Celebration of Discipline: Study & Foreword

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2019. The schedule is online.

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

“Jesus made it unmistakably clear that the knowledge of the truth will set us free. ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8:32). Good feelings will not free us. Ecstatic experiences will not free us. Getting ‘high on Jesus’ will not free us. Without a knowledge of the truth, we will not be free.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 63

This week we come to the discipline of study. Foster’s definition of study is a little wordy and hand‐wavy for me. I think what he’s getting at is this: study is thinking deeply about something until we understand it and its significance. When done well, it changes the way we think in the future.

Here are some suggestions:

  • While you are young, read a few “how to think” books. If you are fortunate, these will be assigned in some of your classes. If they are not, they are worth seeking out on your own. Don’t assume that just because you got into Stanford and are getting decent grades that you’re all set in this area. How To Read A Book by Adler is solid gold, as is anything by Richard Mitchell (aka The Underground Grammarian). Start with Less Than Words Can Say (legally available online). I think my favorite thing of his is “The Land of We All” from The Gift of Fire. I remember finding Stanovich’s How To Think Straight About Psychology helpful when I was in college, as I did Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies.
  • Resolve to read books by dead people. C. S. Lewis’s introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation explains why well: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.” His introduction is available many places online and I highly recommend it‐ https://www.bhmc.org.uk/uploads/9/1/7/7/91773502/lewis-incarnation-intro.pdf
  • Really do make it your goal to pass an ideological Turing test on every major issue: be able to articulate any position you reject so clearly that a well‐informed observer would think you really believe it. You cannot meaningfully say “I agree” or “I disagree” until you can say “I understand.”
  • If you follow current events, an excellent practice is to write down what you think the outcomes of a certain policy or decision are likely to be. Then go back a few months later and compare your predictions with reality. You’ll learn a lot about your blind spots and assumptions. Also write down what you would do if you were in charge and what you think would likely happen. This is more uncertain, but you will start to notice ways that reality surprises you and would have affected your plans. The key in either case is writing it down — don’t trust your memory. Written words have an outrageous stubbornness that does not permit you to believe you thought something different than you actually did.

Some tips for studying the Bible in particular:

  • Foster recommends picking a book of the Bible and reading it every day for a month. This isn’t as daunting as it may seem. The average person reads about 250 words per minute and the book of Ephesians has a little under 2,500 words. Depending on your reading speed, you can go from beginning to end in 10 minutes.
  • No time to sit down and read? Consider an audio Bible. The first audiences of the Bible heard it orally, and so you’re just following in their footsteps.
  • Get a simple one‐volume Bible commentary to help you with the challenging parts. You can find an excellent set of suggestions at Best Bible Commentaries.
  • If you wind up going into ministry, invest in a more substantive set of commentaries. Commentaries can be quite expensive, so first get a one‐volume overview and then build on it over time.
    • Here’s what I do: whenever I start a new sermon series, I get two or three new commentaries to help me prepare. I go to bestcommentaries.com and choose from among the highest‐rated ones labeled P or D. So if I needed a commentary on 1 Corinthians, I would go to https://www.bestcommentaries.com/1-corinthians/ and buy either Fee or Garland or both. It’s easier to do this when you’re preaching through books of the Bible (a series on James, for example). If you’re doing topical stuff then think about what one of your main passages will be and buy a commentary for that book of the Bible. Over time you’ll build a very solid library that way.
    • Avoid buying entire commentary sets; even the best series are uneven. It’s wiser to buy the best few commentaries for each book of the Bible.
  • Supplement your purchased commentaries with the amazing (and free) set of notes compiled by Dallas Seminary professor Thomas Constable. Download the PDF versions to your hard drive and you’ll even have access to them when you’re on a retreat or a mission trip somewhere.

I suspect Stanford students have a harder time with the discipline of study than with almost any of the others, because studying for grades becomes so consuming. I frequently talk with students who lament their inability to read the books they want to read. It’s important to remember that Foster believes all study can be spiritually beneficial — even studying for grades. If nothing else, you’re developing skills in this season that will serve you well for the rest of your life.

Also, bear in mind that you can often choose to focus your studies in a class in a way that will be spiritually beneficial. Taking a class on democracy? Use it as an opportunity to engage with Woodberry’s work on the religious roots of democratic governance. Taking a class on African‐American history in the 1900’s? Read about the black church. Studying the philosophy of science? Read what Christians have said about it. Skim our resource The Gospel and Green Library to find suggested books on a wide range of topics.

