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Experimenting with the Disciplines

Written By Guest Author

by Tyler Sadlo

In Dallas Willard’s masterpiece, The Spirit of the Disciplines, he encourages the reader to approach “those activities that have had a wide and profitable use among disciples of Christ…in a prayerful, experimental way” (my emphasis added). Experimental? That was a word I hadn’t heard applied to the disciplines before. So, about two years ago, with that encouragement in mind, I decided to engage in the discipline of fasting. What follows here are reflections on my “experiment.” I hope they offer practical encouragement that shows the fits and starts of experimentation, but also the unexpected fruits. The spiritual disciplines need not be dry. Rather, they can be an entry point into the vibrancy of life with God.

I didn’t know what I wanted out of fasting when I began, but I knew that it was a discipline I could do without a lot of startup cost, and at the time I wanted to get started on what was within reach. I had two things in mind when I began: 1) I did not want to disrupt family dinnertime (this conclusion was reached through previous trial and error), and 2) I was compelled by Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline to fast for 24 hours each week over an extended period of time. Ultimately, that extended period added up to 20 consecutive months of weekly fasting (with maybe 1 or 2 “skipped” weeks).

 

An instructive journey

It began as most practices likely do: it was difficult not to eat; I was extremely low on energy; I made mistakes when ending the fast and sometimes hurt my stomach or my mouth (yes, the process of chewing food was actually painful). I’d like to say that I quickly learned from this, but it was an ongoing struggle to keep my post-fast meals light. Over time, my energy on fasting days increased, but the path was not linear. More than a year in there were still times when I had very little energy in the afternoon. But without question, I gradually became more skilled in the practice.

I learned early on that fasting was a considerable disruption to my schedule. I had to reshuffle priorities in order to make it work. But this was one of the great, hidden benefits of fasting: I was taking steps to build my life around the practices of Jesus rather than fitting some of them into my life where it was convenient. For example, my lunch hour on fasting days was free so I could walk, pray, and read. This eventually became the most appealing part of fasting, and the anchor that kept me coming back week after week. Nowhere else in my schedule was time set aside for extended prayer, which meant that fasting was helping create space to engage in another spiritual discipline. That benefit was unexpected, but I don’t think it was a coincidence.

I recall a conversation perhaps nine months into the practice when I tried to explain its benefits to some friends. I was very clear that I could not apply a direct relationship between fasting and any outcomes in character formation or the like. Usually there’s some direct connection between fasting and self-control that’s touted, but I did not experience it that way. I experienced being forced to slow down, both physically and mentally, and I enjoyed the freed-up time that was meant to be dedicated to one-on-one time with the Lord.

 

A change in the journey

Eventually, though, things started to lose their savor. For example, instead of replacing breakfast preparation with meditation and reading, I slept in. I had seen real progress toward becoming a more thoughtful husband, a more patient father, and someone who experiences God’s presence without interruption, but I had been focused on this specific discipline for so long that I had started hoping it would be a silver bullet for these benefits, benefits that one discipline was never meant to provide.

Multiple times in the months that followed, I contemplated pausing my weekly practice of fasting. The reason was simple: it was becoming stale. I was not waking up to take advantage of the mornings. I was running errands instead of praying and reading. I was not experiencing the transcendence that had sometimes accompanied fasting days in prior months. But could I really just stop? Staleness felt more like an excuse than a valid reason. I began to wonder if any reason could rise to the level of “valid,” or if they would all seem like excuses. It was important for me to realize that this language and thinking had a flavor of legalism and guilt, and I certainly didn’t want fasting to be built on that.

Enter Dallas Willard and his encouragement to approach the disciplines experimentally. He adds to that a reminder that what “prevent[s] them from becoming a new bondage…is [the] love of Jesus.” The disciplines are for no more and no less than moving us into deeper union with God. 

Which is why, about two months ago, I decided to pivot. I chose to skip just one meal a week, leaning into the draw of fasting that still resonates deeply: lunchtime prayer and reading. I affirm the value of fasting, and I honestly wish I could recapture some of the feeling (the transcendence, the feeling that I was moving closer to God, the eagerness to use the freed-up time) that I had before. For now, though, I’m hoping to remove some of the drudgery and legalism from the practice, and maybe re-sensitize myself to its benefits. 

I’ll conclude with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions, that crystalizes my mindset: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” I look forward to continuing to engage in this and other practices in experimental, adventurous ways that grow both my obedience to God and my relational closeness to him and other people. I want to retain what brings me closer to God, and I will throw over my shoulder that which does not.

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