to my growth has been the immersion in books about the disciplines. This has helped to keep me focused. However, there was one major obstacle that this put in my path, which each of those authors admit to. Focusing on the disciplines can easily cause you to slip into thinking that you can make yourself grow. They can give you the illusion of control.
I turned to the disciplines because I didn’t like the person that I was becoming, I wanted to be a better person. At first I experienced days of joy, and hope and even weeks of peace and contentedness. It was euphoric. But then I felt anger taking hold again and I didn’t know why. Life got difficult, work was hard, I would not get enough sleep, and I felt the joy and peace slipping away. This created a death-spirral, as I felt the joy and peace passing and anger, fear, and frustration moving in I would get desperate and it would make me more angry, fearful and frustrated.
Why wasn’t it working anymore! I had tasted the fruit of the Kingdom of God and I couldn’t go back, but I didn’t know how to hold onto it either. I went through some dark times at this point.
There were several things that I had to learn during this time.
- Spritual growth is shockingly passive. While spiritual disciplines are activities, actual spritual growth is passive. Just like the farmer can only create the right conditions for seed to grow, he can’t actually make the seed grow, so all I can do is make the right conditions, at best, but it is God that causes the growth. We instinctively want control, but the whole point is giving up control. It is yielding to God, which, while it is a thing we do, it is a passive thing. It is learning to let go, be still, wait for God. That is the easy yoke, I am no longer responsible for the outcome. I simply practice the disciplines and let God do the work in my life.
- The “shadow self” can’t be ignored. This was most unexpected too and I’m not sure how to explain this. I’m not going to say this perfectly, but this is my interpretation of it. The shadow self is like the lizard brain, base human desires, the Bible calls it “The Flesh.” This shadow self is stubborn and will follow us around our entire life on this Earth. You may think you can kill it, and I felt like it was under control, but it is much stronger than you realize. It can’t just be killed in a few weeks, it takes a lifetime and even then, it won’t be until after this life that it is either transformed or finally burned away for good. The important thing that I had to learn is that you can’t ignore the shadow self. It is like leading a tiger on a leash, the leash only gives the illusion of control, but if you try to ignore the tiger it will assert itself and not allow itself to be ignored. A tiger will be a tiger. Instead, the tiger must be recognized and placated. This doesn’t mean giving into sin or indulging the lust of the flesh, instead it means that you can’t spend every waking moment reading spiritual things, praying and being pious. Sometimes the tiger just wants to watch TV, or read a fiction book, or play golf. DO NOT IGNORE THE TIGER. While entertaining yourself may seem like a waste of time, it is vital to placate the tiger. If he isn’t satisfied, he will rear his ugly head in bursts of anger or worse. To imagine that you are immune to the tiger is pure hubris and probably only shows how unaware you are of yourself. That is what it meant for me.
I also took a break from reading books on spiritual disciplines and read two books from Brennan Manning on the unconditional love of God. This along with an old devotional “Abide in Christ” by a South African turn of the 20th century missionary and Pastor, Andrew Murray, helped me to stay focused on Christ and what he can do rather than on what I can do.
One can never forget that the disciplines are only a means of putting ourselves before God and saying “here am I Lord, have your way with me”.
With these new tools I understood that it is Christ who keeps me, not myself, and through Mannings writings I was reminded of the awesome and amazing love of God. Then “Abide in Christ” kept my focus on staying in Christ.
Tackling the shadow self is another beast. Like I said, it won’t be fully defeated in this life, but it can be somewhat tamed and satisfied in two ways. First recognize that this wild tiger is part of who you are and that you don’t and can’t have control of it. The tiger is the root of the sins that you regularly struggle with. The tiger can also be identified by what you most dislike in others. Is there someone at work or school who really rubs you the wrong way? It is probably something about them that you are denying is part of you. This can be very difficult to face, but you need to recognize it, confess it, and then accept yourself for who you are, like God does. Not that you accept your sinfulness, but accept that it is part of you and God still loves you like a son or daughter.
Remember that it is not your place to overcome this sin. A good tree will bare good fruit and a bad tree will bare bad fruit. You are new in Christ are probably a mix of both which means you can’t help but bare some bad fruit. Don’t beat yourself up, don’t hate youreself for it. Place yourself before God, regularly, and say “here I am God.” He is the one that can make you a good tree and once you are a good tree you cannot help but bare good fruit and it will be diffult to bare bad fruit. Until then, if you are a bad tree, don’t waste your time trying to conjure up good fruit. Jesus is the vine and you are the branch. Instead spend your time abiding in him and let the gardener (God) prune you to produce fruit.
Dallas Willard says that modern western church has focused on getting people into heaven but instead it should be focused on getting heaven into people.
Spiritual disciplines are human activity or lack of activity designed to meet the grace of God.
It is intentionally engaging in Gods grace. -Willard
Spiritual disciplines are training. They are a means of arranging my life around practices that enable me to do what I cannot do by direct effort. -Willard
Spiritual discipline always involves indirection. -Willard
Spiritual discipline is always passive, even my activity is merely opening me up to God. He does the actual changing on my inside. I just need to be available and receptive.
Spiritual discipline is reception of grace. -Willard
The disciplined person is not someone who engages in the most disciplines, but someone who is able to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. -Willard
Spiritual disciplines disrupt the regular patterns of thoughts and feelings that inevitably flow out of me -John Ortberg
Disciplines help us come to believe with our whole body what we already believe with our minds -John Ortberg
Spirit of the Disciplines – Dallas Willard
Renovation of the Hearth – Dallas Willard
The Great Omission – Dallas Willard
The Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning
Furious Longing of God – Brennan Manning
Living in Christ’s Presence – Dallas Willard, John Ortberg
Soul Keeping – John Ortberg
Abide in Christ – Andrew Murray