Gratitude, Solitude, and Fasting | Spiritually Fit
As followers of Jesus Christ and people who want our lives to look more like His, spiritual fitness must be at the top of our priority lists. Throughout January we have talked about the importance of creating a devotional rhythm and have already explored four spiritual disciplines: reading the Bible, meditating, prayer, and journaling. This week we are going to finish out our mini-series on spiritual fitness by exploring three more spiritual disciplines. Unlike the disciplines we’ve already discussed, these three are relatively new to me and have brought a breath of fresh air into my devotional life over the course of the last year. Today, we are taking a look at Biblical practices of gratitude, solitude, and fasting and discuss ways to implement them into our devotional lives.
Last May, I attended a one-day counseling seminar on spirituality and health. The seminar was focused on the intersection of spiritual disciplines and psychological health. The professor who oversaw the seminar was unapologetically Christian and she spoke about the amazing impact that she had seen in her clients both spiritually and emotionally when they practiced spiritual disciplines regularly. The first half of the seminary was spent reviewing research results that presented the positive correlation between spirituality and psychological health, while the second half was spent practicing different spiritual disciplines. It was during the latter section of that seminar that I was both officially introduced to the practice of gratitude and challenged to implement it in my own life.
Gratitude is simply the spiritual practice of thankfulness. Intentionally communicated thankfulness to God is a multi-millennia old practice with many of the oldest recorded accounts being found in the Bible. The book of Psalms has perhaps the most concentrated amount of gratitude, but accounts of thankfulness can be seen throughout. Throughout the Bible, Gratitude serves three primary purposes: to worship God, to remember what God has done, and to encourage one another.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe…
Hebrews 12:28 (NRSV)
These three purposes should animate our practices of gratitude as well. When we spend time thanking God, we remember the things that God has done in our lives. And, as we recall and record long lists of the blessing that have been poured out on us, we can’t help but be overcome with awe and reverence. In the face of God’s opulent generosity, one can’t help but worship. Communally, when we practice gratitude, we are able to testify to God’s goodness and encourage one another by bolstering each other’s faith through stories of what God has done. These aspects of gratitude provide great reasons to develop this spiritual practice, but another beautiful byproduct of gratitude is contentment. In a culture driven by capitalistic consumerism and endless displays of marketing campaigns, we are inundated by voices telling us that we need more. Practicing gratitude reminds us that we already have way more than we need or deserve. It’s not until we take time to tangibly chronicle the many blessings that we have been given that we realize how much we truly have to be thankful for. As James 1:17 reminds us, every good gift is from God and God is worthy of our gratitude.
Solitude and Fasting
While solitude and fasting are two very different spiritual disciplines, I want to talk about them together because they are similar and aspects of each are often attributed to the other. For instance, if you follow or are friends with a Christian person on one of your social media platforms, you may have witnessed a pledge to give up social media for a season for one reason or another. Often this decision is referred to as a fast, but in practice, it is most likely a bit of both. To help delineate the difference between solitude and fasting, let’s consult the master teacher and take a look at the ways Jesus employed these two practices. Let’s start with an illustration of fasting:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward, he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Matthew 4:1-4 (NRSV)
As we see here, Jesus fasted from eating for forty days and when confronted and tempted, He responds by stating that life is sustained by more than food alone, but through God. In other parts of the Bible, the word weak is often paired with fasting. This should begin to shape our understanding of fasting. But, before we define fasting, let’s take a look at an illustration of solitude:
In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
Mark 1:35 (NRSV)
And after [Jesus] had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone…
Matthew 14:23 (NRSV)
In both of these accounts, Jesus practices solitude by removing himself from the excitement and busyness of ministry to spend time with God. Now as you can see from Jesus’s example, multiple spiritual disciplines can be used simultaneously as we pursue relationship with God. Like Jesus, you can pray in solitude. Or, as we talked about last week, you can use your journaling time as a time of prayer. Yet, in an effort to differentiate these two practices, we are going to focus on two different words: dependence and presence.
When it comes to the illustrations of fasting found in the Bible, the emphasis is on remembering that while we are physical beings who need many things to flourish, all of those things come from God. Fasting is simply the practice of recognizing our dependence on God. The biblical example of fasting is often tied to food, but there is nothing wrong with fasting from other things that we find ourselves dependent on in our lives. In fact, the more we think we can’t live without something, the more likely it is that thing from which we need to fast. When I think of fasting, I like to think of it as a dial. Practicing fasting is turning down our dependence on things of this world, so we can turn up our dependence on God. This is often done through removing an object or an activity during an allotted time frame and instead using that time to reflect on our dependence on God. In the absence of the thing that we depend on, we feel a physical craving. When we practice fasting, we take that craving and allow it to amplify our dependence on God.
While fasting tends to focus on habits, objects, and activities, solitude tends to be more about one’s environment. As we saw illustrated above, Jesus went somewhere to pray. He changed His environment so that He could seek uninterrupted time with God. Now, sometimes when people practice solitude they do leave and go somewhere different to hear from God, but at its core solitude isn’t about being somewhere different but quieting the distractions in our environment so that we can concentrate on God. Solitude is simply the practice of presence. Jesus left distraction behind so that He could be completely present while He talked with God in prayer. If you have the freedom and time to seek out a completely new environment to practice solitude in, that’s awesome and I’d recommend that you do that. I have the privilege of going skiing alone once in a while and often that turns into an amazing opportunity to practice solitude. But, if you don’t, you can still practice solitude by creating space to tune out all of the day’s distraction to focus completely on God. Of the three, this spiritual discipline may seem the most foreign. So, if you are looking for a way to practice solitude, I recommend finding a pair of earplugs, placing your cell phone in a different room, setting a loud timer for 5-15 minutes, and simply sitting in silence. While you sit there and thoughts come into your mind, give them over to God in prayer. Once you feel the most present, ask, “God what do you have for me today.” Keep in mind, just like all of our other spiritual disciplines, implementing a new practice can be awkward at first but it’s important to keep at it. You will most likely spend multiple sessions of solitude clearing your mind and not even getting to full presence and that’s okay. As we continue to work on solitude, slipping into full presence with God will become easier and quicker, allowing you to spend more time alone and uninterrupted with God.
Spiritual Fitness Challenge
In addition to the time that you have set aside to pursue your spiritual rhythm this week, try to accomplish the Ten Days of Gratitude Challenge. The challenge is simple. Grab your journal or a spare piece of paper and spend a few minutes a day writing down things for which you are thankful. The goal is to do it every day for 10 days without repeating yourself and to see how many things you can come up with in 10 days. When I did the gratitude challenge after my seminar last year, I recorded 73 unique ways that I felt immensely blessed by God. I challenge you to come up with more. Are you up for the challenge?
Thanks for joining us this month as we have talked about spiritual disciplines and making space in life to pursue our relationships with Jesus Christ. If you are excited about spiritual fitness, help us get the word out by sharing this post to your favorite social media channel. It’s as simple as selecting an icon at the bottom of the page.