(This is the third part of an article on Spiritual Disciplines. In our final segment, we will consider the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence as presented by the various authors. We close this 3-part article with some observations and critique about spiritual disciplines for your further reflections.)
The Discipline of Solitude and Silence ~ Gleanings from the five titles
Do we need the disciplines of silence and solitude today? Definitely! We need it, even urgently to re-awaken our spiritual sensibilities and to cultivate a counter-rhythm to the spin of our fast-paced, multi-tasking, programme-driven culture, not just in the marketplace but also in the church.
The disciplines of solitude and silence, simply stated, is about time alone with God and stillness to be able to hear God.
Foster’s chapter on Solitude states that without silence, there can be no solitude. This twin disciplines help bring us to a place of inward attentiveness to God. Willard states that “solitude is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops.” (pg. 161) Tan & Gregg makes the same assertion, that both disciplines “are essential ingredients and helpful preparation for all the other disciplines of the Spirit.” (pg. 42) Another noteworthy insight mentioned by both Foster and Willard is the control of our tongue. So Foster writes, “We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? God will take control, but we will never let him take control until we trust him. Silence is intimately related to trust… One of the fruits of silence is the freedom to let God be our justifier.” Is this not what our Lord Jesus had done? (John 19:9-11)
Whitney’s chapter gives nine “valuable reasons for silence and solitude” and five suggestions to cultivate these disciplines, with more applications at the end. He provided many scriptural examples and references. He does not delve into the nature, dynamics and process of this twin disciplines but seems more intent on marshalling reasons why we ought to be practicing it. This is mostly what Tan & Gregg did as well. They tell us that these disciplines prepare us to hear God’s voice, enable us to grow in intimacy with God, reveal God’s character and purpose, and strengthen us for spiritual battle and temptation. Moore’s treatment however is too general and anecdotal to offer any new information and insights to this discipline.
Closing Integration for Further Reflections
What have we leant from our gleanings from these books on spiritual disciplines? I will make some observations that incorporate also my own critique and viewpoints.
The first observation from our comparative review is that different authors make use of different schematics, all helpful, none definitive, many overlapping. However, on the basics, the authors do agree: the spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves; God (the Holy Spirit) is the agent of transformation; the goal is Christlikeness and the evidences or expressions of the transformation is a growing love for God, for neighbour and ourselves. The key is to understand the basic orientation and purpose of the spiritual disciplines. The spiritual disciplines are any spiritual activities and habits that help us to grow to be more Christlike. Therefore, any regular activity can become a habit, a spiritual discipline if it trains us to grow in Godliness. Hence, the discipline of evangelism. We can even say rightly, (to the delights of many I am sure), that sleep is a spiritual discipline as well!
A second observation is that writings on spiritual disciplines can commit a subtle contradiction that is dangerous. This happens with books using the how-to approach (the three titles reviewed in part two of this article). So, Whitney and Moore write from a conventional viewpoint that emphasizes (rightly) that as believers, we must do our part to grow spiritually. Of course, these writers acknowledge that spiritual growth is not accomplished by self-discipline, “for growth in holiness is a gift from God” (Moore). Yet, the bulk of their writing belies their true emphasis: self-effort. This is the subtle danger that Foster and Willard had warned against. Willard puts the sting to this warning:
“Of course, most Christians had been told by me as by others to attend the services of the church, give of time and money, pray, read the Bible, do good to others, and witness to their faith. And certainly they should do these things. But just as certainly something more was needed. It is painfully clear to me that, with rare and beautiful exceptions, Christians were not able to do even these few necessary things in a way that was really good for them, as things that would be an avenue to life filled and possessed by God.” (pg. 18)
Willard writes in his American context, but might this be just as true for us here in Singapore? And just as deadly, if not more?
Tan and Gregg did better, and bring to central stage, in my opinion, the most important person in spiritual disciplines: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the One who undergirds and guarantees the Christian’s effort (self-discipline) to grow spiritually into Christlikeness. But these two authors did not go far enough. With their charismatic framwework, they stress too much on the filling and power of the Holy Spirit, and subtly draws us back again to what we must do to be filled with the Holy Spirit. (Hence, their tract like list of steps in the opening chapter.) Presumably, when we experience the power and filling, our lives will be changed. But the subtle danger for human beings (so capable of self-deception) is that we seek and see these as the height of spirituality when the desired outcome is Christlikeness. Christ was filled and empowered by the Spirit so that He can carry out the will of God. There were certainly manifestations of power in Christ’s life but this filling also led Him to the cross.
A holistic framework is needed to put human effort and the Spirit’s superintendence in proper context and order. Is there one? I believe so. This is the framework based on the doctrine of the Trinity. We must see the Holy Spirit in the context of the Trinity. He is the third person in the Trinity, the stayed behind God (James Houston) who comes alongside us (John 14:16) who mediates the presence of Christ, moulds Christians to be more Christlike to the glory of God. We cannot practice the spiritual disciplines in the right spirit unless we grasp well how different are the self-driven and the Spirit-led paradigms. They are complete opposites but seem practically so similar.
How then will we know? We don’t. Here is perhaps the next challenge to our control-oriented mindset. So what do we do? We make the effort to practice the disciplines, through trial and error, we succeed as well as fail, and knowingly or not, the Spirit is already working in us, on us. While it can be bewildering, yet it may well be the most exhilarating place to be: becoming more and more aware that the Paraclete in me is with me, and that all I need to do is to continue to work and walk and watch.
BGST Bookshop is offering a 10% discount for all titles reviewed except for Disciplines of Grace by TM Moore which is out of print. If you wish to order, please email to email@example.com by 13 June 2008. For price & online order form, please go to http://bgst.edu.sg/bookshop/order_form.pdf.
Spiritual Disciplines ~ A Comparative Review of Five Titles
By John Chong Ser Choon
2 - 8 June 2008
Issue No. 22
BGST This Week
Biblical GRADUATE school of theology
Council, Principal, Faculty & Staff
Alumni, Students, Supporters and Friends of BGST
Inaugural Chapel Service
for the New Academic Year Dedication
on Wednesday, 9 July 2008
at 7.15 pm
at Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church,
235 Telok Ayer Street
You are also invited to a reception following the service
(RSVP by 4 July 2008: 62276815 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chapel on 28 May
Khamh Cung Nung, our MTh student shared with us further news about the Myanmar cyclone disaster. He gave a brief background of his country to help us understand better the plight of his people. These reflections were refracted through two scriptural passages: Esther 4:14-16 and Matt 24:4-8. Khamh reminded us that our lives are short. We must be mindful that we must live it intentionally and purposefully. We need to relate to our fellow human beings with a compassionate heart. Please continue to uphold our Myanmese students and the people in Myanmar in prayer. (Chong Ser Choon)
Our speaker for next week is Mr Victor Xu, MCS student. Do come and join us.