Day 24: Why Your Spiritual Practices Might Be Wearing You Out

In my life, from the time I was a child, I have been extremely privileged to be around devout Christians who have modeled life with God for me very well. At every stage of my life, I've had people who have encouraged me and invited me deeper into the kind of life in God's kingdom. When I was old enough to begin taking some responsibility for the quality of my own life with God, I began trying to do the things that we're taught to do as Christians–things like prayer, reading my Bible, and worship. Though it didn't take much experience with those practices to know that they could be beneficial, for years–probably even decades–I found that my motivation to do them was very inconsistent. It would wax and wane, as I would be dedicated for a while, then get tired and hardly practice anything. Then the cycle would repeat itself.

I didn't understand why that happened. I thought, "Perhaps I just wasn't as committed to God as I hoped. I really need to be serious next time. (But maybe not just yet)." Then I heard one of my heroes, Dallas Willard, say something which made it click for me. It took the pressure off, and has helped me tremendously in arranging my life around my desire for God in the years since. Before telling you what Dallas' statement was, I need to set up its context.

Most of the things you and I have usually been taught are important practices in the lives of people who are seeking the kingdom of God are "doing" things. Practices like those I mentioned above–prayer, Bible study, and worship, as well as others such as service and fellowship–are all things we do, or we could say more accurately, they are practices that require our engagement. For those decades of my life before I heard Dallas' statement, 90-100% of my spiritual practices were in this category. I read my Bible, prayed, worshipped, served others, met with groups, and generally gave myself a very full plate of Christian activity. Though these things were good, I did them to the point where I had no energy left for them. I came to resent (at times) meeting with groups rather than doing the other things I thought I really wanted to be doing. My interest in and energy for prayer, reading the scriptures, and worship were like a roller coaster.

Back to Dallas' statement. He said that to have only disciplines of engagement without also having disciplines of abstinence is a recipe for burnout.

Though it may not appear to be so on first glance, it's a brilliant observation. I had a cycle of wearing myself out with spiritual practices, because they were all of the "doing things" type–disciplines of engagement, and I had nothing virtually nothing in my life with God that was a practice of "not doing"–a discipline of abstinence.

So what are the disciplines of abstinence, the things that we intentionally not do, for the sake of opening ourselves to God's work? Every person's list may be different, but things like sleep, sabbath, and simple living will be important, refreshing practices for most of us. And the church has held on to three other practices through the centuries that fall into this category, because they are so consistently effective at helping us become more open to God: solitude, silence, and fasting.

Since Jesus' statement, "When you fast...," is our focus for this week, and since in yesterday's post I talked about how much it makes us uncomfortable, perhaps it can help us let our defenses down before looking at the practice the rest of the week to look at it in this context. As one of the central practices of abstinence for us, part of its role is to refresh us and help us to rest. It's a practice which, though uncomfortable, is an invitation to us rather than a demand.

As I mentioned yesterday, my experiences with fasting are still fairly limited, but since hearing Dallas' statement and intentionally letting practices of "not doing"/disciplines of abstinence have more of a place in my life, my desire for life with God and energy for pursuing it stay much more consistent. We need to engage, and we need to abstain–both for the purpose of remaining open to God's work of grace.

Tomorrow we will take a surprising look at fasting in the Bible, and then on Thursday, at fasting in our Methodist tradition. We will look at them in the light that this statement from Dallas Willard shed on why many of us get worn out by our practices and how fasting and other "not doing" practices help us to avoid doing so.

A Prayer for the Day:

O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*

Click here for this week's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]