For the last several weeks, the global Christian Church has been engaged in Lent. During this time, we focus on three primary spiritual disciplines that, when practiced properly, can train us into our vocation as God’s royal priesthood. The three spiritual disciplines are prayer, fasting and giving.
As we’ve seen previously, prayer is our primary form of standing in the overlap between heaven and earth. As God’s image-bearers and royal priests, we are embedded within the world that God loves and that groans in travail as a woman about to give birth to new life. And embedded in us is the Holy Spirit, who is in turn interceding with wordless groaning. And between the two, we live and groan. We groan in empathy to the world’s pain and in cooperation with the Spirit’s intercession. Our groaning is the place where pain is transformed into prayer. Like Jesus on the cross, we too are suspended between the dimensions of heaven and earth, absorbing and transforming the world’s groans of pain into the groans of prayer so God’s New Creation may be born from the old.
So during Lent, spend a little bit of time each day talking with God about the world around you. Take a ten-minute break each day to take a walk or to sit down on a bench and pray for the people you see. Pray for God’s blessings upon your part of his world. You can also adapt the content of one of Paul’s powerful prayers into your context:
“I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of King Jesus our Lord, the father of glory, would give you, in your spirit, the gift of being wise, of seeing things people can’t normally see, because you are coming to know him and to have the eyes of your inmost self opened to God’s light. Then you will know exactly what the hope is that goes with God’s call; you will know the wealth of the glory of his inheritance in his holy people; and you will know the outstanding greatness of his power towards us who are loyal to him in faith, according to the working of his strength and power. This was the power at work in the king when God raised him from the dead and sat him at his right hand in the heavenly places, above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and above every name that gets itself talked about, both in the present age and also in the age to come.”
The second spiritual discipline is fasting. Traditionally, the Christian Church fasts from meat and dairy during Lent. You may hear Christians discuss what they’re “giving up” for Lent. However, Lent is about self-denial, not giving up something. And there’s a big difference between the two.
“Giving up something” can easily play into our culture’s narcissism. The focus still remains on myself. I’m giving up chocolate, or I’m giving up meat, or I’m giving up social media. But self-denial is learning to shift the focus off of myself in preparation for something greater.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Notice there are three components of being Jesus’ apprentices, of which self-denial is the first. Fasting, when correctly practiced, cooperates with the Holy Spirit in learning how to not focus on yourself by learning to ignore your impulses and appetites. Those impulses and appetites may be natural and good. But learning to abstain from them shifts our natural and automatic inclinations to care for ourselves to something better — carrying our cross and following Jesus.
This leads to the third spiritual discipline — giving. Or as Jesus states, taking up your cross and following me. As we learn how to pray — groaning in the painful overlap between heaven and earth — and how to fast — denying our natural impulses and appetites — we can learn how to give as Jesus gives. Giving is the essence of the cross — self-sacrificial love for the good of others. It is the heart of the royal priest that embodies his or her King — the Lion of Judah who has overcome as the slain sacrificial Lamb.
The spiritual discipline of giving can be practiced by giving away money, time, resources and words. But inherent to this spiritual discipline is learning to intentionally make space within my life to give. This is why self-denial is so important. We have to learn to not automatically respond to our own agendas and appetites in order to make the appropriate space for others in our lives.
So while the spiritual discipline of giving will involve giving money and resources to your local church or to someone in need, it should far exceed it. Giving is blessing, a primary task of God’s royal priesthood. Ultimately, giving is embodying the aforementioned spiritual disciplines so our very lives begin to naturally reflect God’s care and love into our world. It involves, but far exceeds, acts of mercy and charity. It’s a life that blesses by being and living. It’s a life that flows from our core and expresses itself in our attitude, our facial expressions, our posture, and then into our interactions with others. And when appropriate, it’s a life that offers money, time, resources, and counsel in order to express God’s loving care to the world.
I’m learning the hard way that I cannot give or bless if my default reaction to people or situations is anger, anxiety, fear, suspicion, jealousy, retaliation, shame, sarcasm, apathy, or the many other defensive and offensive modes I naturally evoke to ward off the world and protect myself.
And that’s why the spiritual disciplines are so essential. While we may be able to muster moments of prayer, fasting and giving, it’s almost impossible to embody this life, Jesus’ life, without spending time training with God’s Spirit through the disciplines. In this way, training leads to transformation. And cooperating with his Spirit, we become by grace what Christ is by nature for the sake of this world.