Want to grow in faith? You need a plan.
Remember maps? Or those impossible-to-fold-back-up-again atlases that littered your backseat or the rear window deck of your car? Nobody liked maps. Few could use them. AAA even created a business to try and simplify this problem. Despite their challenges, anybody wanting to arrive at a specific destination made sure they had a map. Or if you were hosting a dinner party, before your guests left, one of the requirements was giving your guests directions back to their homes or hotels.
We don’t do this anymore with transportation, because, you know, GPS. Today we hop in the car and pull up directions as we’re driving and we have personalized routes, complete with options even, for how to get to where we want to go. It’s changed more than just how we navigate the streets, but also the metaphorical roads of life. The less time we spend making plans and proactively plotting out routes, the less time I’ve noticed we spend thinking about our entire manner of life. The problem isn’t that we don’t know where we want to go, but rather the rules of the road of life don’t conform to a “just hop in and figure out the route along the way” type of mindset.
In some regards, when Jesus asked the disciples to surrender their lives to him, his words were simple: “Follow me.” There’s a certain amount of passivity in this approach to life. All I have to do to be a successful disciple is to follow Jesus. That’s fine if you have a physical Jesus in front of you. For us, who live millennia after our Lord resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven, we have the Holy Spirit to follow, and he doesn’t seem to be as easy to follow as a physical person. Therefore, we need a plan.
I wonder if, quickly, before you read on, you might ask yourself, what is the apparent plan for my life as I “walk by the Spirit?” What does an honest evaluation of your last year say about your plan for growing in faith? For too many in our church, if we’ve had a plan at all, it likely consists of depending on a weekly diet of sermonic truth (which is second-hand Scripture), a prayer when I’m desperate, and an occasional hug from a friend to keep us encouraged. Of course, the Holy Spirit uses these moments in our lives. But hardly any of us would suggest that these are robust, intentional steps to deep fellowship with Christ. This seems to be more of a “hop on the road and get directions along the way” type of life. Might we instead find a better way to live?
Let me suggest one direction we go this year: To grow in our faith and keep in step with the Spirit, we actually need to return, not progress. Jeremiah once told a stubborn culture, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16 ESV). The way forward for us is actually to retreat, not advance. Previous generations of Christians might have had an advantage over us, not having all the life hacks and technological achievements that produce sloppy and hurried civilian life. Perhaps, this year, we can forfeit the spiritual takeout and drive-thru that happens when we binge sermons on YouTube or podcast feeds, and instead learn to cook the spiritual meal ourselves and reap the nourishment from the Spirit for our own souls. The recipe, or to use Jeremiah’s metaphor, the paths, are found in historical practice.
For generations, the people of God have practiced simple habits to help them follow the Spirit. For this reason, we generally call these habits, “Spiritual disciplines,” though I must confess a general hesitation by pastors these days to use the word “disciplines” with a culture obsessed with comfort and flexibility. Spiritual disciplines are habits that are formed over the long haul, habits designed for us to develop a sensitivity to the things of God, to grow our inner man and inner woman, from which the rest of our lives unfolds. We use the word discipline not because it takes repeated focus and intention, but because these habits form us into disciples, the two-dollar word for followers.
As we have launched ourselves into a new year, teeming with promise of better days, I boldly encourage us to commit ourselves to a few habits in an effort to walk the ancient paths of God.
Read the Word. We call the Bible the “Word of God,” but we could also call the Bible the “Word of the Spirit” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit guided human authors to write down for us what would show us God’s plan, character, salvation, and hope. Psalm 16:11 is the promise we must embrace, which says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” We can know the path because God makes it known in his Word.
Meditate in Prayer. Some religions seem to monopolize meditation, but there’s really nothing mystical or magical about it. To meditate means to spend time considering and focusing on something. We are great at meditating on the world’s problems or the last argument we had. But in a spiritual sense, meditation becomes a productive way for us to think about who God is, what he has done in us, and what promises we can claim from him for our circumstances. The psalmist meditated “in the watches of the night” (Psalm 63:6), probably because this was when the enemy was most threatening. When do you find yourself on the defensive spiritually? Take that time to pray!
Get away from the noise. Jesus often spent time by himself with his Father (Mark 1:35; 6:45-46). Our world is anything but quiet, and we have the opportunity to fill the cracks of our day with noise. What would it look like to schedule time away from kids, work, or sports to talk to God? Many men have told me this is what makes fishing and hunting so appealing. Not only is there a connection with nature, but there is also an attention to God and a reflection on one’s self. The discipline of solitude allows us to hear the whisper of God, which otherwise is drowned out in the bustle of life.
Confess and repent. These are perhaps the most humiliating of the disciplines, and for this reason most people avoid them at all costs. For one thing, we do not like to admit we are wrong, even to ourselves. For another, we do not like to let others know we are wrong! Today, “only losers admit defeat.” But what an anti-gospel attitude! Jesus came to save sinners, and salvation is only for those who know their need and are willing to forsake the world and follow Christ. By virtue of our faith, we have already confessed our need and repented of our sin. Yet these two disciplines are intended to increase in measure throughout our lives. We do not repent and confess our sins one time at the beginning of our faith, only to go on with life as if we were now saints. Rather James tells us “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). The implied discipline is not just being honest about your faults, but knowing and trusting other Christians in the church.
Do for others. There’s no escaping the “others focus” of the life of Christ and the example of the first Christians in the New Testament. In fact, love for neighbor is the outward expression of the inward transformation brought about by God (Matthew 22:36ff). Using the “gift of the Spirit” given to you is a spiritual discipline meant to encourage and bless those around you, for “building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-18). Most often when we stall out in our walk with God, it’s because we are focused only on what we can get from him, and not how he’s blessed us to bless others. You don’t need a job position at a church to use your gifts. Volunteer at your child’s school, write encouragements to first responders, raise funds and bless a community with a meal. Use your own resources and ingenuity to meet the needs of others, and you will find God at work in you in a way that glorifies him and blesses you.