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?

Some Nonpartisan California Voter Guides

If you haven’t voted yet and are trying to get some information on the ballot initiatives and candidates, here are some websites I have found helpful:

  1. ballot.fyi
  2. Voter’s Edge California
  3. CALmatters Election Guide [edit: one of my friends thinks the proposition explainer videos on this site are biased. I watched two and they seemed fairly neutral to me, but I might not have watched the ones he is reacting to. FYI]

These are all nonpartisan websites that focus on explaining what’s going on rather than advocating for one side or another.

And if you haven’t registered to vote in California you can register online now for the next elections at https://registertovote.ca.gov/ or you can still register to vote conditionally in this election at https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/voter-registration/conditional-voter-reg/ (that means that you’ll be able to cast a ballot and they’ll count your vote if your registration processes successfully).

The Screwtape Letters: Twenty‐Six Through Thirty

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018. The schedule is online.

We’re almost done. Next week’s readings will be very short indeed. You might even want to finish them off now — they will take you a few extra minutes at most.

These passages caught my eye this week:

In letter 27, the demon says of humans

…their kind of consciousness forces them to encounter the whole, self‐consistent creative act as a series of successive events. Why that creative act leaves room for their free will is the problem of problems, the secret behind the Enemy’s nonsense about “Love”. How it does so is no problem at all; for the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it. (Letter 27, pages 264–265)

I like this, but I’m not sure I agree with it completely. The last half I’m definitely on board with. The first half makes me hesitant. God rested on the seventh day, but Lewis makes the demon say that all of human history is the continuation of the act of creation. There’s a beautiful insight hidden in there, but I think the way Lewis worded it falls outside the bounds that Scripture permits. I’d be more comfortable with something along these lines, “Of course they can find an unbroken series of causes leading up to the condition they desired — the Enemy saw their request being made simultaneously with His answer to their prayer manifesting two weeks later even as He began forming the conditions that would lead to its answer a month before they even became aware of their need. There is a sense in which it is all Now to Him.”

Now that I’ve offered some writing advice to Lewis, I’m off to give some investing advice to Warren Buffet. But first, the next missive (letter 28).

Lewis has Screwtape offer a complaint about humans and time.

How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a “normal life” is the exception. Apparently He wants some—but only a very few—of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. (Letter 28, page 268)

Clearly, Lewis believes that infants and children go to heaven. I share this belief. As David said of his dead son in 2 Samuel 2:23, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

Elsewhere in the letter we see that this ticket to heaven for the young is so frustrating to demons that they sometimes endeavor to keep us alive, but I think that’s not quite right. After all, John 10:10 informs us that the enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy. Nonetheless, Lewis is on to something here.

This last excerpt (from letter 29) is my favorite for the week.

This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky. (Letter 29, page 270)

This, this, a thousand times this. Act with courage. It takes courage to stand for Christ at Stanford. It takes courage to forgo a pleasure and risk giving offense because of a deep conviction. It takes courage to tell your friends certain truths.

Something that encourages me (literally encourages me — puts courage into me) is to reflect on this: Revelation 21:8 tells us that the cowardly are the first group thrown into hell. It’s a sobering thought.

And this related point at the end of the letter speaks directly to what I see as one of the chief failings in modern culture:

For remember, the act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin and, though we enjoy it, does us no good. (Letter 29, page 271)

So many people today confuse feelings with action. For instance, they often seem to believe that feeling bad about something is the same thing as opposing it. “I saw those pictures of starving children and I felt bad. I should tweet about how horrible hunger is.” Do you know who is actually opposed to hunger? The people who send money or spend time to combat hunger.  On the last day, Jesus is not going to say, “As you felt it for the least of these, so you felt it for me.” Allow your feelings to inform your choices, but do not confuse the two.

Be a person of action and hell will hate you.

Enjoy the last little bit of reading!

The Screwtape Letters: Twenty Through Twenty‐Five

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018. The schedule is online.

This week we’re looking at letters 20 to 25. Two passages caught my attention this week.

I was struck by how contemporary Lewis’s comments on sexual temptation in letter 20 seem, even though he wrote this book nearly 80 years ago.

