Celebration of Discipline: Confession

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.

This week we’re talking about confessing our sins to other people. Biblically, we always confess our sins to the Lord in prayer and then we usually also confess directly to those we have wronged. Sometimes in addition we confess our sins to other believers for the sake of their or our spiritual health. As an example of confessing for the sake of someone else’s spiritual health, I might confess a sin while preaching about how growth comes in a certain area. As an example of confessing for my own spiritual health, I might confess a sin to a friend while requesting their counsel.

“Confession is a difficult Discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We cannot bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. Therefore, we hide ourselves from one another in live in veiled lies and hypocrisy.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p 145 9

A few thoughts about confession:

  • Foster’s advice is spot‐on when he says, “…we must be prepared to deal with definite sins. A generalized confession may save us from humiliation and shame, but it will not ignite inner healing” (page 151). This related quote has often run through my mind, “We confess our little faults to persuade people that we have no large ones” (Rochefoucauld). If we confess in a way that makes us look good, there’s something amiss. When you confess, don’t merely confess that you are not perfect. Draw attention to one or more of your particular imperfections. Not simply “I can be greedy sometimes”; rather, “I have been so consumed with desiring that new iPhone that I almost stole money from my mom’s purse. I was shocked at my level of greed.”
  • I said we usually confess to the person we have wronged. That is not always the case, however. For example, if you’ve been staring lustfully at someone, it’s generally unwise to tell that to the person you’ve been lusting after. You are relieving your emotions by burdening theirs. It’s selfish.
  • To whom do you confess when you are not confessing directly to someone you have wronged? Foster’s counsel is wise: “The key qualifications are spiritual maturity, wisdom, compassion, good common sense, the ability to keep a confidence, and a wholesome sense of humor” (page 153).
  • In university ministry I sometimes observe two extremes: a community where no one confesses anything to anyone else (usually because of fear) or a community whose worship services sometimes become public confession ceremonies. I have thoughts about both:
    • A community where no one confesses anything to anyone else is held in bondage to sin. People convince themselves they struggle alone, and as result half of Satan’s work is done for him. He desires to isolate Christians as a prelude to destroying us, and yet we foolishly isolate ourselves.
    • A community where people regularly confess their sins in a public forum runs the risk of indirectly elevating sin. If you’ve never seen this done it is hard to describe, but I have seen it several times. Someone heads to the microphone and asks if they can share something that they feel like they have to get off their chest. And then they confess a sin. And then someone else wrestling with that same sin or a related sin makes a beeline for the microphone after this. And then the dam breaks and it takes over the entire service. This is sometimes a genuine response to the guiding of the Holy Spirit (we see an example of this in Acts 19:18–19), but sometimes it is an indicator that healthy interpersonal confession is not happening and so this substitute is emerging as a replacement. The dangers are (a) it can make sin seem more pervasive than it is (5% of the people spending 95% of the time talking about their biggest mistakes creates a distorted impression of the community), and (b) without wise pastoral leadership the normal emotions that accompany public confession can be mistaken for the working of the Holy Spirit.
    • That’s in a worship service. It’s usually a healthy thing when this happens in a small group (although here, too, it can sometimes normalize sin and minimize the transforming power of grace).

Here is my suggestion to you: today or tomorrow examine your conscience and identify a specific sin to confess. Meditate upon the sin until you clearly see its wrongness. Then this week find a fellow believer (perhaps in Chi Alpha, perhaps in your church) and confess the sin to them. Then ask them to pray for you that God will liberate you from the power of that sin. See what happens and iterate moving forward.

Celebration of Discipline: Service

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.

This week we come to the discipline of service — the habit of “quietly and unpretentiously… caring for the needs of others.” (page 130).

This is a solid chapter and full of insights.

“Of all the classical Spiritual Disciplines, service is the most conducive to the growth of humility. When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirits.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 130

As I sometimes remark, “God’s plan A for your life is humility. Plan B is humiliation. Choose wisely.” Pursuing humility through service is countercultural at an ambitious place like Stanford, and so we need to constantly remind ourselves of the model of our Lord. Jesus showed us that leaders are examples and not exceptions. A position of leadership does not exempt us from service — it gives us an opportunity to serve more people.

How can we tell if we are using a position as a platform for service? Robert Greenleaf, who was an executive at AT&T, wrote

“The best test [of your servant leadership], and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader

The passage I found most helpful, though, is Foster’s insight on the difference between serving and being a servant:

“When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 132

Years ago someone told me that one of the truest tests of your servanthood is how you react when you are treated like a servant. It stuck with me, probably because I had recently felt the sting of being taken for granted. I had been treated like a servant and it bothered me, which meant that I did not yet see myself as a servant. In Philippians 2:7 we are taught that Jesus took “the very nature of a servant” (NIV). I came to see that if my goal was to have the very nature of a servant, then being treated like a servant was actually a marker of success.

