I always look forward to January. It signals the closing of one chapter while opening another. It acts as a reset for my soul, looking back on the previous year with gratitude for what the Lord did and looking ahead, excited for all the possibilities. With the start of a new year comes all the new things–a new planner, new resolutions, and a new journal to record the spiritual goals I've set for the coming months.
I start the year with good intentions. On January 1st, I spent the morning in prayer and reading the Word. Check. On January 3rd, the kids started back in school but I did my Bible study in the car line. Check. Each chapter read in my Bible, and each goal accomplished, is represented by a check in my journal. But soon my checklist begins to look like an abstract work of art as the perfectly filled boxes in January start to thin out in February, while March and April's boxes are sparse and haphazardly scribbled in. Seeing all those boxes left unchecked brings a sense of shame and failure. Surely this is not the abundant life that Jesus talked about!
Maybe you can relate to these "checklist woes" as you pursue the Lord through the spiritual disciplines–things like Bible reading, prayer, fasting, evangelism, and fellowship with other believers. Or maybe you can't relate because your time with the Lord feels more like a "Choose Your Own Adventure," deciding what to do in the moment. Should I read a Psalm? Maybe I should pray. What if I decide to fast this morning and let that count as my quiet time? That would be more convenient with my schedule since I won't have time to eat anyway.
I have experienced both of these extremes in my walk with the Lord–falling short of unrealistic expectations and having no expectations at all. It's easy to lose sight of why we practice these disciplines in the first place. So what do we do when spiritual disciplines feel like a burden rather than a delight? Let's keep two things in mind as we pursue greater intimacy with the Lord through the practice of spiritual disciplines this year.
- Remember its purpose
If you have children in your life, you've probably said these exact words: "It's like you grew overnight!" Wouldn't it be nice if we could say that about our spiritual growth? Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. We don't passively grow in holiness. Spiritual disciplines are just that–disciplines to be practiced through intentionality with consistency. When we neglect to be intentional in our times with the Lord, we tend to yield to our own preferences rather than the conviction of the Holy Spirit. These means of grace allow us to draw closer to Jesus as we set aside our own desires in order to pursue our relationship with Him.
Pursuing God through the ongoing practice of spiritual disciplines frees us from trying to operate in our own strength. Studying the Bible will instruct our hearts to see the beauty of the gospel. Praying gives us the opportunity to turn from our sin and walk in freedom. Fasting reminds us of our dependence and our need for God. The goal of practicing spiritual disciplines is not legalism, carefully keeping to a list of dos and don'ts. It is to produce a wholehearted devotion that comes from abiding in Christ.
- Remember His promises
God's disposition toward you is not one of disappointment, frustration, or impatience. He is a loving Father that delights in giving you good gifts (Matthew 7:11, James 1:17). If we seek Him, we will lack no good thing (Psalm 34:10). He does not withhold from His children (Psalm 84:11). On your best day, God sets His love on you. On your worst day, God sets His love on you. God's affection for you doesn't grow or diminish based on your performance. Your approval is found in what Christ alone accomplished on the cross.
Spiritual disciplines should produce joy as we abide in Christ. We can easily turn these habits into a performance for God instead of a way of deepening our relationship with God. God cares more about our hearts than our ability to read the Bible in a year. When pursuing God feels burdensome, don't lose heart. Fight for joy. Rest in what Christ has accomplished on your behalf. Reflecting on why we engage in spiritual disciplines will guard our hearts against unhealthy habits while remembering God's promises to us will reorient our hearts to worship Him above all else.
Interested in growing in your practice of spiritual disciplines? Check out our online course Rooted in Grace!