There is a story about a young monk who was very excited about the coming season of Lent and his practice of fasting this year. As he got more excited, he began to consider how little food he was going to need. He began making plans for maintaining his fast and for he was going to “out-fast” the other monks. In his meeting with the abbot before Lent, he began to share all his plans and his excitement about how pure he would become from the experience. The abbot listened quietly, pondering the words of the young monk for some time. Finally, he spoke and said, “my young brother, fasting is not about what you will achieve nor about your pride. This Lent I want you to eat all of your regular meals. Oh, and in addition to that, you should eat one chocolate bar a day!”
As we come to a close, I think this is an excellent story to end on not merely because I am going to speak on fasting but because in speaking on fasting, we address the nature, the temptation of the human being to turn and twist that which is good for us into that which can rot our souls.
Those of you that have had to undergo treatments and surgeries, blood testing and the like may have discovered what I have found so helpful. Rather than watching the nurse or doctor stick the needle or IV in, I look to the face of the care giver. It doesn’t seem to hurt so bad. Rather than focus on the relationship, we focus on goals (because that is what we are taught, right?). Rather than focus on the healer, we focus on the wound. In spiritual practices, we often focus on the practice, the act rather than on the One we seek to relate to through these methods.
The methods of spiritual maturity are not to gain “the spiritual world.” They are to bring us to a place where we become people perfect in love. Jane Vennard writes points this out so clearly,
“Jesus commanded his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). And so he commanded us. To love as Jesus loved is to love without aim. In all relationships, human and divine, in prayer and in physical contact, we simply attend with love. We pray to pray. We love to love. And we wait for God’s grace to find us (42).”
Jane’s words clarify the goal of love - all. The prayers we pray, are not to further our power or authority in the Kingdom but so we might know God, be available to God. Many of those to whom God revealed himself, weren’t even praying at all! To Moses, God came when Moses was tending sheep. To Samuel, he came while Samuel was laying down to sleep. To Paul, he came when Paul was on the road.
How engaged they were in “spiritual practices," we don’t know but they were at places where God was confident they would get the message He wanted to be with them. It wasn’t required that they being doing holy things but that they were available. Our methods, our practices, our spiritual habits make move us toward this availability.
As I’ve already noted, John Wesley was well studied in Scripture, placing the Bible as the central authority for the Christians in England striving to follow Jesus. Wesley was not interested in a new church - he was interested in new Christians becoming mature Christians. His sermon on, The Means Of Grace, outlined primarily the practices of studying scripture and prayer. He preached that, “The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing and meditating thereon);… (from Sermon on The Means of Grace). But by know means was this all that Wesley saw in Scripture and encouraged of the people.
The third practice of importance not to be missed by Wesley (and also, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards to name a few others) is the practice of fasting which I want to touch on for a moment because fasting represents the third of the private/personal methods of spiritual maturity. Jesus is fairly clear that fasting was and was intended to remain a practice of his followers when he said,
"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Mat 6:16-18 NASB)
Wesley’s sermon on this text notes “…in what manner are we to fast…let it be done unto the Lord, with our eye singly fixed on him.” (Sermon: Uponon Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (VII). Follow the link to get a fuller understanding of Wesley and fasting.)
There is some good material, even more new material out regarding fasting and with it all, a lot of misunderstandings. I referred often to Richard Foster’s, Celebration of Discipline as one of the foremost resources. Marjorie Thompson’s, Soul Feast, is another. I really appreciate though, Jane Vennard’s concise and Biblical understanding of fasting and it’s purpose, namely, “...to create space in your life to attend to God (pg 22).”
Fasting is not a punishment. In the Bible it is practiced in times of sorrow and defeat (2 Samuel 12:6-16 and Judges 20:26). It was done in time of preparation for events (Exodus 34:28 and Matthew 4:2). In the early church, it became part of worship (Acts 13:2). Because of the nature of our society and it’s view of bodies and food, talking of fasting is difficult. For those whose health would be in jeapordy, certainly a food fast would not be what God is asking of you.