And if you know you’re going to struggle during the school year, take advantage of the summer to do some serious spiritual reading beyond the summer reading project!

A few notes on the foreword:

Skipping back many pages to the foreword… I really like what Foster says here. I had us save it until now because his thoughts seem linked to the idea of study to me — the foreword is an extended reflection on the nature of the spiritual disciplines. I will close with a few comments on this excerpt:

It is critical for us to understand that the Spiritual Disciplines possess no moral rectitude or righteousness in and of themselves. They are, most definitely, not “works righteousness,” as is sometimes said. They place us–body, mind, and spirit–before God. That is all. The results of this process are all of God, all of grace. Now, the opposite of grace is “works.” Works has to do with earning, and there simply is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s approval. Or God’s love.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, pages xiv‐xv

As Dallas Willard once said, grace is opposed to earning not effort. 2 Peter 1:3–8 charts out the relationship between grace and effort nicely: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life… for this very reason make every effort to add to your faith goodness…”

His grace provides all that we need, therefore we should strive with all of our might. He gives us the platform upon which to stand, therefore we must stand to our full height.

Next week we move from the inner to the outer disciplines as we discuss living with simplicity. Get ready!

Celebration of Discipline: Fasting

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2019. The schedule is online.

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

I think two insights from this chapter are particularly salient for today:

“Throughout Scripture fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. It stands in distinction to the hunger strike, the purpose of which is to gain political power or attract attention to a good cause. It is also distinct from health dieting which stresses abstinence from food for physical, not spiritual, purposes.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 48

Whenever people tell me that they are fasting from social media I always feel puzzled.

I like the concept, I just don’t like calling it fasting. Taking a break from Instagram is just self‐control and doesn’t need a special label. Fasting is refraining from something that you need to survive — it shows that God is more precious to you than life. Cutting out Facebook doesn’t rise to that level.

When we expand the word fasting to include any act of self‐deprivation, we prime ourselves to ignore actual fasting. “I don’t need to fast food. I fast social media.”

A little later Foster says

“Regular or weekly fasting has had such a profound effect in the lives of some that they have sought to find a Biblical command for it, so that it may be urged upon all Christians. The search is in vain. There simply are no Biblical laws that command regular fasting. Our freedom in the gospel, however, does not mean license; it means opportunity. Since there are no laws to bind us, we are free to fast on any day.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 51

Reading these words again over 20 years after I first stumbled upon them I realize how influential they have been to me. If you skimmed over them while racing through the chapter, I encourage you to read over them again slowly. These words apply to far more than fasting.

Some additional thoughts:

The practical details in this chapter are solid gold. If you’ve never fasted for at least three days, I encourage you to follow Foster’s advice on pages 56–60. Start with skipping two meals (a 24 hour fast), then after a few repetitions skip three meals (a 36 hour fast), and then once you feel ready plan to skip meals for three to seven days. Since the first three days are the hardest, if you’re going to fast three days then you might as well do several more unless you have a reason not to (professional obligations, an athletic training schedule, etc). After that, do what makes the most sense to you.

Also, don’t lie about your fasting. Young Christians do this all the time because they believe that if anyone discovers that they are fasting then it doesn’t count. That’s a misunderstanding. What Jesus forbids is drawing attention to your fast so that people admire you. Here are His words in the NIV:


“When you fast, do not look somber 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

The point is to not draw attention to what you are doing, and the simple truth is that excessive evasions actually wind up drawing more attention to your fasting than a straightforward acknowledgement. So if someone asks you point blank if you are fasting, just say, “Yes.” Or if one of your friends asks, “Do you need me to buy your lunch for you? I’m happy to spot you.” Then tell them, “Oh, that’s all right. I’m not eating lunch today. Thanks.”

Finally, if you struggle with an eating disorder then you probably should not fast until you achieve a healthy relationship with food. As a general rule, spiritualizing your dysfunctions leads to bad outcomes.

Next week we look at the discipline of study!

Celebration of Discipline: Prayer

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I’ll post my thoughts here (which is an email I send to the participants). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2019. The schedule is online if you’d like to read along.

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

This week’s spiritual discipline is prayer. I found this chapter a little disappointing because I’ve read Foster’s book Prayer, and it’s the best book on prayer I’ve ever read. Most books on prayer make me feel guilty for not praying enough, but his book encouraged me so much that I kept putting it down to pray right away. This chapter was good, but it’s only the embryonic form of Foster’s best writing on this subject. If you like what he says here, order Prayer right now.

