I’m not an expert on Spiritual Disciplines and have to admit that I don’t practice many of them for very long, though I have periods in my life when I go to some of them for spiritual growth, renewal or to get through difficult seasons of life. However, this is the second post in as many weeks when I have dared to explore them further. In my first post, I took a brief look at Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, comparing it to what Scripture says about each of the disciplines Foster recommends.
In this post, I want to look back beyond the modern popularity of the disciplines, into the roots of my own theological heritage, to discover what John Wesley (1703-1791) had to say about Spiritual Disciplines. As a man living above the fray and seeking a wholly holy life, Wesley wasn’t creating new fads to busy or burden his followers but rather trying to rediscover biblical practices as an aid to sanctified living. “…Wesley said on multiple occasions that God had raised up the people called Methodists to revive primitive Christianity.”(1)
As with my previous post about Celebration of Discipline, time and space prevent an exhaustive examination of this topic, but hopefully a brief survey will bring some understanding to the use of Spiritual Disciplines in the life of the believer seeking to grow in their relationship with God and become more Christlike. It is important to remember, however, that practicing the disciplines (or any rite or sacrament for that matter) isn’t what makes us holy, spiritual or Christlike, but rather are means to becoming so. In other words, Spiritual Disciplines aren’t the ends in themselves but are means to the end. When you consider Spiritual Disciplines or their practical result, Spiritual Formation, “think of apostle Paul who said that those who gaze upon Christ ‘are being changed into his likeness’ (2 Corinthians 3:18, RSV) [and … Paul[‘s prayer] that ‘Christ be formed in you’ (Galatians 4:19, RSV).” (2) Remember, it is God who does the work in us, the disciplines just help us to submit to him so that he can.
Let me say at the outset that Wesley, to my knowledge, never used the term Spiritual Disciplines or encouraged their use exactly the way modern proponents do but, nevertheless, he still recommends their practice-drawing from Scripture as he does so. “The early Wesleyans were so regular in practicing [what we now call] the spiritual disciplines that they were called ‘methodists.’ The spiritual disciplines are simply the practices that Christians, through the centuries, have found useful in the pursuit of spiritual formation, which is the pursuit of Christlikeness.” (2)
Wesley lists many practices as “means of grace” which, while not earning our salvation or working to keep it, does help to keep us on track and helps us to grow in grace as we journey toward Christian Perfection-not sitting around waiting for God to “grace” us but rather seeking after God for his grace.(3) Essentially, these Means of Grace that Wesley speaks of are many of the Spiritual Disciplines being practiced today. In fact, in his book, The Presence of God in the Christian Life, Howard H. Knight III contends that Wesley’s “means of grace together form an interrelated pattern that enables a growing relationship with God”(4) which is what the Spiritual Disciplines also attempt to do. In fact, some would argue that “neglect of such practices impedes spiritual health and hinders growth in discipleship.”(5)
In Wesley’s sermon, The Scripture Way of Salvation, he sets out those practices essential to “sanctification”
First, all works of piety; such as public prayer, family prayer, and praying in our closet; receiving the supper of the Lord; searching the Scriptures, by hearing, reading, meditating; and using such a measure of fasting or abstinence as our bodily health allows.
Secondly, all works of mercy; whether they relate to the bodies or souls of men; such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those that are in prison, or sick, or variously afflicted; such as the endeavouring to instruct the ignorant, to awaken the stupid sinner, to quicken the lukewarm, to confirm the wavering, to comfort the feeble-minded, to succour the tempted, or contribute in any manner to the saving of souls from death. This is the repentance, and these the ‘fruits meet for repentance,’ which are necessary to full sanctification. This is the way wherein God hath appointed his children to wait for complete salvation. (6)
Wesley was a prolific writer, so there are many other places in his Sermons, Journal and Letters where we can find more about these Means of Grace or Spiritual Disciplines but from this passage alone we find Wesley encouraging the use of half of Foster’s Spiritual Disciplines: Meditation, prayer, fasting, study (“searching the Scriptures”), service (“works of mercy”) and worship (“public prayer” and “receiving the supper of the Lord”). The six of Foster’s disciplines left for “mining” the rest of Wesley’s Works are: Simplicity, solitude, submission, confession, guidance and celebration. Let’s take each of them up briefly:
1. Meditation. Listed as an essential for holiness, meditation made Wesley’s list of necessary disciplines. “Many Christians today have been robbed of the practice of Christian meditation due to the popularity of Zen, yoga and transcendental meditation, etc. In the Wesleyan tradition, meditation has nothing to do with such Eastern forms. It certainly has nothing to do with emptying the mind to let it be filled with whatever chaos blows into it…For Wesley, meditation had a strong rational flavor and was more associated with reading than prayer.” In a letter to Miss March, Wesley “instructed, ‘We learn to think by reading and meditating on what we have read.'” (2)
As big as Wesley was on writing out rules of piety, he didn’t in the case of meditation but did refer to Richard Baxter’s method of meditation, the steps of which were: “information, examination, dehortation (warn, admonish, urge), consolation, and exhortation.” (2).
