A Brief Preface
A few months ago I decided it was finally time to put to paper some thoughts on spiritual disciplines and sanctification. Then, like a New Years resolution, I stopped almost right after I began. Why? Three separate ideas all converged almost instantly. First, no sooner had I started than the sanctification debate exploded in the blogosphere. I was glad to see it being discussed, certainly had opinions on it all, but wanted to stay out of that debate! Second, I have become increasingly aware of the present conversations on the role of Christian practices in character formation. They can certainly be overemphasized. But can they also be underemphasized? Finally, I have realized how little I have personally considered the impact of understanding humans as embodied souls on sanctification. In my reading of popular, somewhat Reformed literature on sanctification, I have yet to find anyone who addresses this (I'm welcome to be shown otherwise!) and can't help but wonder if the sanctification debate will be severely hamstrung until such issues are addressed. All of those were a big yellow light.
Nevertheless, I am going to attempt to proceed cautiously to evaluate spiritual disciplines in light of Colossians. I also have to write one blog per week for my church. Here was this week's post:
"I Hate Devotions"
The mere mention of “devotions" makes me tired. Literally, when I hear the word I get sleepy. Devote. Devotions. Devotional. Doesn’t it just sound exhausting? I have sudden urge to wipe the crust from my eyes.
Sure, some people—mostly over sixty—claim to be invigorated by the morning and look forward to getting up. Not me. I used to be a morning person, but a long bout with mono and five kids broke me of that bad habit! So what am I supposed to do when the magnetic force of my bed pulls so much stronger than time in the Word?
I want to evaluate our theology and practice of spiritual disciplines in light of the deficient practices of Colossians 2 and God-prescribed means in Colossians 3. Rather, I would like to do that eventually. For now, please bear with me as I take the long way there! I am, after all, a preacher. And preachers rarely take the shortest route between to points.
I do not think spiritual disciplines are wrong. In fact the Bible is clear that the Christian life takes effort each and every day. Nor am I for eliminating spiritual disciplines. At least not all of them. But I do have several fears regarding spiritual disciplines as I evaluate my life and observe the Church. I fear that we we may have selfish motives, making the Christian life more about us than God. I fear that we may have unrealistic expectations regarding spiritual disciplines. I fear that we therefore assume inferior practices for spiritual growth. I fear that we do not filter our practice of spiritual disciplines through our theology of the sanctification. At the core, I fear that because we do not understand who we are are in Christ we abandon the means God has provided for spiritual growth and replace them with our own innovations.
Too often our motive for spiritual disciplines is self-serving and self-centered. I’m in it for me. I want what I can get out it. Just think about how often you heard or even said things like, “I’m just not getting anything out of my devotions lately and my prayer life seems dry and distracted.” Such statements reveal that our motives are actually quite selfish. I. My. Me. But we rarely see this as selfish because it is usually wrapped neatly in sincere motives to change. “I don’t want to fall into that sin anymore,” we say. Or, “I don’t like feeling guilty.” “I want a happier marriage… financial peace of mind… to know how to raise godly children.” But hidden beneath good motives to change we reduce the Bible, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines to nothing more than mere means to serve ourselves. C.S. Lewis pointed out that God will not be reduced to a means to an end or mere convenience.
Selfish motives lead to unrealistic expectations. We expect a “worshipful experience” or “the feeling of intimacy with God.” Isn’t that what the books we read tell us we should experience? We have come to measure the effectiveness of spiritual disciplines by the way that they make us feel. If, after a time of worship we feel cleansed and closer to God we judge it as a success. But if after reading or praying we don’t feel worshipful or closer to God, we assume it was somehow deficient. We have come to equate spirituality with a mystical feeling of closeness to God. High schoolers on a Bible camp high are not the only ones prone to link spiritual success or failure to feelings.
Unrealistic expectations give birth to inferior practices. When dividends from spiritual disciplines aren’t apparent or immediate we are often tempted to other practices, innovations, and habits that appear to pay out quickly. If Bible reading feels dry perhaps there’s a more engaging book or nature walk that would feel “spiritual." When prayer lacks focus maybe there’s a new way to focus. When the Lord’s supper or baptism feel dull or too simplistic, we wonder if there’s a more creative way to remember the Lord’s work. Maybe if we used real wine or baptized in a river it would stick. When a worship service doesn’t immediately strike us a “worshipful” our first assumption is that the lack is in the service, Certainly it couldn’t’ be our own hearts or assumptions!
I should say at this point, that I very well could be completely wrong. Perhaps I am misdirected. Perhaps it’s only me. I have repeatedly said “us" and “we” "our," including others in what may very well be my own problems and mine alone. Maybe others aren’t prone to use spiritual disciplines selfishly or be discouraged when the experience isn’t what they think it should be. Maybe it’s just me.
I do not think that is the case. Next time I will begin to explore why.