It's hard to believe I have 30 years of Christianity to reflect on, but I appear to be getting old. So I began thinking about lessons learned, mistakes made, and positive changes I've seen in myself. I'm not what I want to be, but by the grace of God I am not what I was.
Herein I offer the benefit of my bumps and bruises for whatever use you may make of it.
Jesus doesn't just want to be your Savior. He wants to be your Lord.
There are a few things Jesus repeats in the gospels. "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." "Believe the good news." These get talked about a lot. There's one that gets less air time in many circles: "Come, follow me."
Believing is important. So is following. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." The thing we have to remember is that Jesus didn't come just to save us; he came to transform us.
A big part of following Jesus is reading his word.
Read it. Read it again. Keep reading it. A broad knowledge is important. A deep knowledge is important. You can't get both of those at the same time. Sometimes read to get as much Bible into you as you can. Sometimes slow down and get hip-deep in the details.
Study the Bible. Study studying the Bible. Study the Bible some more. The scriptures are the primary means by which God communicates with us. They reveal what he is like, what pleases him, what he wants, and what he intends for us.
So read it when you feel like it, and read it when you don't. Prioritize it. You don't have to spend hours a day in it. Some days you'll have half an hour, and some days you'll have five minutes. The commitment to spending time in his word is as formative as the time itself. And the day may come when "getting" to spend some time in the Bible will be a treat rather than a chore.
I think the primary lesson of the "Lord's Prayer" was that we should keep it simple. God's not looking for the correct formula or language. He's looking for you.
Sometimes you'll be a bit ashamed of your behavior in the recent past, and the last thing you'll want to do is expose yourself to God. Pray. This may be the most important time to pray.
Ask God for what you want, but remember that the purpose of prayer is not primarily about asking for things. It's about meeting God.
Slog through the doldrums.
There are seasons when you feel like God is right next to you, when the experience of his presence is almost tangible. Those do not last.
The rest of the time has been likened to the doldrums on the sea when the wind dies down and little progress can be made. Rankin Wilbourne, in Union with Christ, says, "The doldrums are an important, even necessary, part of learning to abide [in Christ]. They protect us from the dangerous temptation of enthroning our experience of Christ over the real Christ. See, if you always got a high, or a spiritual surge, every time you drew the sail, it would be easy to shift into pursuing your own immediate gratification instead of pursuing Christ."
Screwtape says, "It is during such trough periods, much more than the peak periods, that it [the believer] is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. ... Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."
If you can set up your life so that certain daily actions trigger the behaviors you want, you'll do yourself a huge service. If you can get to the point where you reach for your Bible the minute you sit in your chair — even when that's not why you were sitting down there — all of this gets easier to maintain. Build a habit you can maintain. If you can't spend an hour a day in the Bible most days, don't try to do that. It's easier to spend a little more time when you have it than to maintain an impossible habit.
I've gotten in the habit of praying in the shower. I don't have anything else to do, might as well use the time, right? After a decade of that, it takes a conscious effort not to pray in the shower. So I'm guaranteed to spend at least a little time in prayer every day.
Does that feel cold and impersonal? It's really not. It's simply training yourself to do the things you want to do. And habits can really help you persevere during the doldrums.
Constantly evaluate yourself against what you see in scripture.
Don't just read it. Ask yourself what you need to change based on what you see there. Be specific. Make specific goals. "I need to be nicer" is not specific. "I will ask my neighbor how I can help her" is.
That thing you are absolutely sure doesn't apply to you does. That thing you really don't want to change is the thing Jesus most wants to change.
If you've read a passage a dozen times, and this is the first time you've noticed this place where you're lacking, that means this is the time the Lord has chosen to work on that. Cooperate and things will go better for you.
Hang in there.
I ran across a Desiring God article that speaks to this topic: Most Growth Will Be Slow Growth. The title pretty much says it all. We live in a get rich quick, get thin quick culture. This is the polar opposite of the Christian life. Sanctification is sloooow. Don't ask "Do I look more like Jesus than I did yesterday?" Yesterday could have been a particularly good day, or a particularly bad one. Ask "Do I look more like Jesus than I did five years ago."
Don't lose heart.
It's understandable that hearing "this is going to be a long, slow slog" can be disheartening. But we were never promised fast results. What we were promised was "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:6). You will get there. That's the important thing.
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