2. Prayer. Another of the essentials for a holy life, Wesley says this practice should include “public prayer, family prayer, and praying in our closet.” (6) His letters bring out more direction for prayer: “Tell Him simply all you fear, all you feel, all you want…Pour out your soul and freely talk to God…Pray just as you are led…in all simplicity.” (2) Beyond these prayers which are more extemporaneous, Wesley “taught his people to use…written prayers from the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. Wesley wrote prayers for worship, for daily devotions, for families, and prayers for children.” (2)
3. Fasting. Again, Wesley declares fasting as essential for full sanctification, “using such a measure of fasting or abstinence as our bodily health allows.”(6) Tracy quotes Wesley, “When you seek God with fasting added to prayer, you cannot seek His face in vain…” (2)
4. Study. “Searching the Scriptures, by hearing, reading, meditating” is Wesley’s advice.(6) but he goes on in letters “to preacher John Temnath…’Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily…else you will be a trifler all your days, and a …superficial preacher.’ Mrs. Woodhouse is to ‘stir up the gift of God…by reading, by meditation, and…by private prayer.’ Mrs. Gair is to ‘contrive…opportunites for…reading and meditation.’ Martha Chapman is advised, ‘Read a little, pray, and meditate much.” (2)
5. Service. Above, Wesley gives many examples of “works of mercy” which should be practiced as part of our Christian experience. Elsewhere he agrees with the author of James when he states, “We do not…acknowledge him to have one grain of faith who is not continually doing good, who is not willing to ‘spend and be spent in doing all good, as he has opportunity, to all men.'”(2) In fact, according to Tracy, “this theme comes up hundreds of times in Wesley’s writings. Christian service, in the Wesleyan tradition, is an integral part of spiritual formation.” (2)
6. Worship. In “The Scripture Way of Salvation” which has shown Wesley’s support of these first six Spiritual Disciplines, Wesley urges public prayer and receiving the Lord’s Supper-both elements of worship. In other places he requires weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. Both John and Charles Wesley focused on worship as an opportunity for spiritual growth of believers. The hundreds of hymns they wrote show the emphasis they put on worship -and correct theology in hymnody; and Wesley’s instructions and liturgies for worship seek to ensure meaningful and spirit-filled worship services.
7. Simplicity. Wesley has at least one entire sermon dedicated to the practice of simplicity which makes clear the need and importance of practicing this discipline in our lives. In “The Witness of Our Own Spirit,” Wesley, drawing from the words of Jesus, says:
‘We have had our’ whole ‘conversation,’ in such a world, ‘in simplicity and godly sincerity.’ First, in simplicity: This is what our Lord recommends, under the name of a ‘single eye.’ ‘The light of the body,’ saith he, ‘is the eye. If therefore thine eye be single, the whole body shall be full of light.’ The meaning whereof is this: What the eye is to the body, that the intention is to all the words and actions: If therefore this eye of thy soul be single, all thy actions and conversation shall be “full of light,” of the light of heaven, of love, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
We are then simple of heart, when the eye of our mind is singly fixed on God; when in all things we aim at God alone, as our God, our portion, our strength, our happiness, our exceeding great reward, our all, in time and eternity. This is simplicity; when a steady view, a single intention of promoting his glory, of doing and suffering his blessed will, runs through our whole soul, fills all our heart, and is the constant spring of all our thoughts, desires, and purposes. (7)
According to Sharon Delgado, “for John Wesley, simplicity was one aspect of ‘holiness of heart and life.’ He centered his life in prayer, wore plain clothes, ate simply, and fasted twice a week. Mr. Wesley earned considerable sums from his writings, but throughout his life he lived on 28 pounds per year, just as he had in his student days. He distributed the rest to the poor, and urged others to do the same.”(8)
8. Solitude. We find Wesley addressing the discipline of solitude in his sermon, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon On The Mount: Discourse Four.” While he is quick to warn that our solitude or “retirement” from the world should not be over-done, since “this would be to destroy, not advance, true religion” he nevertheless urges the practice of solitude in the lives of believers:
Not that we can in any wise condemn the intermixing solitude or retirement with society. This is not only allowable but expedient; nay, it is necessary, as daily experience shows, for everyone that either already is, or desires to be, a real Christian. It can hardly be, that we should spend one entire day in a continued intercourse with men, without suffering loss in our soul, and in some measure grieving the Holy Spirit of God. We have need daily to retire from the world, at least morning and evening, to converse with God, to commune more freely with our Father which is in secret. Nor indeed can a man of experience condemn even longer seasons of religious retirement, so they do not imply any neglect of the worldly employ wherein the providence of God has placed us. (9)
