June Growth Exercises

Despite our claims, most of us cannot multitask well – we simply end up doing two things poorly! We are no better when it comes to issues of the heart.

Week One Exercise: Time to Lament

Despite our claims, most of us cannot multitask well – we simply end up doing two things poorly! We are no better when it comes to issues of the heart. In fact, it is almost impossible to feel to competing emotions at once. Lament is no exception.

We can’t identify appropriately with brokenness and loss when we are distracted or rushed. A Lament is a form of prayer where we express our sorrow or our grief to God. It need not be accompanied by tears and heightened emotions—although this is definitely allowed! A Lament allows us to explore our feelings of loss or regret in a safe way, knowing that God is sufficient to hear our deepest thoughts with compassion. We can tell God what was going on for us at the time, or what is on our hearts today.

Many of the Psalms provide examples of this kind of prayer. So, Psalm 139 concludes:

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

If you’ve known personal tragedy, when did you last pause for remembrance and reflection? This week consider setting aside some time to review some of the ‘losses’ you have experienced in life. Perhaps this will be the death of someone close to you.

Perhaps it will be the loss of a job, a relationship, or a treasured situation.  If you haven’t known grief in a personal way consider pausing for a time of reflection on aspects of the world’s brokenness. As you reflect, talk to God about your feelings – the good and the bad. Consider using one of the Psalms to guide your prayer (for example, Psalms 3, 4, 5 or 13.)

No matter how we do it, we need to make sure we are providing space to live all of life, and that includes lament.

Week Two Exercise: Lamenting our Sin

Our sin is a tragedy. It is a tragedy that would rightly result in grief and lament. And yet we can easily prefer ‘cheap grace’— especially if we have grown up in a Christian context that preaches the good news of God’s grace so very well. And yet, it is God’s grace that instructs us on the significance of our sin.

Because our sin was so grievous to God, such an outrage, it necessitated the death of his own son. It iwas only God’s abundance of grace that could bridge such a travesty. Indeed, the greater our appreciation of God’s grace, the more we perceive the horror of our own sin.

Consequently, learning to lament our sins— even as Christians justified by faith, freely forgiven by grace— deepens our engagement with God. I think that something like this is what James has in mind when he writes:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:7-10)
As an exercise in ‘lamenting your own sins’ this week, join with King David in praying his   prayer of lament in Psalm 51. Your sins may be different to his, but his prayer is both an appropriate response of faith in God’s grace, as well as training our hearts to grieve as God does over our sin.

Week Three Exercise: The Importance of Fasting

Fasting is a useful but often neglected discipline for the Christian. Fasting is abstaining from something, usually food, or some foods, to focus on God. Going without food for a period of time doesn’t sound like a very fun way to focus on anything, which is probably why fasting is so unpopular! And yet, it has an important part to play in the Christian life. Not only did Jesus fast (Matt 4:2), but he simply assumed that his followers would do the same and so provided the following instruction:

“When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)

We live in a culture that tells us we can satisfy every appetite we have, immediately. As you might have noticed, the spiritual exercises recommended in this ‘Growing Disciples’ program directly confront this attitude. The most obvious and regular demand to have an appetite satisfied is in the area of food. The discipline that confronts this preoccupation is fasting.  Fasting can occasionally refer to other areas of denial, but here we will briefly discuss its most common form— abstaining from food.

Today, this discipline is widely misunderstood, and even more widely ignored. Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline) notes two factors that explain this:  

“…We are fearful of becoming like the fanatics of history who focused on the visible asceticism of fasting and took it to unnecessary and unhealthy extremes. We have been convinced by advertising that anything less than three square meals a day will result in our malnourishment.”

Perhaps there are a couple more. There is a concern that fasting may actually encourage our cultural obsession with food and body image, rather than challenge it. Of course, if it would be physically or emotionally unwise for you to fast, for whatever reason, then please exercise good judgement and refrain from participating in this discipline. There is also a concern that we shouldn’t be rejecting things that are good. Food is a wonderful thing, as are many of the things our appetites long for. Fasting is not a denial of the goodness of these things – rather it is a way of confronting the attitude that thinks all good things should be given to us whenever we want them.  

So why fast?

Fasting is a way of posturing ourselves differently in relation to some of the good things in life: humbly; prayerfully; questioningly; sadly; expectantly; thankfully. Fasting can accompany a range of attitudes and add unique intensity to them. It is also a discipline that Jesus, the early church, and every generation of disciple sense, have carried out.  

Donald Whitney (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life) suggests a wide range of reasons for fasting: to strengthen prayer; to seek God’s guidance; to express grief; to   seek deliverance or protection; to express repentance; to expressed concern for the work of God; to minister to the needs of others; to overcome temptation; and to express love and worship to God.  

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook) identifies a further reason. Against a cultural backdrop that breeds a sense of entitlement, “through self denial we begin to recognise what controls us. Our small denials of the self show us just how little taste we actually have for sacrifice or time with God.”

Getting the motivation right

The temptation to see fasting as an instrument of piety, manipulation or even self-flagellation is real. We need to understand that fasting isn’t a way to make God hear us better or to do what we want. God isn’t changed through the process of our fasting – we are. Fasting is not the mark of a super–disciple, but a normal part of the life of Christians throughout the ages. Similarly, fasting for the sake of our own vanity (i.e. to lose a few kilos!) would be false motivation.

How to Start

Consider skipping lunch or an evening meal on a day when you can instead spend that time differently. You might consider using that time to read, reflect or pray. Just skipping a meal in order to keep on working will be unlikely to sharpen your focus on your intended object. On the day that you finish your fast, take some time to journal your thoughts on the experience.

What did you notice as you fasted? Did you actually focus on the thing you planned to when you decided to fast for that period? What could help you in your next fast?

The following readings, referred to above, are also recommended: Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster, (1988) Harper San Francisco, chapter 4. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald Whitney, chapter 9. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, (2005) IVP, part seven.

Week Four Exercises: Fasting and Lament

In Scripture, fasting is regularly associated with mourning and lament. So is the wearing of sackcloth and ashes– but we are not recommending that practice! The motivations for fasting and lament may differ. Sometimes fasting is felt to be the most appropriate response to lament, while at other times a fast is undertaken to produce an attitude of lament, or to identify with those in distress.

Commonly both fasting and lament are adjuncts to earnest prayer.Nehemiah tells of his response to the sorry state of Jerusalem:

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. (Neh 1:4)

Is there an issue or situation that so grieves you, or that is so urgent, that you would set aside time to fast and lament and pray, asking God’s merciful action? Consider whether you could set aside a meal time, or perhaps half a day, to fast and lament and pray about this matter.

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