Learning to Throw a Spiritual Practice Punch

Engaging our whole selves to become whole and healthy

by Tara Owens

One icebreaker popular at conferences and retreats involves coming up with two true things about you, and one lie. As you get to know the people around you, they guess which of the three things you’ve shared is untrue.

I always win. I was an amateur boxer. I even have a fight poster to prove it. Male and female, young and old, people respond by balling up their fists and holding them in front of their bodies.

Everyone thinks they can throw a punch.

Trained boxers know otherwise.

Scripture contains a lot of fighting words. In addition to the battles that inscribe the stories of God’s people in the Old Testament, there’s the well-known admonition to put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:10–18). In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul even refers to my Two Truths and a Lie phenomenon—the spontaneous air boxers: “So I do not run aimlessly; nor do I box as though beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26). In writing to Timothy, Paul exhorts him to fight the good fight not once, but twice, and even mentions his own battles (1 Timothy 1:18, 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7).

The path to spiritual maturity—the holistic, transformative life of faith—is not a race without a finish line. There is embedded within our here-and-now life the possibility of moving toward wholeness and holiness, of moving toward life that Jesus promised when he said he came to bring life to the full (John 10:10).

Moving toward that abundant life requires something more than a simple belief that we can throw a punch. If you stepped into the ring with a champion competitor, having asked all of your friends to pray for you and having read all you can about the sport of boxing, you would nonetheless be knocked out immediately if you hadn’t done any physical training. No matter how much you tried, you wouldn’t stand a chance if you haven’t trained.

This is where spiritual practices are important. Like a boxer skipping rope to increase endurance, or lifting weights to gain strength, spiritual practices help us to prepare for the life of God to flow through us in everyday aspects of our lives and well-being.

For thousands of years, Christians have participated in this kind of training of their bodies, minds, and emotions so that they may experience more freedom, life, and communion with God. Spiritual practices engage our whole selves in order that we might become whole and healthy, both individually and as a community. Classical practices—often called spiritual disciplines—include practices of abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, chastity, frugality or simplicity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and practices of engagement (study, worship, celebration, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission). We see these practices modeled for us throughout the Old and New Testaments, whether it’s Christ’s retreat to the mountainside to talk with the Father (solitude, silence, prayer)1 or the celebration of the pilgrimages undertaken by the nation of Israel during the holy festivals (worship, fellowship, simplicity, study, celebration).2

Historically, during the liturgical season of Lent the church worldwide participates in practices meant to prepare us for a fuller realization of the work of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. This season of training brings us closer to one another and to God, helping to form Christ within us. Just as a boxer doesn’t train without a coach or a community training toward a similar end, spiritual practices during Lent are a “gym for the soul,” where we labor alongside others in order to receive encouragement, hope, and grace, as well as to be knit together as the community of God.

As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote, “There is no such thing as a solitary Christian.”3 When we practice the spiritual disciplines meant to make us more available to the work of God, we practice them in the communal context of our local church and of the church around the world.

  • Fasting helps train our desires.

“O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

One of the most traditional spiritual practices to undertake during Lent is fasting. Although this can be fasting from anything—social media, angry words, unnecessary purchases—the practice of abstaining from food engages our bodies and minds in a way that helps us pay attention to how ruled we are by our appetites. Historically, Lenten fasts involve either complete fasts (which, according to historical documents, means only one full meal per day, plus two smaller meals that do not equal one big meal together) or abstinence from certain types of foods (meat, butter, and oil).

The aim of fasting is to become aware of how easily we are driven by our desires for things that are unnecessary or even harmful. From billboards and popups ads, we are accosted with the message that the most important thing in our lives is comfort. Anything that disrupts this façade, that embraces the power of suffering, is to be anesthetized with money, experiences, or food. Fasting helps us direct our disordered longing for comfort toward that which is more beneficial to us: a hunger for God and God’s kingdom.

  • Serving helps train our egos.

“When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3–4).

Another historical communal practice is service. Often this takes the form of special donations to charities, or choosing to donate the amount of food you would otherwise consume to a food bank. The practice of service is an important one for training our egos. When we go about our days, we are normally the center of our own stories. Everything we do focuses on our needs, our to-do lists, our priorities. Even if we are caring for friends or children, it is our agenda that is the most important.

Service requires us to break out of our self-centeredness and train ourselves in other-centeredness. Intentional acts of service, both as an individuals and as communities, allow us to let go of the consumer-driven stories we have about why others happen to be in need. Instead of judging the stranger in the ditch, or crossing to the other side because we are too busy, when we have trained in the act of service we are ready to reach into the ditch and bandage the wounds of the one in need.

Several years ago, I participated in a Lenten walk with the poor in our town. Over the course of a full day we walked the streets as those who are homeless among us would—no cash in our pockets, no guarantee of finding an open restroom when we needed it, no form of transportation other than our feet. One of the most surprising revelations was the reality of how churches in our town serve poorly. Our guides showed us “computer labs” and “development centers” that were closed up because no one in the churches that built them wanted to staff them on a regular basis. We ate at one of the many food banks only to find that food security is not an issue in our town. Access to reliable transportation and a shortage of mental health resources are the actual needs. Serving others, both communally and individually, when it is least convenient trains us to be the church as God meant us to be.

  • Creative practices help train our attention.

A less traditional, but equally important, spiritual practice during Lent is the practice of creativity. Whether this looks like attending practices for special choir music during Easter, or gathering to participate in a prayer and coloring group (something I encourage in At Play In God’s Creation: An Illuminating Coloring Book, which helps people practice prayer and creativity together), or joining others in a practice of engaging art (movies, art galleries, concerts) with intentionality, art helps us pay attention.

Engaging in communal appreciation of the beautiful helps us slow down our schedules and silence our busy minds—both of which deaden us to the life of Christ all around. There’s a reason no one runs through museums and why beautiful music stops us short, forcing us to listen. Beauty pierces our distraction and invites us to contemplate the One who is beautiful and good through the window of the great art.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “When, however, we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. The word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means ‘listening.’ A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow his guidance.”4

Communal engagement with the arts helps us to break out of our limited view of the world and access not only the beauty we see, but the beauty that appears to others as well. Although we cannot resurrect our senses on our own, the training in paying attention to the beautiful and true, however foreign to our eyes and ears, opens us to the resurrecting work of God, helping us to participate with God’s redemption of our senses, our selves, our souls.

  1. Matt. 26:36, Mark 1:35, Mark 14:3, Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12, Luke 9:18, Luke 9:28, Luke 11:1, Luke 22:39, John 18:1.
  2. Ex. 23:14, Lev. 23, Num. 10:10, Num. 29:39, Ezra 3:5, Neh. 10:33.
  3. “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse Four.” Sermons of John Wesley. Accessed Oct 15, 2016. http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-24-upon-our-lords-sermon-on-the-mount-discourse-four/
  4. Nouwen, Henri, J. M. Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life

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