A few thoughts in response to this week’s reading:

  1. First, you should also read this one‐page C.S. Lewis essay “If God Is Sovereign, Why Should We Pray?” It will answer questions that I am confident some of you have. You can also find this essay as chapter 11 of his book God In The Dock — the version I linked to is slightly abridged, so if you own God in the Dock I suggest you read it there.
  2. Second, there are so many tidbits of advice scattered throughout this chapter that I urge you to just focus on one at a time. Just as a scientist learns best when they adjust one variable at a time, we will gain the most if we incorporate insights slowly.
  3. Third, I think the single most important sentence in this chapter might be, “I determined to learn to pray so that my experience conformed to the words of Jesus rather than try to make his words conform to my impoverished experience” (page 37). If that is your mentality you will experience tremendous growth and see great things.
  4. Fourth, something he doesn’t emphasize as much as I would like is that a huge part of prayer is calling upon God’s nature (i.e, calling on the name of the Lord) and calling upon His promises. Our faith is rooted in His faithfulness, both His faithfulness to His character and His faithfulness to His commitments. A great way to do this is by praying Scripture. Andy Naselli has a solid article about this: 12 Reasons You Should Pray Scripture.
  5. Fifth and finally, I very much appreciate how he emphasized praying for your pastor (page 43). I tell you frankly and without shame that I covet your prayers. As Paul said in 1 Thess 5:25, “pray for us.” Don’t know how to pray for a pastor? Paul basically asked the church to pay for his protection and effectiveness. Specifically, he asked people to pray for open doors for his ministry (Col 4:3), the ability to preach clearly (Col 4:4), fearlessness in ministry (Eph 6:19), Spirit‐led words as he preached (Eph 6:19), that the gospel would spread through his ministry (2 Thess 3:1), for deliverance from those who wished him harm (2 Thess 3:2, Romans 15:31), favor for his ministry (Romans 15:31), for deliverance from despair and challenging circumstances (2 Cor 1:9–11, Philippians 1:19), for safe and successful ministry trips (Romans 15:32), and for him to return safely to a friend (Philemon 1:22). Pray just a few of those things for me and I’ll be grateful!

Next week’s chapter is on fasting and it’s super‐practical. If I recall correctly, it was the chapter on fasting that made the most significant impression upon me when I first read this book back in college. I hope it helps you as much as it did me!

Celebration of Discipline: Meditation

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I’ll post my thoughts here (which is an email I send to the participants). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2019. The schedule is online if you’d like to read along.

The first of the spiritual disciplines we’re going to look at is meditation. Foster helpfully distinguishes what he is talking about from Eastern meditation: “Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind. The two ideas are quite different” (page 20).

In Eastern meditation (or mindfulness as we tend to call it today) very often people seem to be trying to gain self‐awareness — to discover what they think and feel. In Christian meditation, on the other hand, we are trying to gain God‐awareness — to discover what He thinks and feels. As Foster puts it, “Christian meditation, very simply, is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word” (page 17).

Live Without Hurry

I suspect this chapter’s biggest challenge for most Stanford students is the suggestion to live throughout the day in such a way that you are prepared for meditation:

If we are constantly being swept off our feet with frantic activity, we will be unable to be attentive at the moment of inward silence. A mind that is harassed and fragmented by external affairs is hardly prepared for meditation. The church Fathers often spoke of Otium Sanctum: “holy leisure.” It refers to a sense of balance in life, an ability to be at peace through the activities of the day, an ability to rest and take time to enjoy beauty, an ability to pace ourselves. With our tendency to define people in terms of what they produce, we would do well to cultivate “holy leisure.” And if we expect to succeed in the contemplative arts, we must pursue, “holy leisure” with a determination that is ruthless to our datebooks.

Celebration of Discipline, page 27

I often think about a conversation between John Ortberg (the pastor of nearby Menlo Church) and Dallas Willard (mentioned in Foster’s book on page xxi). At the time, Ortberg was working at a very fast‐paced megachurch in Chicago, so he called Willard to ask what he needed to do to be spiritually healthy. Willard paused for a long time, and then said, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

Ruthlessly. Eliminate. Hurry.

In other words, treat hurry as the enemy of your soul. This is not a call to be unproductive. It is a call to refuse to be driven by artificial urgency.