But when what we own begins to owns us or what we consume creeps over us and consumes us, then it isn’t hard to see where fasting plays a role for us spiritually. We are to have no other gods before God and fasting whether from food, from the internet, from e-mail, from football, from whatever it maybe, is a vital practice.
In its simplest form, fasting is going without food, only drinking water, for a 24 hour period. Breakfast to breakfast or another meal is the most common. I have often chosen to do 1 meal a day, usually lunch. Or I have chosen to do a juice fast, drinking only water and juice to help soften or eliminate headaches when it has been a while since I have fasted. What must be considered at all times, is why you are fasting.
Dr. Allan Coppedge, who has been a leading scholar and teacher in Wesleyan-Methodist Theology, outlines 3 Essential Elements for the early Methodists. However, their application is not just for then as we have been discovering in the growth of churches across denominations that have discovered the importance of these.
For the Methodists, these Elements, I think, formed in Wesley’s time a “Rule of Life,” a set of practices that ordered one’s life. This ‘Rule of Life’ comes from the St. Benedict and his practice of helping order the life of monks. Within our Christian tradition a “rule of life” has come to refer to “the kind of structure that supports spiritual growth (pg 145, Soul Feast).
As you’ll see from Dr. Coppedge’s outline, for Wesley, the Methods of Spiritual Maturity consisted of:
I. Use of the Means of Grace
1. Bible Reading
1. Public preaching/teaching of the Word
2. Family devotions
3. Prayer in the societies and classes
4. Sacrament of Lord's Supper
5. Small group meetings: classes and bands
6. Love Feasts; Watch Nights; Covenant Service
II. USE OF THE PRINCIPLE OF ACCOUNTABILITY
The classes, bands, select bands and personal interviews were the chief means used by the early Methodists to give a regular account of their spiritual state and progress in the Christian life.
III. USE OF THE PRINCIPLE OF LIFE TRANSFERENCE
John and Charles Wesley, the Methodist preachers and the class leaders became spiritual directors and models for the application of Biblical principles to everyday life. Wesley's collection of sermons, letters and tracts, and similar works of other Methodist leaders, catalogs and demonstrates this practice.
We’ve been discussing the three, primary, private Means of Grace from Wesley's model while at the same time, joining together in a class meeting format. The principle of life transference has long been neglected yet it is much needed for the church. A growing number of both clergy and laity are seeking to understand and practice this within the Church through spiritual direction, which is what I’m currently working on over the next few years.
But without a structure, an understanding of how we grow, the means by which we grow and help in the growth, then it becomes more clear, I think, why we’re not maturing, why we’re not experiencing. And so I want to leave you consider one more quote of Mr. Wesley's, one which goes right to the point behind these methods and the effects of a rule of life...
Settle this in your heart, that the opus operatum, the mere work done, profiteth nothing; that there is no power to save, but in the Spirit of God, no merit, but in the blood of Christ; that, consequently, even what God ordains, conveys no grace to the soul, if you trust not in Him alone. On the other hand, he that does truly trust in Him, cannot fall short of the grace of God, even though he were cut off from every outward ordinance, though he were shut up in the centre of the earth.
How you will grow is up to you, but it is my place to help guide and offer some direction on the journey. And today I’d like to offer you some time to consider your own Rule Of Life - how you will grow in grace.
Download the MP3 of Methods of Spiritual Maturity part 4: Fasting and the Rule of Life at Mediafire!
Download the MP3 of Methods of Spiritual Maturity part 4: Fasting and the Rule of Life at Mediafire!
This is the final part of this four part teaching series. The other entries are under "Methods" in the search feature or simply scroll down. I pray you found these helpful and encouraging. Please feel free to post any thoughts or questions you might have! Don't turn the dial too far, there is more to come in the future!
Further Recommended Reading on Principle of Accountability from Allan Coppedge