What prevents this from becoming destructive is recognizing that although we are servants we are not serving the whims of people. Colossians 3:23–24 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” He gets at the same idea in 2 Corinthians 4:5, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. ”

In other words, our ultimate service is to the Lord. This limits the way we serve any specific person. I must not serve others in a way that undermines my ability to fulfill God’s purposes in my life.

  • I will help you move but not on my son’s birthday. I owe service to you but I also owe service to my son, and I owe him greater priority in service than I do to you. God has made me my son’s father and so my obligations in that regard will sometimes trump my obligations to serve you.
  • You don’t need to give your friend a ride to the airport when you are supposed to be taking an exam. Christ brought you to Stanford and you need to honor that part of His call upon your life.
  • And seeing yourself as servant doesn’t imply that you should only apply for minimum wage service jobs. If God is calling you to become a professor or an entrepreneur or a doctor or whatever, pursue that wholeheartedly and do what you need to do to prepare for that — and serve people at every step along the way.

Applying this principle requires wisdom, because if you are sufficiently clever you can justify forgoing almost any act of service or expression of humility. That’s really the clue, though. If you’re constantly seeking a way to avoid serving then you don’t have the heart of a servant, so stop rationalizing and start serving. If your heart, however, does not first say “must I?” but “can I?” when you see an opportunity to serve, then you are in little danger of using this principle to indulge your selfishness.

Next week we come to the corporate disciplines — the way that we live life together in the Kingdom.

Celebration of Discipline: Submission

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.

I’m doubling up this week because I missed last week’s summary due to my travels. With this update we should be back on track.

This week, we examine the discipline of submission, which entails the rejection of the lust for power and even the presumption of autonomy.

“Submission is an ethical theme that runs the gamut of the New Testament. It is a posture obligatory upon all Christians: men as well as women, fathers as well as children, masters as well as slaves. We are commanded to live a life of submission because Jesus lived a life of submission, not because we are in a particular place or station in life. Self‐denial is a posture fitting for all those who follow the crucified Lord…. the one and only compelling reason for submission is the example of Jesus.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline page 117

Our culture celebrates the autonomous individual, and concepts such as “self‐actualization” and “self‐fulfillment” are pervasive. Our society’s main attitude toward the self is to indulge it, but Scripture’s main attitude toward the self is to deny it. The habit of submission denies self in a powerful way, and so two of the main opportunities we have to deny self are to submit to God and to submit to legitimate human authorities.

Submitting ourselves to God means obeying His Word, especially when we are puzzled by His commands. There is a very real sense in which we are not submitting until we disagree (or at least don’t understand). When we do what God says because it makes sense to us, it is not God we are obeying but ourselves. Meditating on Romans 12 might prove helpful as you think about this.

Submitting ourselves to legitimate human authorities means that we honor governmental leaders even when we disagree with them. Disagreeing with our political leaders is not uncommon; in fact, I cannot imagine a California voter who is simultaneously thrilled with both governor Gavin Newsome and president Donald Trump. Nonetheless, we honor and pray for both. Not only do we honor and pray for them, we also obey them when they are acting within their sphere of authority. Likewise, we honor spiritual authorities such as pastors and obey them when they are acting within their sphere of authority. We also honor our parents and obey them when they are acting within their sphere of authority.

I keep repeating “when they are acting within their sphere of authority” because keeping that in mind is what protects us from abusive and toxic situations. Every human authority has limits placed upon them, and when they step outside of their realm they should not be obeyed. Tyrannical governments, cultish religions, controlling workplaces, toxic family systems — wise Christians flee from or stand against these things.

Spend time thinking Biblically about the proper spheres of human authority — it will bear great fruit in your life. Sometimes, like in Acts 5:27–29, the point is made very clear — the government has no right to forbid you to obey God (I’m looking at you, China). But other times the lesson is an implication of the text rather than its main point. For example, Acts 5:3–4 presupposes that Peter would have had no right to command Ananais to sell his property or to give all of the proceeds to the church. That illustrates an important limit on spiritual authority. These are just two examples from one chapter of Scripture — I encourage you to keep the concept of spheres of authority in the back of your mind as you read Scripture. You’ll find insights in unexpected places.

Celebration of Discipline: Solitude & Preface

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.

In this chapter, Foster invites us to the spiritual discipline of solitude: periods of physical isolation which make us into people who are content regardless of the judgments of others. It is closely related to remaining silent.