We have engineered a great increase in the licence which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full‐grown woman to be. Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being “frank” and “healthy” and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist—making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast! (letter 20, page 243)

It was indeed easy to forecast, but now we need merely look around. Sexual dysfunction plagues our society. A study that appeared this week (Pornography Use and Marriage Entry During Early Adulthood: Findings From a Panel Study of Young Americans in prepublication) found that “higher levels of pornography use in emerging adulthood were associated with a lower likelihood of marriage by the final survey wave for men, but not women.” Lewis called it.

The other passage which stood out to me was from letter 21, and I confess it struck uncomfortably close to home:

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill‐tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tete‐а‐tete with the friend), that throw him out of gear.… They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen.… The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed a total service of the Enemy; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse.

That is so true. If God asks for fifteen minutes, I’ll give it to Him gladly regardless of what I am doing. But if someone chats with me for fifteen minutes while I’m trying to get a task done, I become impatient and irritable. Yet Jesus clearly said “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). I need to change.

Anyway, that’s some of what I got from this week’s readings. Only two weeks of reading remain!

The Screwtape Letters: Thirteen Through Nineteen

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018. The schedule is online.

Lewis is on such a roll! This week we’re looking at letters thirteen through nineteen, and insights abound. I fear that if I don’t constrain myself I’ll just cut and paste all of the text.

I’ll limit myself to two excerpts from Lewis along with some brief commentary on them.

The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel. (Letter 13, page 223)

Wow. I had forgotten Lewis said this. This is so good! The author to which Screwtape is alluding is Joseph Butler and you can see the source of the quote at Lewisiana.

Lewis is driving at this: the longer you mean to do something the less likely you are to do it. So get off your good intentions and do something you know you are supposed to do. Obedience unlocks insight. The more you do the more you will understand and then the more opportunities for obedience you will have. It’s a virtuous cycle.

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self‐forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make‐believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue.…  The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. (Letter 14, page 225)

This reminds me of Romans 12:3, where Paul teaches us: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”

That verse alone would change Stanford if it was taken seriously. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” Instead, Paul says, think of yourself with sober judgment. In other words, self‐awareness and honesty lay the foundation for humility. Don’t overestimate your competence but also don’t downplay it. And when you evaluate yourself soberly, do it “in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” I take that to mean that instead of subjectively comparing ourselves to others, we should measure ourselves against the objective standards of God’s Word and ultimately against the person of Jesus. That’s a whole sermon, though, and that’s not the point of these updates. I just want to remind you that Lewis has some amazing insights and encourage you to finish the summer readings strong!

The Screwtape Letters: Six Through Twelve

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018. The schedule is online.

This week’s reading (letters six through twelve) was simultaneously short and full of insightful observations.

A few of Lewis’s comments stood out to me:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. (Letter Nine, page 210)

Lewis is spot‐on here. Pleasure is a gift from God. As James 1:27 reminds us, “every good and perfect gift is from above.” Truly internalizing this is transformative. The pleasures of God are premium, grade A stuff. It is true that Satan is a skillful knockoff artist, and this means that the opportunities he lures us with can seem as good as (or even superior to) God’s pleasures at first, but at the end of the day they are still knockoffs. The pleasures they produce don’t last. Hebrews 11:25 calls them “the fleeting pleasures of sin.”

The upshot: few things disrupt Satan’s schemes for your life like a fierce love of wholesome pleasure. One of the best ways to resist temptation is to be full of godly joy.

Moving on, letter ten seems especially helpful to Stanford students.

[When trying to impress new, sophisticated friends] he will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be. This is elementary. (Letter Ten, pages 212–213)

Boom! Not much to add to that except pray for all the frosh heading to Stanford in a few weeks.

Also of relevance to the Stanford culture:

But flippancy is the best [source of laughter] of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour‐plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. (Letter Eleven, page 217)

Again, little commentary is needed. You will find it worthwhile, though, to pay attention to the things that are simply assumed to be false by your community. What Lewis calls flippancy is an indication that there might not be solid arguments against the opinion being mocked. Internet culture is especially prone to this sort of superficial commentary. Social media, in particular, incentivizes it. There may very well be good reasons that your community believes what it does about the good life, the problems facing society, the true religion, and right‐thinking politics… but perhaps there are not. Seek out the non‐flippant opinions before you allow the juvenile banter to sway you unduly.

