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HOW NOT TO GET FIXED
"Don't do it," I said. "Don't do the forty-day fast — that's my suggestion."
My friend had hit a "spiritual rut," as he put it, sagging his lower lip. He told me that he had "a buddy who just finished a forty-day fast," and "man, it sounds like I need something like that!" He then asked me if I had any suggestions. It was the quickest shift from somberness to cheer I'd ever seen. He was struggling with the rut but stirred by the possibility of overcoming it. He knew the problem and the solution, and I watched as the wheels turned in his head. His sagging lip started to resurrect as he thought about the potential experience.
He knew that I had practiced fasting, and he was looking for guidance. At first I thought that by "suggestions" he was looking for edifying devotional literature to read during the fast. You know, something to "pump him up" and get him through this difficult time. I would have been ready to fire off a few suggestions at the drop of a hat — anything by Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas Boston, Samuel Rutherford, Søren Kierkegaard, or Eugene Peterson. But it became quite clear to me early in our conversation that he had nothing of the sort in mind. He was far more interested in acquiring some tips and tricks for getting through the forty days of fasting than he was in being edified or challenged in his pursuit.
I waited for a moment while he finished ordering his food. (Today was his "Fat Tuesday" — the gorge before the purge — and he chose the burger chain Five Guys as his Last Supper.) Reluctance sat in his eyes while excitement leapt from every one of his words. I held my tongue for a short while. And then a little longer. He continued to share what he was going through and what he hoped to get from his fast. I tried my hardest to keep quiet — I had been there before. I knew the excitement. I understood the motivation. But I had to tell him that I had experienced the failure. I had to tell him what I went through. I was foaming at the lips with caution. Yet I couldn't stand back and do nothing. I had to be honest with him. Eventually I caved.
"Don't do it," I said. "Don't do the forty-day fast — that's my suggestion." He paused and looked up at me. "Wait ... what?" A flimsy tomato slithered from his sesame seed bun onto his napkin. With earnestness he looked for a smile indicating jest — surely, surely I must be kidding. (He and I did like to kid a lot, but now was not one of those times.) With every inkling of energy I could muster, I refrained from any smile or slight twinkle of the eye. I didn't want to give the wrong impression. "Be stone cold and sincere, Kyle," I kept telling myself. All my energy was concentrated in my face, focused on maintaining this stoic look. "Don't do it," I said again.
The more I said it, the more I felt confident in saying it. The more I said it to him, the more I believed it myself. I was convincing myself. "Don't do the forty-day fast." I spent the next hour of this Last Supper trying to persuade him that he shouldn't go through with the fast. "We should talk about this further," I said. He, however, continued cramming two beef patties down his throat in preparation for tomorrow. I tried. I really did.
Getting a Feel for Contemporary Christian Spirituality
This interaction with my friend is illustrative of a trend I have seen in contemporary Christian spirituality, especially in the lived practice of Protestant evangelicals: we tend to link our personal relationship with God to stimulation and the need to feel what some psychologists have called "positive" emotions. In essence this means that when we don't feel good, we turn to God to make us better. Our hope is that God will replace the "negative" emotions (e.g., sadness, anger, fear) that we are feeling with "positive" ones (e.g., excitement, serenity, confidence). This is clearly evident in our corporate worship times with God. Whether it's Pentecostal altar calls, Baptist praise and worship concerts, or Presbyterian mission trips, we long to be stimulated by God. We want and expect to feel something when we reach out to him. When we go to youth rallies, we want to be "set on fire." When we walk forward during altar calls, we want to be enraptured. We long to be moved. We seek to be excited. We yearn for the arousal. We desire to be inspired. The marrow of our bones throbs for this. Our heart pulses for it. This is why many of our Protestant churches have modeled their worship services on concerts-stimulation is the name of the game.
What we really want in these times of worship is to be moved from a "negative" emotional state to a "positive" one, from sadness or worry to excitement or confidence. We want to move from "blah" to "yippee." We want to feel good and have a "positive" emotional experience. This is what we're looking for and anticipating. This is what we're expecting. And the proof is in how we behave in anticipation of this happening. The proof is in how we walk away from these church events and worship experiences: when we don't walk out with a "positive" emotion or experience, we're disappointed. We had a "meh" experience at church that day, and later on dark thoughts start to infiltrate our heads. We wonder: "Where was God today? Why didn't he meet me? Is he staying away from me right now? I don't feel him. Maybe I'm having a 'dark night of the soul.' "Thoughts may get out of hand, and we start to worry: "Maybe I did something wrong. Maybe God's mad at me. Maybe this is my punishment." Perhaps this is you. Have you ever had such thoughts or worries? Have you ever felt this way? Maybe you know someone who has?
