All for the Sake of Our Neighbor | Part 2

August 3, 2021 | Written by Kaitlyn Schiess

All for the Sake of Our Neighbor
is a mini blog series from Kaitlyn Schiess focused on healthy spiritual practices and rhythms that help us better love others.

So what are spiritual disciplines and what are they not? How do we reshape how we think about them?

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Part 2: Spiritual Disciplines for the Sake of Our Neighbor

When people hear about spiritual disciplines for the first time, they usually have one of a few responses:

  1. “You mean there’s a formula for spiritual growth that I can follow for guaranteed results? Yes!”
  2. “There are even more rules to follow? Ugh.”
  3. “Yes! I want some help having a better personal relationship with God.”

All of these responses are flawed.

What are spiritual disciplines? Very simply, they are the patterns and practices of believers. They are ways that Christians have learned, through Scripture or their communal experience, to focus their attention on God and be formed by the Holy Spirit into the people of God.

Spiritual disciplines are not formulas that you can follow for guaranteed results, they are time-tested practices that help us open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Just as our salvation is a gift from God, our spiritual growth is a gift from God. We cannot work harder to make ourselves better, but we can rely upon these guides and aides to focus our attention and train our hearts to hunger for more of God.

They are also not more rules to follow! Practicing spiritual disciplines do not make you a “better Christian,” and they are not arbitrary rules God will punish you for not following. Spiritual disciplines are a gift, graciously given to us in Scripture and in the Holy Spirit’s work in the church throughout time. They are a gift because they are for our benefit! They help us create rhythms for our lives, discover areas of sin or brokenness that need addressing, and redirect our hearts to the only direction that will satisfy us.

The first two responses are flawed, but it’s this last one that I most want to dismantle. It sounds like a good answer, doesn’t it? I want to have a better relationship with God! That’s a good goal! And it (mostly) is. But there is an unfortunate assumption built into that response that requires deconstructing.

Nowhere in the Bible does it talk about having a “personal relationship” with God.

It is absolutely true that through the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross, believers are reconciled to God. There is a deeply personal element to our faith.

And yet when we use that phrase, a “personal relationship God,” we can very easily mean this: my faith is private, individual, and for my own benefit. I might come together with a bunch of other Christians once a week, but my faith is primarily for and about me.

This is a much larger problem with American Christianity, but it greatly impacts how we think about spiritual disciplines. Even once we begin to reshape our thinking and realize that our faith is communal, we might still think that spiritual disciplines are primarily individual.

We can think of them as what Kyle David Bennett calls “divine opiates” that help us reach “spiritual euphoria.” I tend to say that we think of them as “spiritual warm and fuzzies.” We want to feel good, we want to feel spiritual, we want to feel connected to God. And in a certain sense, that is not bad! But it is incomplete.

Spiritual disciplines, like all the rhythms and practices of the people of God, are intended to turn us outwards. Theologians from Paul to Augustine to Luther have used similar language to talk about this, but Augustine used a fancy term to describe it in Latin: incurvatus in se. That just means: turned or curved inward, towards yourself.

This is how Augustine thought about sin, that it warps our natural orientation towards God and others and turns us inward. If spiritual disciplines are supposed to help us grow spiritually, they will pry us away from our inward turn and orient us more rightly to the life of the world and the good of our neighbor.

This principle—that we practice spiritual disciplines for the sake of our neighbor and not merely for ourselves—is true of all spiritual disciplines. But just to get you thinking about some practices to consider incorporating in your own life, here are two examples.

Fasting: We typically think of fasting as depriving ourselves of food (or some other material thing) so that we are forced to focus on God.

Again, there is truth in this! Fasting should focus our attention on God as our ultimate provider. But that is not how early Christians thought about fasting.

Gregory the Great (a really important figure in early church history) said that a person “fasts not to God but to himself, if he does not give to the poor what he denies his belly for a time, but reserves it to be given to his belly later.”[1] In other words: if you fast from food that you do not give to the poor, you’re not fasting for God, you’re fasting for yourself.

Aristides, a Greek philosopher from the second century (so, early in the church’s history) said that one of the unique things about the church was that “if anyone among them comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast for two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs.”[2]

This is a spiritual discipline we too can practice, by denying ourselves some material need or good (whether it be food, money, time, or other resources) in order to give more away. Will this practice change us? By the grace and work of God, yes. But will it be primarily about us? No.

Feasting: This is the corollary to fasting! No one should only fast or only feast, but our lives should be a rhythm of both. How is feasting a spiritual discipline? Because feasting is not merely about personal enjoyment, about binging on fast food or spoiling ourselves with fancy things.

Feasting is enjoyment, but the kind of enjoyment that points us back to the Giver of all good gifts. Feasting is careful and intentional celebration. One of my most treasured memories from my time in seminary was the couple of weekends I spent at a lake house with a group of women from my church for our annual retreat. Unlike our larger church events, this was entirely unstructured. We drank coffee on the porch in the mornings, paddled along the lake in the afternoon, and feasted on lovingly prepared dinners at night. We used real cheese and cream and sugar, we poured drinks and scooped food in generous portions, and we shared our lives with each other around the table. This was real feasting.

And yet it was still missing an element of the true spiritual discipline of feasting. In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus warns against holding a feast and only inviting your friends, relatives, or rich neighbors, because “they may invite you back and so you will be repaid” (v. 12). In a culture that thrived on reciprocity (not unlike our own today), it was customary to treat your social equals or betters to a lavish feast, with the expectation that you would be invited to their own. Your feast was not really given as a gift to your guests, but as a means of climbing the social ladder (once again, this should be at least a little familiar to us!).

True feasting will require that we continually ask the question, “Who is missing?” Who makes us uncomfortable because they are different? Who cannot repay our generosity? Whose experience is different from ours that we need to learn from?

Once we’ve asked those questions, the feast can begin. And hopefully it will not only be a tangible gift to our neighbors, but it will be a gift to us, as it helps us unclench our fists from around our own resources, social status, and comfort.

Whether it is prayer, meditation, simplicity, fasting and feasting, silence, Scripture reading, or solitude, these practices are intended to orient us outwards, toward love of God and neighbor. In this way, they really are “practice”—practice for the day when our hearts will be fully redeemed and rightfully oriented towards God and His creation forever.

[1] This is from The Book of Pastoral Rule, page 150 in the version edited by George E. Demacopoulos for Vladimirs Seminary Press.

[2] This is from his Apology, from The Early Christians in their Own Words, edited by Eberhard Arnold.

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