It (relationship with God) does not depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. Rom. 9:16
What first comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “spiritual discipline?” For some, these are words that immediately deflate the heart. We croak at the thought of seeing yet another well-intended spiritual resolution peter out from lack of willful support. For others these words represent a call to arms, a challenge that they welcome as they would a dare. It immediately brings out their competitive nature. These are people who live for the Mt. Everests of life and who get great satisfaction out of conquering the ground around them, any ground.
Discipline is good. No one would deny that. But when it comes to how it relates to our pursuit of God perhaps it is more important to ask ourselves why we are doing the things we do. Why do we pray each day? Why do we fast? Why study the Scriptures? Is it because it truly serves God? Or does it only serve the hopes and ambitions we have for ourselves? Is it because we are responding to God’s invitation to meet with Him? Or is it only because we’ve told ourselves to do this?
In our society, we are used to thinking causatively about most of the things we do. No pain no gain. Practice makes perfect. If you do this, or buy that, then you will gain this or that for your life. In this mindset everything becomes a means to an end. We assume that we can master all forces of nature to our benefit. It’s no wonder then that we also tend to approach our spiritual practices in the same way. Prayer, Bible study, fasting, even tithing are often seen or presented to us in primarily utilitarian terms. They are things we do in order to achieve something else.
We can easily mistake zeal for God for what the Lord might more accurately see as our hidden strategy for self-improvement. God becomes a means to an end and, if we are honest with ourselves, that end is usually us. Convinced that human effort will get us there, we look to God in order to better our lot in life. But it does not take long before we find our spirituality thinning and our prayer life a place of discouragement. The Lord, in His wisdom, has ordained that the door to intimacy is closed to anyone who would try to enter by any means other than love.
Scripture tells us plainly that the reason we love God is because He first loved us (1Jn 4:19). It is important that we be wise to the many ways we turn that order upside down. The presumption that we can become more spiritual through any effort of our own is something we should always be wary of. And one of the best ways to counter this is by simply asking ourselves, as often as we suspect other motives, why we are doing the things we do. Are we picturing spiritual discipline as a way to build up our spiritual muscles, or to perhaps lose weight in an attempt to reach our ideal spiritual body shape? Do we see our spiritual life as the initiative we take in order to reach God? Or is it truly a response of the heart to the initiative God has already taken to reach us?
It requires ongoing and subtle discernment to ensure that we remain in a position of response with God rather than one of initiative. But it is a distinction that will make a world of difference in how we experience the spiritual life—either as a carrot at the end of a stick, always out of reach, or as a carrot already in hand. If it is the latter, we have much to look forward to in the many ways we get to eat it.