There's nothing wrong with stimulation, of course. God made us as beings who can stimulate and be stimulated. He created us to experience and sense things, as beings who can stimulate other creatures and be stimulated ourselves. And we can be stimulated in pleasurable ways. Stimulation is not a bad thing; in fact, it's a really, really good thing. Likewise, it's not wrong for us to enjoy "positive" emotions. There's nothing wrong with feeling good or trying to be "positive." Most of us would probably think someone is a nutcase or wacko if he didn't enjoy these fine qualities of our nature and the experiences we have of them. Why would anyone not want to feel good (if that's even possible)? But what seems to happen in our lived practice of worship is that we don't simply enjoy the stimulation; we expect it from God. We don't just value "positive" emotions, but in our lived experience and practice, we demand them from God every time we step foot in a church or "meet" with him. God gets demoted, and what we can get from God is promoted.
These expectations and demands have dangerous effects on our idea of the gospel and our ideal experience of God. We end up expecting the gospel to stir us, arouse us, excite us, and inspire us every time we read or hear it. We expect the good news to make us feel good and to cultivate "positive" emotions in us, not "negative" ones. It becomes inconceivable to us that the gospel of Jesus Christ could sadden, anger, or offend us — if it does, then it's probably a demon afflicting us. Surely the good news of Jesus Christ can't sadden or anger or offend us! Or so we think. Nor do we expect to walk away from drawing near to God in worship feeling angry, sad, offended, or worried. We don't anticipate coming home from a mission trip feeling empty or lost. We don't want to walk away from a Bible study feeling disappointed. We hope that we don't finish a fast or a period of silence feeling frustrated. In fact, if we're honest with ourselves, we would admit that if we knew we would experience such disappointment, frustration, or loss after doing these things, we probably wouldn't do them!
Now we probably won't come across any discussion of this tendency in the tomes or annals of Christian theology. We won't hear church historians debate controversies surrounding it. We might read it in a sociology book on American religion, or we might come across a pastor or two drawing attention to it in a congregation, but it's not going to be a topic of discussion in our small group. There won't be a series preached on it. But if we pay close attention to our expectations and experiences, this search for stimulation and "positive" emotions is at the heart of our lived practice of spirituality. This is what we expect, anticipate, and even demand from God. And if you're anything like me, this is what founded and fueled your passion and practice of spiritual disciplines. It's probably how you still practice these disciplines. Truth be told, I think it's a real problem.
I come from a family that didn't make a ton of money — my dad was a carpet installer, my mom a day-care assistant. I didn't work in high school or college, so this made my college experience a bit ... ah ... how shall we put it? Tempestuous. I didn't get any academic scholarships, but I did have a very small athletic stipend that my basketball coach generously awarded me after I made the team as a walk-on. Most of my college tuition came from loans, with a few occasional balances coming out of my parents' pockets and this basketball stipend. But this all changed the second semester of my sophomore year when I injured my wrist. I became inactive and lost the stipend. I had a snafu with my loans, and I couldn't pay my school bill. So I couldn't continue matriculating. I had to move back in with my parents and look for a job.
It was a really difficult time for me. I was laying brick in dead-of-winter January and bored out of my mind. I got the job through a friend of a friend but had never laid brick before. The learning curve was very high. While it was a blessing to find a job so quickly, and one that paid decently, I'll be honest: I was out of my element. I was confused by what I was doing. I felt dejected. I worried about my future. I was eager to know what my roommates and my girlfriend were doing. They were back at school getting on without me. Were they thinking of me? Were they poking fun at me? Would my girlfriend find someone else? How often would we get to see each other? Was I now behind in my studies? Would my friends and girlfriend graduate before me? Would I even be able to go back to school? Where would I get that much money? How long would I have to save?
These thoughts and questions made me feel uneasy, uncomfortable, anxious, and insecure. So I did what I had been taught to do in this kind of situation: I turned to God. But I didn't turn to him only in prayer; I turned to him in every possible way with the Christian's full arsenal at my side. For it was this sophomoric semester of mandated academic furlough that led me to first dabble in spiritual disciplines. Well, "dabble" might be a bit of an understatement. What really happened is that I ensconced myself in my bedroom and fasted for whole weekends. Every morning I read and studied the Bible to inspire and encourage me. I meditated on the woes of Job and whispered them in my prayers. I fasted and imagined Sarai's feelings in her times of trouble. I wondered if I could have Nehemiah's courage in my situation. Occasionally I emerged from my self-inflicted cave to use the lavatory.
