Private Devotions: A Balanced Approach to a Common Problem, Pt 2
In the last post I began to address a common problem we face when it comes to setting aside times for bible study and prayer. On the one hand, we can fall into the trap of letting our feelings and moods determine the frequency and depth of our private times with the Lord. On the other hand, there is the extreme of becoming satisfied only with the fact that we are consistent. So, how do we deal with this tension biblically? Well, here is my best shot at giving some help while fully confessing that I also wrestle with this tension. This is not an attempt to be exhaustive. More things could be said. However, I hope it is adequate to be of some help in this struggle to which none of us is immune.
Going to the Gym
Picture in your minds eye a 40 year old man that looks in the mirror one day and realizes that he has had one too many Oreos. It is time to whip himself into shape. So, he purchases a membership at a local gym. He goes out and buys top of the line “work-out” apparel. He subscribes to a weight lifting magazine. He begins a strict diet that is necessary to get the full impact of his regimen.The first day on his way into the gym he passes by the Hulk and thinks to himself, ” That’s what I am going to look like in a few weeks!” He mounts the treadmill, puts it on the highest incline, turns up the speed to 8 mph, and sets it for 45 minutes. It is not long before he is panting like a German Shepherd in the Sahara desert. He manages to finish his routine. He wakes up in the morning feeling like he has been run over with a steam roller. He does this for 2 or 3 more days and then he is MIA. The closest he gets to the gym is the monthly bank draft for his membership dues. What happened? He had set a high and noble goal. In some measure he understood what he needed to do to obtain that goal, but he lacked the one key ingredient to arrive at his destination-DISCIPLINE.
The scripture compares the Christian’s pursuit of godliness to “working out”. The Apostle Paul writing to Timothy says, “On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim 4:7-8 NAS). The word translated discipline in the original greek is the word from which we get gymnasium. So, in a sense it can be said that godliness is obtained from spiritual work outs. Therein lies the problem with some of us. Like the man in the illustration above, we have a good and noble goal. We know some Christians personally who have a striking resemblance to the Savior and have a depth of communion with God which we envision for ourselves. Yet, though we can see some spiritual muscles when we flex in the mirror, we know we are not there. What’s the problem? In many cases the problem can simply be that we are lacking a key ingredient-DISCIPLINE. If we are going to be spiritually fit and trim we are going to have to work up a sweat. This means disciplining ourselves to go to the gym when everything in us is screaming, “Stay on the couch and eat a bag of potato chips!” It means going to the gym when it is not convenient and puts a strain on the rest of our schedules. It means going to the gym even when we have lost sight of the goal we are seeking to obtain. On we could go with applying the analogy to our private devotional lives. I trust that you get the point and can “work out” other ways to apply the analogy to your situation.
Sets and Reps
Ok. You get the point. You have joined the gym. I’ll be your personal trainer for a few more minutes. I cannot give you a full regimen here, so I will just give you some general advice based on what we have considered:
1. Do not make too much of how you feel. Feelings are fickle and fleeting things. I do not want to split hair, but I am convinced that though they often intersect, it is important to distinguish between feelings and desires. I know of no text that says it is always sin not to feel like doing the right thing. I may have a desire to spend time with the Lord in the Word and prayer, but for any given reason not feel like it. We do not always know why we feel a certain way at any given moment. It is unhealthy and counter productive to immediately feel guilty when our feelings are not in line with what we are supposed to do. Does that mean that sin is never part of the equation when I don’t feel like it? No. I’ll address that in the next post. My advice is not to waste too much time taking your pulse before the “work out” trying to sort through how you feel about it . We live in a feeling dominated culture and we cannot afford to conform to it (Ro 12:1-2). If we do, the result will be spiritual flab.
2. Be realistic. I think that some times we can discourage ourselves into inconsistent devotional lives by setting unrealistic goals. We set out to spend and hour with the Lord and we only make it to 15-20 minutes. After a few sessions of not meeting our goal we get discouraged and head for the locker room. Like in any case of where disciplining ourselves is involved, we need to set realistic goals and gradually increase the “weight” as our muscles develop. One of the main things, especially if you are just starting out, is to develop consistency. Always remember, quality is better than quantity, and it is better to do it everyday for 15 to 20 minutes than for an hour once or twice a week.
3. Realize that getting results is a gradual process. Many men have done it. They have gotten home from the gym and when no one was looking they flexed in front of the mirror to see if it “worked”. Of course, it doesn’t work that way does it? The goal will only be obtained by being committed to the long haul. As you gain and maintain consistency, growth in grace will gradually be detected as you find yourself having to use your muscles in real life situations. Those positive results will be an encouragement to continue because you will realize that the discipline pays off.
4. There are no short cuts. There are no other ways to obtain godliness than by disciplining ourselves. That can be hard to accept in microwave, high speed internet America. We ought to be thankful to the Lord for many of the advancements that enable us to get what we need within a short period of time. However, if we translate that over into our pursuit of holiness we will become frustrated and be tempted to find short cuts. There are none. Do not buy into any scheme of sanctification that offers you immediate spiritual maturity that allows you to by pass the discipline of eating and absorbing the “bread” of scripture and stirring your self up to lay hold of God in prayer. There is no high powered gospel vitamin that you can take which can replace either one of those disciplines. Bible study and prayer are means through which Christ conveys sanctifying grace to us. Only a consistent diligent use of them will yield true and lasting results.
I hope to see you in the gym!