In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard identifies what he calls “disciplines of engagement” and “disciplines of abstinence.” Examples of disciplines of abstinence include fasting, solitude, silence and frugality, while disciplines of engagement include study, worship, service, prayer, and fellowship.
When we examine our own spiritual lives, the chances are we will find we are more likely to practice disciplines of engagement than disciplines of abstinence. If we were to ask ourselves honestly why this is so, I suspect that our answer might look something like this: we feel better about ourselves when we can assure ourselves that we are doing something. Knowing that we read our Bible for an hour or prayed for 20 minutes each day this week, makes us feel more productive and “spiritual” than sitting in silence or solitude for an hour. It is easier to buy the latest study Bible as an indication of our commitment than to practice frugality by resisting getting the latest iPhone when our old iPhone works just fine.
The point is that in our culture we are conditioned to think that the most valuable way to do anything is to do or have more of it, and so we work more, consume more, learn more, and get more friends on Facebook. We can then unwittingly transfer this way of thinking to our spiritual lives, and so we study more, prayer more, and fellowship more. The problem is not that such activities are bad or wrong (as a Bible professor I can certainly attest to the value of reading the Word!), but that we have a difficult time seeing the importance of disciplines in which we don’t do or add something. As I tell my students, we feel a lot better if we can tell people we read our Bible or went to church than that we sat under a tree by ourselves and didn’t talk to anyone for an hour.
My own problem is that I want to feel productive, that I “did” something, that I can add some more notches to my spiritual disciplines belt. I can measure the value of reading Scripture for an hour because I came away with more knowledge or attending another church service because I listened to a great sermon and prayed for 3 church members who were sick. The benefits of spending that hour sitting under the tree in silence are harder to see.
However, it is important to realize that sometimes we need to take things out of our lives rather than just adding things to them. When we take something out of our lives, we create a space that needs to be filled, and amazing things can happen when we open up spaces in our lives. It is easier to hear the voice of God when we practice silence because our world is not filled with competing noises. Doing without something can help us appreciate it more. Sometimes when we remove something from our lives, even for just a short period of time, we discover how much unnecessary time we spend on it, or even how much it controls us.
To help my students see the value of abstaining from things, rather than just adding things, I assign them to do a fast. While I tell them that they can do a food fast, which is the traditional way of fasting, I also say that I prefer that at least for this time they do something different. The larger purpose of the assignment, in addition to the fast itself, is for them to see what happens when they remove something from their lives, to see how God works in the space that disciplines of abstinence create. The students design their own fast. It can include something in their lives that they think is negative and they would like to break the habit, to something that is good or has become routine and they would like to learn how to appreciate it more or subordinate it to God’s larger purposes in their lives. Popular choices have been fasting from criticism, sarcasm, Facebook, music, or cell phones. (I also tell them that, unfortunately, fasting from schoolwork or classes is not allowed.)
After completing their fast, they reflect on what happened. They report that the fast causes them to think about why they do what they do, such as judging people or criticizing people, and how this impacts their relationships and what it reveals about themselves. A fast from talking makes them see how much they normally talk without truly listening to other people. Fasting from Facebook leads to the realization that it consumes way too much of their time. Some realize that they use social media to fill up empty spaces in their lives instead of turning to God. A fast from spending causes them to appreciate the blessings they already have.
After the assignment is over, we discuss the need to have both disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement as parts of our spiritual lives. “Abstinence,” says Willard, “makes way for engagement. . . . A proper abstinence actually breaks the hold of improper engagements so that the soul can be properly engaged in and by God.” However, the disciplines of abstinence can be harder to practice because we have to overcome our need to feel “productive.” In this we need to be willing to go against our inclinations if we are going to be able to make space for God to reveal himself to us and to show us our needs, shortcomings, blessings, or his will for our lives.