After several weeks, not much happened. I didn't hear anything. I didn't feel any better. These disciplines didn't seem to be working. The dullness and emptiness began to take their toll. The fasting and "solituding" for days became laborious and boring. The extended periods of repetition — ugh. "Is this really worth it?" "When are they going to kick in and start working?" "God, where are you?!" "Maybe I'm doing all this incorrectly." These were my thoughts. Eventually I became disillusioned. I continued to pray, but the eagerness to practice solitude and fasting had died a quick death. I eventually stopped doing these practices. Apparently their "success rate" that year was at an all-time low. Or maybe they just didn't work after all. Or maybe I wasn't doing them correctly. That must be it. Whatever the reason, their impotence coupled with the fact that they were inconvenient to do led me to just give up on them. I was confident that God could still be experienced in less laborious and invasive ways, even if I had to wait.
This experience in my sophomore year and my friend's story mentioned above have a common thread. In our lived practice of spiritual disciplines — specifically our motivation and attitude — my friend and I treated these disciplines like a drug that would afford us an emotional "fix." We treated them like divine opiates that would help us reach spiritual euphoria. They were like heroin to us. We did them to be stimulated. We did them to get high. We wanted to feel good. Both of us needed some kind of "rush." He fasted to get himself out of his spiritual rut, and I fasted, meditated, and "solituded" to get out of those slums of doubt and despair in that sophomoric semester. He needed stimulation and excitement, and I needed to feel securely close to God. Both of us needed some resolution to a spiritual "crisis" or an adverse circumstance in our life. We hoped to be stimulated, aroused, moved, changed, uplifted, and, hopefully, "set on fire" by picking up these ancient disciplines.
Perhaps you, too, have practiced them this way or still do. You are not alone. Many of us nowadays treat spiritual disciplines like heroin. We turn to them in times of trouble — when we are emotionally low or in a rut — and we use them to get a "spiritual high." We use them to get emotional shots of Jesus juice, if you will. We practice them because we want to feel stimulated, excited, or inspired afterward. When they don't "work" or give us the result we're looking for, we adapt. We go from soft practices to hard ones: from studying the Bible every morning to fasting for an entire day. Or we go from "solituding" for the weekend to scheduling a silent retreat for a week. When we don't get the high or spiritual euphoria that we seek or expect, or when the issue, situation, or emotional state that prompted us to practice a given discipline doesn't get resolved, we increase the dosage, so to speak. Instead of fasting for one day, we up the dosage to three days. Then forty days. We go from practicing solitude for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon to camping out in our closet for the weekend.
Then, when the issue, situation, or emotional state has been resolved, we stop doing the discipline and return to our daily life, our day-to-day routines. We go back to what we were doing before. This is also true of our corporate practice of these disciplines. Whenever we practice fasting or silence in church, it is most often done for a time and a season. We fast because it's Lent. Once Lent passes, we stop fasting. Or we have a time of silence because we are in deep distress over a social issue that is currently before Congress. Once the social issue has been decided or the media hype wears down, we move on. We go back to our regularly scheduled lives. We don't fast, meditate, serve, or practice silence and solitude all year. Why would we? We only need to do these practices when something is wrong — particularly when we don't feel close to God or we don't feel that God is close to us. And if asked whether we view these disciplines as drugs that give us this "fix," we would unequivocally say no. Nevertheless, this is how we treat them. This is how we use them.
When we step back and look at the big picture, we can identify three tendencies in our lived practice of these disciplines that are founded in and fueled by our search for stimulation and "positive" emotions. Let's call them the "Three I's" of North American Christian practice of spiritual disciplines: individualism, intellectualism, and instrumentalism. We tend to practice spiritual disciplines as individuals and for ourselves as individuals. We practice them in isolation or somewhere we can't be seen. If we do end up doing them in a corporate setting, for example, in a congregational worship service or a youth lock-in, we treat them as individual alone time with God — we may be with others, but this is between us and God. The individual benefit that we tend to pursue through these disciplines is an intellectual good. By this I mean we are most interested in acquiring a wider understanding of Jesus's ways, a greater knowledge of his power and work, or a stronger faith in him. And we use these disciplines as instruments to help us get this. Then, when we have what we need or complete what we set out to do, we're done with them. They are only temporary practices for us.
Excerpted from "Practices of Love"
Copyright © 2017 Kyle David Bennett.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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