Recently I have had occasion to think a bit more about the significance of spiritual disciplines in relation to personal sanctification. There are various ways to speak of sanctification, but my interest is in the experience of sanctification in everyday life. It is a matter of wanting to know the work of God’s Spirit in an immediate or existential way — His presence and providential activity that truly makes life supernatural.Sometimes this may take the form of simply sensing God’s presence in a time of stillness or even in suffering. But it could also take the form of experiencing insight and wisdom, guidance and direction, little and big answers to prayer, power to communicate God’s love and truth in conversations with others, and effectiveness in acts of ministry and service.
Sanctification is a work of God’s Spirit in our lives whereby He moves our hearts to want Him and to open our mind and wills to His love, His truth, His will. In the words of Philippians 2:13, it is “God that works in us who gives us both the desire and the power to do His will.” Frustration with the emptiness of our own strivings may bring us to a crisis in which we yield our lives and wills to Him. This may happen by the action of the Word of God in our hearts as we hear or read it. It may also happen through some difficult experience in which we fall before Him exhausted by the failures of our own lives. It will, no doubt, be accompanied by a sense of earnest confession and repentance.
But sanctification can also happen in the process of seeking God through various spiritual disciplines. Most often, Christians are inclined to regard spiritual disciplines as some sort of human effort to do the will of God. At worst they may think of it as a kind of legalism; at best a kind of self-effort that they think God requires for faith or successful Christian living. In actual fact, it is neither. It is simply an attitude that recognizes the need to engage with God in faith-building exercises. As Henri Nouwen says in his Introduction to Marjorie Thompson’s book called, Soul Feast, “Spiritual disciplines are nothing more and nothing less than ways to create room where Christ can invite us to feast with him at the table of abundance.” Spiritual disciplines are like “fitness exercises” for the soul. Christians engage in them, not to gain merit with God, but to strengthen their faith, to develop their spiritual sensibilities toward God, to enlarge their appreciation and experience of God in their lives.
Prayer and fasting are two spiritual exercises that enable a Christian to strengthen their faith-muscles quite remarkably. Prayer is a way of contemplating God and communicating with Him about what one sees regarding Him. Henri Nouwen, in Reaching Out, speaks about the development of prayer as a movement away from illusion to real dependence upon God. We naturally suffer from illusions of our own grandeur and ability. Prayer is the gift of overcoming this illusion to experiencing a conscious dependence upon Him. Prayer is emptying ourselves of our own self-sufficiency and replacing it with dependence upon Him. Eugene Peterson, in Working the Angles, thinks prayer happens best when we first listen to the Word of the Lord, as in the Psalms, for example, which illustrate the response of God’s people to God’s self-revelation. Prayer involves time in thinking about the ways in which we are self-sufficient and consciously confessing and repenting of this practice, followed by expressions of praise, love, and dependence upon God. Applying this to particular issues is expressed in petition and intercession or supplication.
Fasting consists in a willingness to yield up ordinary gifts of God’s grace in one’s physical life in order to focus on God. We are so inclined to assume an attitude of expectation for food and a hundred other physical pleasures so that we never know what it is to hunger for God in a way that goes beyond these physical blessings. Fasting is an exercise that is willing to set something good aside for something better, namely God. It commits food and/or other ordinary enjoyments of life to a kind of sabbath in deference to the greater goal of knowing God more intimately.
As I have begun to practice prayer and fasting with this understanding in mind, it has opened up to my heart a whole new appreciation of what it means to practice these disciplines in a very constructive way. This understanding of prayer and fasting takes it beyond some mere sense of duty in the performance of religious tasks. That kind of approach never has appealed to me, and doesn’t seem to commend itself to true faith. In other words, I now realize that God doesn’t want us to pray and fast (or practice some other form of masochism) just to get His attention. Rather, prayer and fasting is a way of truly seeking God more deeply in oder to experience His grace and power more profoundly.
And such a practice has promise of great effect. God hears the sinner who genuinely pleads for His mercy. He promises to reward those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). Already I can see that this is making a difference in experiencing the answers to prayer that I seek. I am seeing that fasting is not merely a matter of saying “no” to certain physical indulgences of which God approves for it’s own sake, but rather it is a matter of giving them up at various points in order to focus my attention more intensely on knowing God and experiencing Him. Such a pursuit is very liberating and exciting!