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Working Out What God Works In

I don't see much written on the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude. More importantly, I don't see these disciplines practiced often in our busy culture. And I'm guilty as charged. Perhaps I'm a little more cognizant of this since we're in the season of "peace on earth," even though peace can be hard to find.

Years ago I read Richard Foster's classic book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. A few years after that, I came across Dallas Willard's book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Both books are excellent studies on how we work out what God works in. God works, produces, and provides us His grace that transforms us by the power of His Spirit, and we are to work out, grow up, and develop His gift of grace through our determination of the will. The Apostle Paul teaches us to "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). This is not "works salvation" as though we somehow earn favor with God by being good little boys and girls. No, the Apostle of Grace goes on to write that "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).

Thus, we work out what God works in. Spiritual disciplines are mere tools or practices where we align our actions (the physical) with our spirits (the spiritual) in order to become more like Jesus. We utilize the physical through activity (worship, serving, giving) or inactivity (silence, solitude, fasting) in order to grow spiritually. God often uses elements of the natural world to help us connect with the spiritual world. We eat bread and drink wine as earthly reminders of our spiritual reality of salvation through the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We are immersed in water as a visible sign of being buried with Jesus in His death and being raised to "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4). We participate in a physical, local expression of the church as part of the spiritual, universal church.

Silence and solitude work the same way. We intentionally become silent in order to listen. We intentionally withdraw from others in order to enter deeper communion with the Triune God. Both disciplines, reflective of all spiritual disciplines, require effort. I can't tell you the number of times I get in my car to go someplace, and I immediately turn on the radio or a CD. Rarely am I somewhere without some level of decibels. Rarely do I find myself alone, and when I am alone, it's typically not for the purpose to commune with God. The spiritual discipline of silence is not just the absence of noise. It is purposeful stillness to quiet one's spirit in order to listen to "the sound of a low whisper" of the voice of God (1 Kings 19:12). The spiritual discipline of solitude is not just the absence of people. It is purposeful seclusion in order to commune with the living God.

Sometimes when I think about spiritual disciplines like silence and solitude, I get intimidated. I feel like only spiritual giants practice these disciplines, and I'm still a spiritual gnome. When I find myself silent, I miss noise. When I find myself alone, I miss people. So rather than continuing to swim upstream, I give in to the current, go with the flow, and find myself adrift in spiritual indolence. I want to grow spiritually, but when I realize that growth requires effort and change, I often tell myself that my faith is developed enough for now, thank you very much. Ever been there? The task seems too daunting, and the effort too exacting.

If you've "been there, done that," I'd like to make a few suggestions. I have found, through trial and error, that I need a strategy to develop purposeful silence and solitude as a means for spiritual growth. Maybe this strategy will help you as well.

*Schedule times of silence and solitude in your weekly calendar. If you don't schedule it, you won't do it. Eugene Peterson writes about a weekly Sabbath which is not a day to catch up on projects at home. Protect these times as you would a scheduled meeting with an important person, because, in fact, you are.

*Start small. Don't bite off more than you can chew. If you want to run a marathon, and you've never run anywhere except up a flight of stairs, you begin with a quarter mile, then a half mile, then a mile, etc. I suggest you start with fifteen minutes a week where you are alone with God in silence. After a few weeks, build up to thirty minutes, then an hour, and on to a half-day or more for a weekly Sabbath experience. The key is not how long you are still before the Lord (Psalm 46:10), but how consistent you are in keeping your weekly appointment with God.

*Keep it simple. This is not a study time. Scripture reading and meditation may be helpful, but this is not the time to work on your Beth Moore Bible study or, in my case, write sermons. This is a time to listen. I found this very awkward at first--sitting in a room by myself with no noise. My mind drifts, and there are times when I actually fall asleep. In Brother Lawrence's book, The Practice of the Presence of God, he writes a letter to a friend who apparently struggled with a lack of attentiveness to God in prayer. Very pastorally, Brother Lawrence responds, "You aren't the only one to be distracted from the presence of God; I understand completely. Our minds are so flighty…. If your mind wanders at times, don't be upset, because being upset will only distract you more. Allow your will to recall your attention gently to God. Such perseverance will please Him." In pre-marital counseling, I take couples through an exercise called, "Active Listening." Do we really listen to what our spouse, or soon-to-be spouse is saying, or do we think we know what he or she is saying, and so we stop listening and start formulating our response? Listening to God is a discipline where we train our minds "on the things of the Spirit" (Romans 8:5). For, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:6).