So my first challenge to you is twofold:

  1. Live without hurry this summer. Be productive without allowing feeling frantic to take root in your soul.
  2. Prepare to live without hurry in the fall. Practically, this probably means signing up for one fewer class than you think you’re supposed to.

Meditate Upon Scripture

Foster discusses several types of meditation, but emphasizes meditation upon Scripture as the foundation. I agree completely. Make meditation upon Scripture a mainstay in your life.

And so my second challenge to you is threefold:

  1. Pick a story from the Bible and meditate upon it one day this week. Try to envision the story from the point of view of all the participants (David, Goliath, Saul, the Israelite army, David’s brothers, etc). Imagine how different tones of voice would affect your interpretation of the story (try to think of several ways the woman could have told Jesus, “Sir, I perceive you are a prophet” and say them aloud). Inhabit the story.
  2. Pick a commandment from the Bible and meditate upon it one day this week. Be specific — don’t just think of a rule, actually find a verse that gives the command. Now run through the verse emphasizing and then reflecting upon each word or phrase in turn. For example, Philippians 4:8 — “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
    1. Start with the first key phrase — “WHATEVER IS TRUE… think about such things. Lord, why does truth matter so much? And you say ‘whatever is true.’ Whatever? Does that mean there is spiritual blessing in 2+2=4? Help me understand.”
    2. And then move on to the next phrase. “WHATEVER IS NOBLE…. think about such things. God, what does it mean for something to be noble? What’s a noble thing I can think about?” etc.
    3. Run through all eight types of things we are to fill our mind with.
    4. Eventually get to “THINK ABOUT SUCH THINGS. Lord — what fills my mind? Is it positive and encouraging stuff like this? What’s a better way for me to think about _____? What is the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy thing I can see in this situation?”
  3. Pick a promise from the Bible and meditate upon it one day this week. Take time to dwell upon its implications. Example, Luke 6:38 says , “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Meditation upon this promise might look like this: begin by envisioning yourself receiving a bag full of good things, tightly packed to the point of overflowing. And then ask, “God, what would I have done differently this week if I really believed this promise?” And then, “How have I seen this in my life or the lives of those I know?” Keep reflecting on the promise and its implications.

That’s my challenge — meditate upon Scripture this week in each of these ways. Pick your own story, command, and promise. If you don’t know what to choose, just flip through the gospels until you find one of each. Grabbing them from the gospels is a great way to “fix your eyes upon Jesus” as Heb 12:2 tells us to.

If you’re willing, email me back and let me know what passages you intend to meditate upon. And then afterwards let me know how it went!

Kicking Off The 2019 Chi Alpha Summer Reading Project

book cover - celebration of discipline

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2019. The schedule is online.

Celebration of Discipline — Introduction and Chapter One

Remember that we’re saving the preface and foreword for later. For now we’re just reading the introduction and the first chapter.

Chapter One — The Spiritual Disciplines: Door To Liberation

“Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”

page 1

BOOM! What a start to a book. Foster wrote those words over 40 years ago and the problem has only intensified. Our society has collectively become the thorny soil in Matthew 13:22 — the worries of this world choke out the work of the Spirit within us.

The solution, Foster says, is to cultivate a pattern of living that breeds depth. Things like prayer and fasting and confession are like a firmware update for our souls.

The problem is that we’re not sure how to do these things. This book is meant to be a how‐to manual to help us emulate the disciplined lifestyles portrayed in the Bible.

The disciplines Foster emphasizes are vital because without them we have only willpower to rely upon, and willpower doesn’t work as well as we hope.

Willpower will never succeed in dealing with the deeply ingrained habits of sin. Emmet Fox writes, “As soon as you resist mentally any undesirable or unwanted circumstance, you thereby endow it with more power–power which it will use against you, and you will have depleted your own resources to that exact same extent.”

page 5

With the disciplines we are training, without them we are only trying. Training trumps trying.

This gets close to the thesis underlying the entire book — the formation of habits like fasting and prayer bear fruit in a way that willpower does not. As Foster observes:

“A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over, and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines—they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace.”

page 7

Next week we begin getting practical as we study the discipline of Christian meditation. I hope you’re excited!

UPDATE: I didn’t include any excerpts from the introduction but I highly recommend reading it and especially focusing on the key role laypeople played in mentoring this pastor. Assuming your call is to the marketplace or academia, make it your ambition to grow into a Christian layperson mature enough to disciple a pastor. How awesome would that be?