Spiritual Disciplines – Study and Solitude

Last Thursday at CSF we continued our study of the Spiritual Disciplines, using Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline as our guide (along with the Bible, of course).  Here is a brief summary of what we talked about.

If you read through the book of Acts quickly you may miss that those 28 chapters cover a large period of time.  From one chapter to the next couple be a gap of years.  We see this in the story of Saul, the persecutor of Christians turned disciple of Jesus.  When we first meet him in Acts 8 he is holding the cloaks of the men executing Stephen.  Then in Acts 9 he is on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus, his fellow Jews who have bought into the heresy that Jesus is Messiah.  On the way he sees a vision of this very Jesus and soon finds himself among those on the wrong side of tradition.  We see him preach for a short time, but chapter 9 ends with him in his hometown of Tarsus.  Then at the end of Acts 11 we see that Barnabas travels to Tarsus and brings Saul back to Antioch to work with the church there.

What we might not realize is that there is about a 10 years span between these two events.  Saul, soon to be called Paul, spent ten years in his hometown.  I imagine he spent a lot of time reading and studying the Bible.  After all, as a Pharisee he was among the elite of Judaism of his day, knowing the scriptures backward and forward.  When he met Jesus it had to shake up his life.  Imagine you are taught one thing your whole life and then one moment, one experience, throws that all into question.

The Paul that emerges in Acts 11, the writer of amazing texts like Romans and Galatians, is a changed man.  His many years in Tarsus, where I imagine he spent time in solitude, praying and studying, were certainly a factor in this change.

Study is simply the transforming of your mind (I don’t feel I need to explain what studying is to a group of college students!).  A key text here, from Paul himself, would be Romans 12:2.  When we talk about scripture, or Bible study, it helps to contrast it with meditation or devotional reading.  Foster says:

“A vast difference exists between the study of Scripture and the devotional reading of Scripture.  In the study of Scripture a high priority is placed upon interpretation: what it means. In the devotional reading of scripture a high priority is placed upon application: what it means for me. All too often people rush to the application stage and bypass the interpretation stage: they want to know what it means for them before they know what it means!  Also, we are not seeking spiritual ecstasy in study; in fact, ecstasy can be a hindrance.  When we study a book of the Bible we are seeking to be controlled by the intent of the author.  We are determined to hear what he is saying, not what we want him to say.  We want life-transforming truth, not just good feelings.  We are willing to pay the price of barren day after  barren day until the meaning is clear.  This process revolutionizes our lives” (69)

A devotional reading starts with me and my needs and immediately applies the scripture, probably a verse or two, to them.  Study is broader, beginning not with my own needs but with what the author was trying to say to the original hearers.  Study looks at the big picture and emphasizes thinking about the text.  If you are interested, Bible Study Guide 2013.

What struck me about Foster’s chapter on study is that he did not limit it to Bible study.  Instead study of anything and everything can be a spiritual discipline if approached in the right way.  I say it all the time at CSF, but your study in class ought to be seen as an act of worship.  God is calling you into a career and your study is preparing you for God’s calling – as an engineer, teacher, lawyer, nurse, writer or whatever you may become.  It would be absurd to seek discipline in one area of life (Bible study) and miss the holiness of study in another area (your classes).  Study as a discipline also relates to studying the world around us.  Part of this would be observing how people interact, another part is questioning the assumptions of our culture.  For example, what is good and bad about being constantly connected to technology?  Finally, study yourself.  This one is troubling for me, but as yourself questions: why do you like certain people? Why do you say what you say?

From study we moved into solitude.  Solitude relates to all the disciplines so far – prayer, study, meditation, fasting.  These are things we do in solitude with God.  But solitude is only half of it, we can also do these things in community – praying together, studying together, etc.  Both are needed for a balanced life.

Solitude is closely related to silence.  As I reflected on what Foster wrote in his book and on scriptures related to silence (like James 1:19 -My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry) I was greatly convicted.  I was struck by how many of my words go into defending myself.  Instead of just acting and speaking in the way I believe is right, and within that trusting in God, I often try to sweet-talk people into liking me, agreeing with me or affirming me.  What I learned in this is that the disciplines of solitude and silence help you learn when to speak and when not to speak.

Finally, in talking about solitude Foster brought up the Dark Night of the Soul.  As we’ve been talking about these disciplines, it is easy to give the impression that if you begin doing these things – if you pray more and read the Bible and fast and so on – then you will become closer to God.  Perhaps this could be taken to mean you will go through life just feeling totally filled with the Spirit.  But what if that doesn’t happen?  What if you do these things and God feels distant?  What if as you begin living out God’s call in your life you have an experience like Mother Theresa who, we learned after our death, felt distant from God for 50 years!

Part of the answer is in Mother Theresa’s life – even in feeling distant she continued to do the work, serving those in need, she was called to.  Further, we are reminded that our faith, like anything in life, is not based on just a feeling.  Mature faith lives in the way of Jesus not in hopes of a nice feeling but out of a belief that living this way really is fulfilling.  In other words, we are not generous and forgiving in hopes of getting a warm fuzzy, deep down knowing we’d rather be greedy and hold grudges.  No, we realize that regardless of how we feel moment to moment, it ultimately is more fulfilling to give and to forgive.

If you want to read more on this, check out my post on John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.

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