Since my blog post last week on the topic, I've continued to wonder how we might apply the insights of deliberate practice to Christian spirituality. In order to do that we need (at minimum) a list of skills that together could plausibly represent mature Christianity, and then we'd need some kind of method for practicing each one. Ideally that method would have some kind of feedback built in, and in a perfect world such feedback should come from others who are more 'skilled' in the Christian life.
So the first thing we need is a good list of skills. I thought about the Ten Commandments, the beatitudes, the list of the qualities of godliness in 2 Peter 1:5-7, and the Fruit of the Spirit. The list from 2 Peter probably lends itself best to this kind of thinking, because this passage explicitly says that we are to "make every effort" to "possess these qualities in increasing measure."
In spite of this, I'm leaning toward the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This list of 'qualities' has been far more influential in Christian history than the list in 2 Peter, and while Paul presents the list in a way that can seem as if they are the passive (on our end) result of God's work in us, we have good reason to trust that God can use our effort for his gracious ends.
- There is considerable overlap between the lists (love, faith, and self control; also goodness appears in both lists in some translations, but it is two different words in Greek - more literally "goodness" vs. "excellence/virtue"). If 2 Peter tells us to work at these three, it makes sense for us to work at the other six Spirit Fruits too.
- Just a few verses before his famous list, Paul tells us we are to walk (active, imperative) by the Spirit (v. 16), and a few verses later he tells us to keep in step with the Spirit (v. 25). I don't think Paul is expecting us to just sit on our hands and wait for God to make us holy; quietism is no option here. The Spirit will produce the fruit, but a little elbow grease won't hurt - and your effort might be the main venue for the Spirit's action.
If we think of these nine Fruit of the Spirit as skills that we can (always by grace!) develop, then how might we go about doing that?
Let's start with the end of the list: self-control. One pretty obvious way to practice this 'skill' is through fasting. In fact, plenty of desert monks, foreign missionaries, and motivated 'normal' people have done just that. Fasting is a way to pray with your body, a way to practice physical lack in order to more richly experience God's abundance. It's one of the classic means of grace, and a practice that Jesus assumes we're already doing with some regularity (cf. Matthew 6:16, "When you fast…").
How remarkable that we hear so little about fasting in the church today! It may be the discipline we need most. After all, we live in a culture that constantly preaches the sanctity of our desires; fasting, on the other hand, is about learning to not be ruled by our desires.
We are not a people who are good at self control. Perhaps a deliberate, strategic course of fasting could help. In addition to fasting, can you think of other ways we can grow in self control?