I sit at my computer this morning trying to type with great difficulty. My arms are ropes of pain attached by two burning shoulders like soldering irons on either side of my neck. If Sean Covey was right when he said, “We become what we repeatedly do,” then I am on my way to becoming one giant burnout set of biceps curls and triceps extensions. I am told that this is good for me. I am told that small, consistent efforts over the long term will produce significant results. I believe this, but let’s not pretend that it’s easy. Let’s not for a moment forget that discipline is hard. If it were easy, wouldn’t we all have it, all the time?
And in any case, what do my noodly arms have to do with my spiritual life and my pursuit of godliness? I think there’s a very good reason why we call spiritual practices disciplines. It’s hard to teach about discipline without sounding legalistic, turning prayer and Bible study into checkboxes on our spiritual progress report. Or else to make it into a pop-Christian self-help guide: 5 easy steps to a great prayer life! But to do so misses the supreme importance of our responsibility in these areas; these are not just things that we do, this is who we are. No, we cannot earn our way into salvation or into God’s favor, but that does not mean that there is no work required of us.
RC Sproul said, “Here then, is the real problem of our negligence. We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy.”
Ouch. That one hits too close to home. I know I’m lazy, I can see signs of it strewn all over my house and in my messy kitchen sink. I like to try to justify my laziness with my Enneagram type (I’m a 7, let’s have fun!) or my four little kids or fill-in-the-blank. And anyway, it seems to rub against the grain of the message I am constantly hearing from the world around me: that I must be easy on myself, that I deserve something, that I should treat myself. And there is some value there. But I don’t think we are challenged enough, as individuals or as the people of God, to push ourselves out of our comfort zones. To put ourselves under a little bit of discomfort in order to grow. How then should we live, as representatives and image-bearers of a holy God? Certainly we should look somehow different from the culture around us.
Here is the truth: you are never going to just drift into godliness. Our church is not going to drift into gospel-centeredness. We must be intentional about it. Godliness is solely the product of abiding in Christ, and it is therefore impossible to live fruitfully or joyfully apart from a deep experiential union with Jesus.
And here’s where our efforts at pursuing godliness may differ from our biceps curls: I (hopefully) won’t wake up the next morning feeling like I was hit by a bus. Because the root of all my sinfulness is within my heart, as Paul explores toward the end of Romans chapter 7. And heart work is hard work. We can certainly change our habits — for a while — by sheer force of will, but that only changes our outward actions; it is only the Holy Spirit that can change our hearts through the ministry of the word of God. This is the transformation that Paul is talking about in Romans 12:1-2. And this is where the work comes in. You wouldn’t expect to wake up tomorrow and run a record-setting marathon without any training, would you? Then why do we expect to wake up transformed? Of course the Holy Spirit has the power to do this, and does do this, in people’s lives. But it seems he more often prefers to let us participate in the day-to-day grinding work of our sanctification. And there is so much joy and growth in the transformation process that I would never want to miss.
There is one way that my spiritual discipline and my physical discipline are very similar, and that is how they are marked by my impatience. I woke up this morning and flexed painfully in the mirror to see how swole I got from yesterday’s workout. Of course my muscles weren’t any bigger (maybe just a little?), but I felt like my effort had earned some results. Unfortunately, this is not the way it works. Nor does it work that way when I have a really great Bible study or prayer time in the morning, and yet I still manage to blow up at my kids later that day. Why doesn’t it work? What’s the point?
The point is the work itself, and it is working, even when it doesn’t feel like it. The point is that spiritual disciplines are the means by which God makes us more like himself. The secret is there is no secret. I will build big muscles with hard work over a long time, and I will draw near to Jesus by faith through reading his Word, grounding myself in the gospel, and obeying his commands, and I will continue doing these things forever, with, I pray, greater delight and fervor as I mature in my faith over time.
So today, I will seek the face of God in my incomplete, broken, grasping way, and today, I will pick up my barbell and grind out some painful reps. I will do it again tomorrow, and the day after that. And the next time you see me, please tell me how big my muscles are looking.
Written By: Jess Upshaw Glass