Anyway, I hope you derived as much benefit from this week’s reading as I did. Enjoy the book!

The Screwtape Letters: Preface and the First Five Letters

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018. The schedule is online.

This week we begin our final summer bookk, The Screwtape Letters. Before I give some thoughts on this week’s reading, I have some general observations.

On to the main course:

Demonic correspondence in a hellish bureaucracy is a genius idea for a book and I assumed it would have been fun to write, but Lewis said “Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” The Screwtape Letters “were dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life, and decided to put them into the form, ‘That’s what the devil would say.’ But making goods ‘bad’ and bads ‘good’ gets to be fatiguing.” (source)

I’m glad Lewis put up with the fatigue. The result is tremendous. Let me begin with one of my favorite quotes from the book (from the preface):

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

This paragraph has special meaning to me as a Pentecostal. Some corners of the Pentecostal world seem to believe there is a demon behind every headache and traffic jam. But much of our society has a hard time acknowledging that there is anything demonic about something as overt as Satan worship. There is a more sensible position which Lewis here describes and which the Apostle Paul modeled: Paul was comfortable with the spirit realm and demons recognized that he was a force to be reckoned with (Acts 19:11–16), but he did not obsess over it. He was not an easy man to distract. Once a demon was harassing him, but it took several days before it got on Paul’s nerves enough for him to respond to it (Acts 16:16–18). Strive to be like Paul — deal with the demonic realm without becoming consumed by the demonic realm.

In the first letter, Screwtape writes to Wormwood about how modern trends have made demonic work easier:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

Reading this paragraph reminded me of the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. He once famously answered a question about his cabinet composition by saying, “Because it’s 2015!” This is the kind of thing Screwtape is talking about. It’s the kind of answer we have been conditioned to respond to, and so it’s the kind of answer a skillful politician gives.

Later in the same letter, Screwtape makes a good point about science:

Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable “real life”. But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is “the results of modem investigation”.

I’ve ministered at Stanford since 2002, and in my experience mathematicians and students of the hard sciences have an easier time embracing the gospel than do students of the social sciences or the humanities. In part, it seems to me, it is because social scientists tend to look for answers that “explain away” whereas hard scientists tend to look for explanations. 

The final sentence, though, is the real kicker. We assume something is true because a lot of people keep saying it and thereby mistake repetition for reason. When someone tells me “the Bible is full of contradictions” I often discover they don’t have any to offer. They’re not lying — they are merely repeating something they have heard so often that they assume it must have a solid foundation.  Sometimes there’s more cognitive dissonance, such as when someone assumes the sexual revolution has been a net positive for society. In that case my interlocutor is usually ignoring or discounting evidence they have personally observed. But again, they’re not consciously lying. The sexual revolution is nearly always presented as progress, and people assume that there must be something to that since it keeps getting repeated.

I am not saying we should mistrust the consensus of experts who are speaking to us about something we have no knowledge of. Deferring to expert consensus is an excellent heuristic, except when the consensus conflicts with something we know. In that case we humbly return to the evidence and think things through again, with openness to the idea that we might be wrong but so might the experts. Here’s the rub: when it comes to things like morality and religion we will almost always have some direct knowledge which we need to consider. And especially with subjects like morality and religion we need to remember that both the experts as well as ourselves have powerful motives to not think things through all the way. All that to say: trust the experts, but not too much. Furthermore, don’t assume our cultural consensus is the same thing as the expert consensus. If that was always the case, we wouldn’t need experts!

I’ll content myself with sharing one final quote from the reading, this one from Letter Four:

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.

Distraction is one of the chief enemies of spiritual growth, and we live in an age that is full of it. Sustained and slow thought is one of the chief instruments in our transformation. If Lewis is right and one of the infernal legion’s goals is to keep you distracted and prevent you from focusing, let that inform your use of apps and the internet. Just a thought.