In my last sermon, I talked about the principles to keep in mind as we work on this messy life of discipleship and life with God. Now I’d like to talk more specifically about the methods we employ to reinforce these principles. I’ve been involved in different churches with different philosophies. Some stress bible reading and prayer. Others stress service and giving. Different churches suggest different avenues of life with God, many of which are amazing and good, but many of us wonder where to start. Some of us have done it all and still feel like children of faith, so what do we have to fall back on.
Let me first repeat what I’ve said before: a method is not a guarantee of success, any more than having the right tractor is a guarantee of a bountiful harvest. Even less is your method in any way a measure of your success. Success, in this life with God, actually comes from God. It says in Mark 4:
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
This is not the full story, but it is a major part of it. We need to remember first and foremost that growth comes from God. We can’t manufacture it. We can only nurture it. For this reason, I believe that our first priority is to go to God. Spend time with him. Talk to him. Sit still and try to listen to him. There are two sisters who are friends with Jesus, and in one of the stories in the gospels, the two sisters, Mary and Martha, choose different ways of relating with Jesus. Martha works her butt off to make sure everything goes perfectly, just like a dutiful hostess should. Mary lazily sits at Jesus’s feet and gets to just listen to the things he says and spend time with him. If you think about it, Mary’s not being a very good sister or a very good host, but when Martha comes in to scold Mary for just sitting around, Jesus contradicts her. It was in fact Martha who was too concerned with doing, and Mary who had chosen what is better.
This story is clearly not meant to teach people to be lazy and skip out on their chores. But it is setting a higher priority. Sitting still, listening, waiting, and spending time with God come first.
My college professor, Scot McKnight, said some things about the Sabbath that I really appreciated. He said that in our Western culture we think of the Sabbath as a time to get ready for the work week. We’ve moved Sabbath to the beginning of the week, and made it about gearing up for the all the work that needs to be done. But when the Jewish rabbis talked about the Sabbath, it was not something to get you prepared for what’s next—it was the day that you looked forward to. You work all week long, and then finally—the holy Sabbath: rest; joy; deep, luxuriating breaths; time and more time; time to spend with God, worshiping and celebrating. In our culture we’ve idolized work. We’ve prioritized doing above all else. But the way of Jesus prioritizes stillness, rest, listening, and quality time. Our time with God is something to look forward to. And yes, it should help us get through all the work we have to do. In fact, the more work we have to do, the more we need to spend time with God. But let’s not forget that our time with God is the time to look forward to. Psalm 42:2 says, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” Our souls are thirsty, so we need to give them time to drink.
With all this in mind, then, my first method for growth and discipleship is to spend time with God each day. Can you spend time with God while doing the dishes? Yeah. While at your job? Sure. Playing games, running a marathon, chatting with friends, walking your dog? Yes, of course. God is all around us and I encourage including him in all your time, all your activities. But there is something refreshing and foundational in taking time out of each day to be still, to do nothing, to quiet your mind and just listen. When you take time out of your day to be with God alone, there is both great joy and great power in that.
Let me delve deeper into this time with God, because I think a lot of us are confused. A lot of us might see this as a chore or a duty. We might sit still and pray and meditate and read the bible and journal and do all the things that we’ve been told should help, but we sit in confusion, and our stillness turns to frustration. Our prayers feel hollow. Our souls feel empty. They don’t always feel thirsty, nor do they feel like they’re getting a drink. Are we doing it wrong?
Well, to put it a little too simply, yes. Yes we’re doing it wrong, because we’re doing it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong attitude or disposition. There are different ways of spending time with God. I personally feel a strong benefit from meditation and often from prayer, but it might help some to write down their thoughts or to read a passage from the bible or from another inspiring piece of literature, and some might prefer to go for a walk. The important thing is to employ the method that works for you and then work to fix your mindset. Our mindset, our attitude, our disposition: these things are what make our time with God worthwhile. It’s very much like if you spend time with another person. Not everyone you meet is someone you’re going to want to open up to. And you might not want to spill your guts to someone every time you meet them, but this is not just any someone. This is the one who made you and who loves you unconditionally. You don’t always have to talk, but you do have to open your heart. You do have to believe that this is a person that you like, a being that you trust. We come to God with the mindset that our whole selves are laid bare before him. If we don’t, we end up doing the same thing we do with people we don’t even like. We put up walls. We don’t let them in. We emphasize our personal space, and maybe we stick our foot out a little so they can’t creep too close. We’re uncomfortable. Sometimes you find yourself feeling that way about God. If so, it’s important to figure out why you feel that way. Chances are, you’re either believing something about God that’s not true, or you’re hiding something from God that he already knows, but you don’t want to talk about, or both of these.
The important thing here is to keep in mind the principles that I went over n my last sermon—primarily, the principle of awareness. Spending time with God (if we can manage to be still and really connect with him) can help us to become aware of God and of our own attitudes, dispositions, and thought patterns. This awareness alone is sometimes enough to hold back that temper or work harder at kindness and generosity when the opportunity arises. But let me also present a warning here. If you are new to this, and you start meditating or praying every day, you are going to feel some resistance at first—hard resistance. If anger is a problem in your life, it’s going to seem like you’re getting angry all the time. If you’re proud or selfish, you’re going to experience those problems all the more. As they say, sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better. This is a natural outcome for a couple of reasons. First of all, sometimes our minds prefer the status quo. It’s like when you start going on a diet, and for the first couple of days you feel really extra hungry all the time. Your brain is trying to get your body to stay the same, and you may have to force it to change. After the first few days, the diet might become routine and the hunger pangs might leave you alone. Secondly, if you’re increasing your awareness, you are suddenly opening yourself up to your true state of mind. It may feel like you’re getting angry more often, only because you notice it that much more. Your awareness, and your connection with God, are bringing your faults and struggles to the forefront of your attention.
It is vital at this time that you apply the principle I mentioned in my last sermon: do not give up. You need to turn things around in your mind. When we try to change and meet such resistance, we often take it as a sign that we’re on the wrong track, that what we’re trying out just isn’t going to work. We might think we were better off before. Don’t believe it. Also apply the other principle, be malleable. Be changeable. Try to think of these experiences as opportunities instead of hardships. Your connection with God has brought you an opportunity to overcome a chronic problem in your life. You’re seeing something for what it is and has been for some time. Embrace this chance that you have to turn things around. Rejoice, because God is working in your life. It is not a sign of failure or a misstep. It’s a clear sign that you’ve stepped off the wide and easy path in search of the narrow one. Stepping off the path we’re used to is always going to feel difficult. Learn to enjoy the challenges that come your way, and don’t give up.
Hopefully, this has helped a bit. I do not recommend any one method as a blanket prescription for all Christ followers, but I do recommend a daily time with God. Feel free to experiment. Try out different things. The important thing is to renew your mind, quiet your heart, and enjoy your time with God. It is a blessing that many followers of Jesus have experienced, and from which anyone can benefit. There are, of course, many things that God’s people can do to live in discipleship, most of which are obvious, but I suggest a daily time with God as the best place to start. After that, let him guide you into the work that is right for you.