In his sermon “On Obedience to Pastors,” discussing Hebrews 13:17, and the limits or extent of submitting to our religious leaders, Wesley decides in those areas that are not specifically “enjoined of God” or “forbidden by him” that we are to submit to the godly counsel of our spiritual leaders, if we are to be “a Christian…and lay hold on eternal life”:
You that read this, do you apply it to yourself. Do you examine yourself thereby? Do not you stop your own growth in grace, if not by willful disobedience to this command; yet by a careless inattention to it, by not considering it, as the importance of it deserves If so, you defraud yourself of many blessings which you might enjoy. Or, are you of a better mind; of a more excellent spirit Is it your fixed resolution and your constant endeavour ‘to obey them that have the rule over you in the Lord;’ to submit yourself as cheerfully to your spiritual as to your natural parents. Do you ask, ‘Wherein should I submit to them?’ The answer has been given already: Not in things enjoined of God; not in things forbidden by him; but in things indifferent: In all that are not determined, one way or the other, by the oracles of God. It is true, this cannot be done, in some instances without a considerable degree of self-denial, when they advise you to refrain from something that is agreeable to flesh and blood. And it cannot be obeyed in other instances without taking up your cross; without suffering some pain or inconvenience that is not agreeable to flesh and blood. For that solemn declaration of our Lord has place here, as well as on a thousand other occasions: ‘Except a man deny himself, and take up his cross daily, he cannot be my disciple.’ But this will not affright you, if you resolve to be not only almost, but altogether, a Christian; if you determine to fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life. (10)
Going beyond our earthly submission to the spiritual leaders God has placed over us, perhaps one of the best prayers of submission to God is found in Wesley’s Covenant Service, which, as Wesley saw it, was “one means of ‘increasing serious religion’ [through] the joining of believers in a covenant ‘to serve God with all our heart and with all our soul.'” This prayer of submission says, in part:
Make me what Thou wilt, Lord, and set me where Thou wilt. . . Lord, put me to what Thou wilt; rank me with whom Thou wilt. Put me to doing; put me to suffering. Let me be employed for Thee, or laid aside for Thee, exalted for Thee, or trodden under foot for Thee. Let me be full; let me be empty. Let me have all things; let me have nothing. I freely and heartily resign all to Thy pleasure and disposal…O eternal Jehovah, the Lord God Omnipotent, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Thou art now become my Covenant-Friend, and I, through Thy infinite grace, am become Thy Covenant-Servant. And the Covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen. (11)
His other writings, especially with his desire to grow in grace and seek full salvation or entire sanctification, suggest living a life which applies this prayer of submission daily.
10. Confession. One of the keys to Wesley’s success with the Methodist movement was the “Class Meeting,” “Societies,” “Bands” or in today’s lingo, “accountability groups” that each Methodist was encouraged to be a member of. In his “Rules for the Bands-Societies” Wesley states, “The design of our meeting is, to obey the command of God, ‘Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed'” with the expressed task ” To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting.”(12) Wesley also include confession in the Covenant Service liturgy discussed under submission.
11. Guidance. Richard Foster says of this discipline: “Guidance is the most radical of the Disciplines because it goes to the heart of this matter of walking with God. Guidance means the glorious life of hearing God’s voice and obeying His word.” (13)
In exploring John Wesley as a “Spiritual Director,” Wesley Tracy suggests that “spiritual direction, or more accurately, spiritual guidance, was an essential element in the success of the eighteenth century Methodist revolution. Much of the spiritual guidance occurred in the arenas of the classes and bands. Mutuality was its keynote.” Tracy goes on to show how Wesley, himself, was a very active spiritual guide, providing guidance particularly through his extensive letter-writing. (14)
Tracy’s suggestion is confirmed in the book “Traditions of Spiritual Guidance,” which states that Wesley had a “system” of spiritual direction which at its center were the “Classes,” “Bands” or “Societies.” Shoring up these “accountability groups” were “spiritual reading,” the “inward witness” or “experience,” and going on to “perfection.” In 1744, Wesley systematized even more the practice of guidance by adding that Methodists are:
1. To be at church and at the Lord’s table every week and at every public meeting of the Bands.
2. To attend the ministry of the word every morning, unless distance, business, or sickness prevent.
3. To use private prayer every day; and family prayer, if you are head of a family.
4. To read the Scriptures and meditate therein, at every vacant hour.
5. To observe, as days of fasting or abstinence, all Fridays in the year. (15)
All of these things are to enable the practitioner to hear God’s voice, to find his will and be led by his guidance.
