You can go almost nowhere in Christian circles without hearing the term, “spiritual formation.” And you can rarely hear the term without the accompanying term “spiritual disciplines.” Spiritual formation is a wonderful concept. It potentially captures the entirety of what it means to mature into who we’ve already been made. And spiritual disciplines are as right as rain, the very practices of believers for centuries, who enjoy their God. Prayer, reading of the word, scripture memorization, solitude, fasting, etc, etc.
But the Room of Good Intentions will quickly find a way to parlay even the most noble pursuits into another dead attempt to placate God or prove my relatively superior holiness to others or above others. So we always flinch when we hear a “life coach” or a “spiritual formation director” breathlessly touting their new program of getting students to become more disciplined in their disciplines. A discipleship system built on a rigorous system of the spiritual disciplines and not emphasizing trusting over pleasing, and the power of new life in me over the fervency of technique or self-disciplined practice is just a old dead moralism, in a new garb.
Our bent towards wanting to assuage our shame by doing enough of something is always attempting to trump what wants to come naturally out of a changed heart. God says it is impossible to please him by doing enough of anything, if it does not come out of trusting who He says we are, and who He says He is in us. He wants love to freely draw us to Him. Even beautiful things are enemies of this “drawing to Him” if they put us into an “ought to” methodology and grind.
For awhile the grind will feel right and will give you a sense of rightness. But it will alter the chemistry of love and trade it for false supports that never lets lovers long again for love.
God has little interest in a solitude attempting to gain increased anything from God by the duration of fervent anything by anyone. The same is true of Bible reading or prayer. For He wants us to come to Him because we’ve experienced His love and we’ve come to feel safest and most right in His presence.
It’s like anything we do as parents. We can teach our children to religiously resent anything if we make it a chore or a duty that they must do enough of to get something with God. How many millions of kids learned to hate playing the piano because their parents forced them into it, with the slogan that one day the child would thank them for it. Much better to teach, model, nurture love of the piano, of music that would draw that child into a passion no parent could demand. The best and most passionate musicians learned music as a way to form language to express what they had to get out. They could not well exist without expressing it.
Such is the nature of love. Love is not forced or demanded, but given freely and fully because it can imagine doing nothing less. It is the unbridled behavior of joy for the lover.
There is no power, no life in disciplines. There is everything right and wonderful to set aside times that allow me to do what I long to do, to craft my world around what brings me life. And I may gain value by having mentors guide me into such. But when I miss the reason why I would want to be with Jesus, and instead see it as something I do to keep on the good side of Jesus, or to prove my love and piety, or from fear of growing dry, then something horrible has happened. It becomes not just a wrong methodology, but a destructive manner of relationship with God.
There is nothing necessarily gained just by the doing of an activity. Attempts at prayer done for a wrong reason, for the wrong outcome is just yapping into space.
And no amount of doing a discipline, no matter how noble the behavior seems, can change the heart. Instead, the heart must motivate the behavior. You don’t stop lying because you’ve learned a method that has “disciplined your tongue.” You’ll lie less because you’ve trusted this new heart and grown weary of a false identity and instead come into the light. You’ll lie less because you have allowed yourself to receive more love.
There is no power in disciplines. There is incredible power in trust or faith, which allows us to experience His love—a love, that often expresses itself in prayer, Bible reading, solitude, memorization, and such.
It’s why we are cautious to hear that the entire methodology of a spiritual formation department is spiritual disciplines.
We hear too often, “But if I don’t do these, I’ll go dry and distant from God.” Really? That’s what’s holding your love to Jesus and His to you? Really? If so, it does not say much for your new identity or the compelling beauty of His love or the wooing of His Spirit living in you. Could it be, instead, that we’ve not given ourselves the chance to get thirsty, so we would voluntarily, like a deer pants for water, find what we’ve been missing in trying to be fulfilled by anything less?
Many of us are making this life too hard. The commands of God have become burdensome, just the opposite of what He claims they are. The new heart, the new nature, this fused-with-Christ new being is wired to seek Him out, to live its life in heartfelt obedience to Him. We simply need teachers who can give us clear channels, woo our beings, and whet our appetite. For even lovers get preoccupied with lesser beauty. God knows how to draw His beloved. And it’s just fine to get dry so I would cry out to have that thirst slaked. Woe to the one who gets in the way by turning that transaction of lovers into pietistic obligation.
The attempt of religious superiority by proving through any means who is the most sold out to Jesus, is a game which has lost its dice, cards, and board pieces. We are returning to our First Love. And we are returning by rejecting even noble pursuits trying to talk us into it. We are returning because it’s what lovers do. We are returning because it’s who we are.