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? God will take control, but we will never let him take control until we trust him. Silence is intimately related to trust. The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, pages 100–101

There are related comments in the chapter on study:

“If we will observe the relationships that go on between human beings, we will receive a graduate‐level education. Watch, for example, how much of our speech is aimed at justifying our actions. We find it almost impossible to act and allow the act to speak for itself. No, we must explain it, justify it, demonstrate the rightness of it. Why do we feel this compulsion to set the record straight? Because of pride and fear, because our reputations are at stake!”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 74

When I was in college someone asked what percentage of my words were devoted to influencing how others thought about me. The question gripped me, and so I tried to keep track for a few days. Every time I said something I asked myself whether or not I had said it mostly to make other people think better of me. The results were shocking — it was a HUGE percentage of my conversations. I resolved to strike anything from my speech whose primary purpose was either to impress others or to correct a possible misinterpretation of my motives.

In retrospect, I often went too far and made things awkward for everyone else. Pursuing solitude and silence is not an excuse for being rude. We are commanded to love God and people, so if your spiritual practices make you act in less loving ways then you’re doing them wrong. You will likely make mistakes as you experiment in this area. Don’t beat yourself up over them, just apologize and recalibrate as necessary. If you resolve not to speak for a day and someone asks you for directions, give them anyway. If you decide to spend the next Saturday in solitude and an elderly neighbor asks you to help them move some stuff, reschedule your solitude. If you want to avoid justifying yourself but someone asks you a point‐blank question about your motives, answer honestly and simply.

Also, don’t make your plans in this area vows to the Lord. Vows to God are potent things and should be made rarely, yet I often speak with students who have made a promise to God to do (or not do) something. In almost all cases the vow was an unnecessary add‐on meant to give their plan more oomph, and now they are in danger of breaking a vow to God. If you are considering making a vow, first meditate on Ecclesiastes 5:4–6, Deuteronomy 23:21–23, Matthew 5:33–37, and James 5:12.

My personal practice of solitude currently looks like this. When I wake in the morning I come downstairs and put my phone where I cannot easily get to it. I prepare my breakfast and begin reading a spiritually beneficial book. After a bit (usually a few chapters), I boot up my laptop, open a word processor, and write something that will be helpful to others. I don’t check my email or any social media while I’m doing this. Once I’ve written enough, I retrieve my phone to check for any text messages that may have come in overnight and also open my browser to check my email.

My habit is similar to the thirty‐minute abstention from technology Foster describes in the preface. His prescription reminds me of an old‐school saying: “No Bible, no breakfast.” In other words, we must remember to nourish our spiritual life before we nourish our physical life. Perhaps a modern parallel is “No Spirit, no screens.” Don’t check your email until you’ve checked in with God. Leave your text messages unread until you’ve read the Word. This is not an absolute rule, for there are seasons of life when it might be unwise or even wicked to cut yourself off from communication. Are you a surgeon on call? Turn your ringer up to max volume!

If you do engage in a daily practice of solitude you will eventually find yourself wanting something more. Remember that you can always drive over to Fasting Prayer Mountain of the World for a personal day‐long (or even overnight) retreat. More info at https://www.fpmw-sv.com/about-us

Celebration of Discipline: Simplicity

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’m traveling right now and don’t have a lot of time to write up my thoughts on this chapter, so I’ll simply say that while I like this Foster’s thoughts on simplicity this chapter reminds me of how quickly he wrote the book. His thoughts are unfortunately jumbled at times, especially when it comes to economics. He has a good advice for individuals, but he seems to confuse wise individual choices with wise social structures. That aside, there’s a lot of solid advice in this chapter about living a simple life.

Foster doesn’t define simplicity clearly, but he mostly seems to mean being content, being generous and being suspicious of indulgence. I’m actually surprised he didn’t make generosity one of his twelve central spiritual disciplines. Generosity with a side of simplicity seems more faithful to the Biblical witness than simplicity with a side of generosity. Regardless, he made the focus simplicity (perhaps so he can bring in comments about simplicity in speech on pages 93–94).

If I had to pick one quote that stood out to me, it would be this one:

“The central point for the Discipline of simplicity is to seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of his kingdom first and then everything necessary will come in its proper order…. Focus upon the kingdom produces the inward reality, and without the inward reality we will degenerate into legalistic trivia. Nothing else can be central. The desire to get out of the rat race cannot be central, the redistribution of the world’s wealth cannot be central, the concern for ecology cannot be central…. The person who does not seek the kingdom first does not seek it at all.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, pages 86–87.

There are many people who pursue a simple lifestyle for other reasons. Godly simplicity isn’t primarily about reducing your carbon footprint or engaging in effective altruism. The simplicity we pursue is rooted in our uncomplicated devotion to God.

One last comment and a bit of a tangent: “It is time we awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick” (page 80). Silicon Valley in general and Stanford in particular have very unhealthy tendencies, and to the extent we feel fully at home here we reveal unhealthiness in ourselves. In this regard I often reflect on 2 Peter 2:7–8, “Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard).” If we are never distressed at Stanford then we are not paying sufficient attention to God, to Stanford, or to both.

Anyway, I hope you are challenged by this week’s reading! Remember that next week we are reading both the chapter on solitude as well as the preface.

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?