Why Practice Spiritual Disciplines of Abstinence

Remember the old Southwest Airlines commercial “Wanna get away”? For my international readers–Someone would be pictured in a position, for example, a football referee before a big match for the coin toss and he forgot to bring a coin, who wanted to get away. It resonated no doubt because we all want to escape at times.

The Desert Fathers were men who sought deep spiritual experiences and encounters with God. They thought that by going off alone into the deserts of Egypt, Sinai, Syria, they could get away from society and focus with every second of their being on God.

The movement began in the mid-200s and lasted into the 400s–but in some sense still exists in the monastic traditions.

They practiced the spiritual disciplines of abstinence–solitude, silence, simplicity, sacrifice, fasting–almost too well. The monastic movement struggled for centuries against excesses of this practice.

The disciplines of abstinence are meant to prepare us to encounter and engage with God. Jesus, for example, went into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days following his baptism. Then he encountered temptation. It wasn’t because he was weak from lack of food that he had the experiences. It was actually because he was now at his strongest so that he could deal with The Tempter.

Spiritual literature loves the metaphor of the jar.

You have something you need to store. You search for an empty container. There are many containers in your cupboard filled with now-useless stuff. But you have no container for your precious stuff. You empty a jar of its useless contents, and now it is ready to accept the new.

Just so is your mind and soul. When it is full of thoughts, worries, plans, and more, it has no room for God.

Now we intentionally pursue disciplines of abstinence to pour out the extraneous stuff of our lives. Only then is there room in our soul for God.

Dallas Willard puts it this way, “Abstinence then makes way for engagement. A proper abstinence actually breaks the hold of improper engagements  so that the soul can be properly engaged by God.”

That’s why following silence with study is so powerful.

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