What is the value in spiritual disciplines such as daily prayer, Bible reading, fasting, meditation, voluntary poverty? Should Christians make an effort to be involved in these? When Melbourne’s Archbishop preached at Ridley chapel recently, he suggested that spiritual disciplines are a good replacement for suffering, which we in the West rarely face.
He was speaking from John 6 about the man born blind whom Jesus healed. The man’s parents are afraid of the Pharisees and so refuse to attest to his healing, instead directing the Pharisees to the healed man himself: “He is of age, ask him.” The Arch asked us, what would we, as people who are of age, say about Jesus? The healed man does indeed believe that Jesus healed him and that he did so by the power of God and because he tells the Pharisees this, he is thrown out of the synagogue. The Arch asked us, would we still say the same thing about Jesus if it involved such persecution?
And yet, in the West we are rarely persecuted for our faith, at least not in an organised or deliberate effort, like our brothers and sisters in the majority world may be. And so, the Arch suggested, we ought to seek out opportunities to deprive ourselves for our faith, to suffer in some way. Spiritual disciplines, he suggested are one mechanism for this.
This is an idea I’ve come across before. In Church History, we’ve looked at the beginnings of monasticism. Part of the idea was that with the end of the persecution of Christians, especially with the reign of Constantine, Christians were growing proverbially fat and lazy without suffering. And so some chose to give up everything they had for a life of discipline and contemplation. While the opportunity was no longer available to be martyred for the faith, they could mortify their own flesh, beat their own bodies into submission.
I’m not entirely comfortable with this idea from church (ancient and recent) history for a few reasons:
- The passages written about suffering in the New Testament are written to those who already suffer. Thus passages like Rom. 5:3 are an encouragement to those already experiencing persecution, rather than an exhortation to seek out suffering that hope might increase.
- While Christians are to expect suffering, they are also people who serve a victorious Jesus. While there is a place for solemnity, Christians ought to rejoice, both in suffering and outside of it (Phil 4:4). The hallmark of the Christian ought to be our joy over our austerity.
- I wonder where trusting God and his sovereignty comes into this. It is God from whom discipline comes (Heb. 12) and God whose knows our every situation (Matt 6:25-34; Psalm 139). The New Testament call is to contentment, whatever your circumstances (1 Tim 6:6), not envying a brother or sister either their ease or difficulty in life.
I do think there is great value in spiritual discipline but I’m less comfortable with the idea that we are to practice them as a replacement for suffering. Suffering will come and we ought to be prepared for it. Spiritual disciplines can strengthen relationship with God. It seems to be that their value lies far more in this capacity than as a ‘practice run’. What do you think?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.