12. Celebration. Foster’s discipline of celebration is a difficult one to find specifically in Wesley’s writings. Certainly the passing of time and shifting of word usage and definitions add to this difficulty. I believe, however, that the spirit of Wesley’s work indicates a celebration in the disciplines we practice as a means to a mature spiritual life. I believe he would find in our celebration of the Table the discipline of celebration. As also in our corporate and personal worship. In fact, I think Wesley would see a celebration -or rejoicing- in every practice, every Spiritual Discipline, which exercises our faith and ushers us nearer to Christlikeness.
While unable to cite every reference of Wesley’s to the Spiritual Disciplines we have considered, enough has been found to show Wesley’s apparent dependence on the disciplines for his own spiritual well-being. We have also seen how Wesley strongly urged -even required in some cases- the practice of Spiritual Disciplines to demonstrate the believers’ faith, experience the grace of God, and grow in grace into full sanctification.
We have seen that the Spiritual Disciplines are not new inventions with ulterior motives, but are biblical exercises taught and practiced by the Church through the ages and reemphasized by Wesley for his day, just as Foster, Willard and others have raised them up again for our day. One should want to do everything they can to seek and find all that God has made available to them. Every effort to bring our bodies, minds and spirits under the full submission of God is worth that effort. The Spiritual Disciplines are tools given to us by God through his servants for this very purpose. The wise Christian will practice them fervently while experiencing new depths of spiritual insight and new heights of spiritual growth.
In the conclusion of his article, Wesley Tracy asks, “Have you embraced the spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation practices of the early Wesleyans? If not, step forward and engage your Wesleyan-Holiness heritage…” (2)
(1) http://goodnewsmag.org/2013/06/embracing-wesleyan-spirituality/ (accessed 1 Feb 15)
(2) Tracy, Wesley D. “Embrace Your Heritage: Spiritual Formation in the Wesleyan Tradition, Article for Unit 2.” (https://www.nph.com/vcmedia/2419/2419619.pdf ; accessed 2 Feb 15).
(3) http://www.umc.org/how-we-serve/the-wesleyan-means-of-grace (accessed 1 Feb 15)
(4) http://www.amazon.com/The-Presence-God-Christian-Life/dp/0810825899/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1356704685&sr=8-1&keywords=henry+knight+the+presence+of+god (accessed 1 Feb 15)
(5) http://www.ministrywith.org/blog/view/104/ (accessed 1 Feb 15)
(6) Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. Vol VI. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1986, 51.
(7) ———-. The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. Vol V. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1986, 138-139.
(8) http://sharondelgado.org/selected-writings-by-sharon-delgado/simplicity/ (accessed 2 Feb 15)
(9) Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. Vol V. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1986, 297.
(10) ———-. The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. Vol VII. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1986, 114-115.
(11) Bible, Ken, compiler. Wesley Hymns. Kansas City, MO: Lillenas Publishing Company, 1982, A7 – A10.
(12) Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. Vol VIII. Kansas City, MO; Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1986, 272.
(13) Foster, Richard J., Richard Foster’s Study Guide for Celebration of Discipline. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978, 68.
(14) Tracey, Wesley D. “John Wesley, Spiritual Director: Spiritual Guidance in Wesley’s Letters,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Vol 23, No. 1 & 2, Spring-Fall, 1988, 148-162.
(15) Traditions of Spiritual Guidance, “John Wesley and the Methodist System.” Oxford, England: The Way, nd, 69-79. (http://www.theway.org.uk/Back/31Wakefield.pdf ; accessed 2 Feb 15).
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline. San Fransisco: HarperSanFransisco, 2002.
http://www.jeremydscott.com/2011/11/wesleys-spiritual-disciplines.html (accessed 1 Feb 15)
Photo credits: All photographs taken by the author.
Thank you! Your article will be a big help to me as I prepare to teach a Sunday School class on this topic.