A Reflection On Wesley’s Spiritual Living

John Wesley lived a life marked with passion.  This was evidenced as he expressed his love for God through the spreading of the gospel to a needy and lost world.  He preached passionately, he wrote passionately and he lived out a passionate lifestyle that left a legacy of faithful people.  But his passion was not unbridled.  It was not reckless or without order.  It is apparent that John Wesley longed to be a vehicle God could use to touch this world with God’s own passion and Wesley saw this as being possible only through his own discipline.  If he were to be a person God would use to pour His Spirit liberally and without restraint from, John Wesley recognized the need to have himself first under the control and restraint of that same Spirit.  For Wesley, this restraint was not merely a prerequisite to becoming a conduit for God’s love, but it was a result of being passionate for God.  The two could not be untwined.  Discipline, it seems, was not for Wesley a burden to bear, but a way of experiencing and expressing more greatly the passion he felt within himself for God.

I have experienced, in at least a small measure, the freedom that comes with recognizing the value of a disciplined life.  From a disciplined schedule of physical exercise and family time to regular devotional time with God, it has been my experience that gain and growth comes from a life lived in regulation. 

Wesley’s spirituality grew from certain important disciplines that he practiced throughout his lifetime.  These disciplines included avoiding evil, doing unto others as they should do to us, not wearing gold or costly apparel, avoiding drunkenness, avoiding singing of songs which do not tend to the love of God and not laying up treasures upon the earth.  But his disciplined life did not consist merely of what he chose to avoid.  Wesley added to himself by attending the public worship of God, regular participation of The Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, fasting, doing good and searching the scriptures.

As observed by Steve Harper and quoted by Rueben Job in Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition (page 19)Wesley saw prayer as the “chief instituted means of grace.”  Consequently, Wesley gave himself to prayer and challenged both laypersons and ministers to deepen their own relationships with God by this same means.  He did not limit prayer, as some might, to submitting only requests to God.  Rather, Wesley gave us an example of one who sees his relationship with God as one that allows for a full expression of feelings, thoughts, doubts, fears and joys.  It seems quite fitting that God who has created us to experience all of these things can more than adequately bear us as we give them voice.

As I reflect on Wesley’s discipline of prayer, I am caused to find an inspirational interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s words to “pray without ceasing”, (1 Th. 5:17).  This verse does not mean for me that I remain reclusive from the world, devoted only to the practice of prayer.  Instead, I am encouraged by knowing that I can live my life in touch with the world about me while still living fully connected with God.  For me, the discipline of prayer includes not only the time I spend kneeling at my bedside or praying publicly in church, but also the prayers I breathe silently when sitting at a traffic light or whisper while contemplating troubling world events.  From a light-hearted prayer shared with my children at night to the solemn offerings lifted at a committal service, I find prayer to be my most prized and oft known means of grace.

Wesley’s practice of regular Bible study and meditation was remarkable.  As noted by Rueben Job in A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader (page 22), Wesley saw the early, “primitive” church as deriving its spiritual greatness “from the Bible and the activity of the Holy Spirit.”  Therefore, Wesley turned to scripture to receive the same guidance to which he felt the early Christians had access.  His life, consequently, carried the mark of one who was devoted to regular study of scripture.  This is evident as one examines his writings.  In his sermon, “The Way to the Kingdom” (John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, page 124), he makes six direct scriptural references outside of his main text.   Beyond this, he makes no less than 45 indirect references to, and partial quotes from, scriptural passages.  Wesley would not have been able to quote scripture or adeptly use it as a resource if he had not disciplined himself to spend time within the pages of the Bible. 

Scriptural study for me also is a very forming discipline.  Because I believe that the Bible is God’s truth revealed to humankind, I strongly feel that I have a need to become familiar with it: familiar with its content, with the Spirit who directed it, and with the truth behind it.   I recognize that there is no shortcut for gaining familiarity with scripture.   It does not come by talking or thinking about study.  It comes, I have discovered, from actually disciplining myself to study God’s Word.  And as a result of studying scripture and time meditating on its truths, I have been able to share from its resources toward others. 

Recently, a woman informed me that she had been seeing a spiritualist who reads her fortune from tea leaves.  Based on what she felt were truths revealed during these sessions, she believed that she was not wrong for visiting the spiritualist, but knowing that I serve as a pastor, she asked for my opinion.  Knowing how strongly she felt of her experiences with the spiritalist, I felt that my opinion would not likely convince her of anything.  So, we discussed instead some Biblical passages that I believed would encourage her to consider that moral truth might be separate from truisms discovered in personal experience.  I could not have pointed her in this direction if I had not been involved in personal, meditative study of scripture.

In addition to prayer and Bible study, Wesley also saw works of mercy toward his neighbor as an important discipline.  Wesley believed that one could not love God if he were not loving his neighbor.  In particular, Wesley devoted much attention to the poor, sick and imprisoned.  This was not something that he did when he could; instead, he lived his life to meet this end.  This discipline is echoed in his words, “Earn all you can.  Save all you can.  Give all you can.” (emphasis mine).

The effect of merciful, neighborly discipline is still unfolding in my life.  From budgeting a portion of my earnings to give to God for His works, to setting aside time to visit shut-ins, I am recognizing the joy that comes from this discipline.  I had even wondered recently, as I left a hospital floor, which one of us – the parishioner I had visited – or me, had the greater experience.

Prayer, I find, keeps me connected to God.  Study and meditation of scripture gives my faith the ingredients needed to grow and deepen.  Showing forth mercy toward others allows me to understand more clearly the mercy shown toward me.  These three concepts are important means of grace to me and as I integrate their disciplines in my life, I experience more fully my relationship with God and the passion of the Christian life.



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