*Don't give up. As the old adage goes, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Keep your appointments with God. If you sit in silence and solitude and don't always feel the presence of God, don't walk away thinking, I tried this, and nothing happened. My son Luke recently started doing push-ups every day. He wants to grow his muscles, but when he stood in front of the mirror the other day and flexed, he said, "Dad, it's not working." Sure it is. Slowly, gradually, imperceptibly at first, Luke's muscles are developing, and so will our spiritual muscles, if we don't give up.

My hope is that you will begin to practice the presence of God through silence and solitude as you concentrate your "soul's attention on God, remembering that He is always present" (Brother Lawrence).

"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1).

What are you waiting for?

As I write this, we are now only thirteen days away from Christmas. The older I get, I hope for more time before Christmas comes, because there is so much that still needs to get done (or so I think). But when I was a child, it seemed like Christmas would never get here. Children have a hard time waiting for Christmas. A number of years ago I came across some actual letters that anxious children wrote to Santa.

"Dear Santa Claus, When you come to my house there will be cookies for you. But if you’re real hungry you can use our phone and order a pizza to go." "Dear Santa, I want a puppy. I want a playhouse. Thank you. I’ve been good most of the time. Sometimes I’m wild." Here’s one from an honest four-year old: "Dear Santa, I’ll take anything because I haven’t been that good." "Dear Santa, I’m not going to ask for a lot. Here’s my list: the Etch-A-Sketch animator, two packs of #2 pencils, Crayola fat markers and the big own color TV! Well, maybe you could drop the pencils; I don’t want to be really selfish."

Christmas is often associated with waiting in anticipation. I can remember one Christmas as a child when I really wanted a bicycle and a G.I. Joe. I dropped hints everywhere. I talked about it every chance I had. I even tried extra hard to be nice to my sister during the countdown to Christmas which wasn’t easy to do! When Christmas morning finally came, I jumped out of bed and ran to my folks’ bedroom to wake them up. My sister came into the room about the same time, and we all went in by the tree to open our presents. Sure enough, one of my presents was a G.I. Joe. I was thrilled! But I didn’t see a bike. We got through unwrapping our gifts, but there was no bike. And then my dad said, “Oh, wait, I think there’s one present left downstairs.” I ran downstairs, and to my great surprise, my waiting was over.

So what are you waiting for? Are you longing for anything? What are you expecting to receive? Are you looking forward to anything special this Christmas?

In the Gospel of Luke, we come across two characters that make their appearance in the final acts of the Christmas drama. One is a man named Simeon, and the other is a woman named Anna. They don’t appear in any nativity scenes or in many Christmas cards, but they are significant players in the first Christmas pageant. Both of these individuals were waiting for something -- actually, they were waiting for Someone.

Luke uses a Greek word, prosdechomai, that speaks of anticipation.  The word identifies them as waiting with expectation for the coming of the Messiah or Savior.  It literally means they were “alert to His appearance, and ready to welcome Him.”  We see this word in Luke 2:25 in reference to Simeon where we read that “He was waiting...” and in Luke 2:38 to describe Anna speaking to all who were “...looking forward to...” or “waiting.”  They had been waiting for years for the coming of the Messiah, and they were there to receive Him when He came.  

That one Christmas when I was a kid, I only had to wait a few months for that bike and that G. I. Joe. But when the moment came, I was ready to receive those gifts. Simeon and Anna were waiting for decades, but they were still there ready to receive the gift of Jesus.

And now, we, too, are waiting. We may be waiting for that new job or that upcoming wedding or for good news from the doctor or for our marriage to get better. All of these would be wonderful gifts to receive, wouldn’t they? But as wonderful as they may be, they pale in comparison to the gift of Jesus.

This Christmas season, may we be found waiting for Him. May we be "alert to His appearance, and ready to welcome Him." May we receive Him into our hearts, lives, and families, and through His presence within us, may we share His love with all around us. Merry Christmas.

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