Last time, I talked about discipleship, and how we all seem to be struggling with it. We all seem to be stuck in our ruts, making the same mistakes over and over, wallowing in guilt and insecurity. I myself have experienced these issues over and over. Sometimes I pull away from them. Sometimes I get deeper into despair and fruitlessness.
I don’t want to over-generalize. I think it is very helpful for us to remember, that not everybody is in this sorry state of helpless struggle. I myself sometimes read passages in the Bible that speak of overcoming and the power to live life with God, and I wonder why none of us are really there. But there’s yet another false assumption. Though many of us do struggle, a few people, scattered among the churches, are actually doing really well. They are actively involved with God and thriving in the way of Jesus. They have their own struggles, too, but let’s not get into the trap of believing it’s utterly hopeless and pointless to even try.
But here we are, many of us struggling day after day, sometimes doing well, and sometimes horrible. And many Christians are out there looking for the magic key that will make their spiritual lives take off. We want a formula, some kind of pill would be nice. A simple A + B = C, which equals new life in Christ. And you’ll hear sermon after sermon and attend conference after conference and read book after cheesy Christian book that will try to tell you the secret, the magic formula that will make it all better. These formulas range from a simple “trust in Jesus” to some complicated steps you have to take. And you try one thing after another, from daily devotions to small groups to service projects to incense burning, to anything you can think of to change your way of life permanently, but they often grow stale and ineffectual.
Perhaps you’ll think of this as bad news, or maybe it’s good, but the fact is that there is no formula. There are always steps you can take that will help, but nothing guarantees growth. There’s no magic key to making it all work right. It’s a messy life filled with ups and downs and we can’t flip a switch and become the complete people of God we’ve been longing to be. There is no switch. It’s just… life.
That being said, there are a few principles to hold on to and a few practices to master, which should help greatly in living life with God. Jesus often used agricultural metaphors, and I think it is in part because life works a lot like working the land. You need to work hard and give your crops lots of attention, if you want them to grow, but you also need rain and sunshine and good soil. You might be the hardest-working farmer alive, but if there’s a drought, you’re going to have a tough time of it. A farmer knows these things and has always historically sought God or gods for his/their blessing to send rain and sun and everything they need for the crop to survive. We do the same in life, knowing that times of drought or flood may come, yet seeking God for his help nonetheless—and at the same time, we must do our part to live by the principles we hold dear.
First of these principles, in my mind, is that this is a life with God. More than trying to do your duty to try and curry favor with God, more even than trusting in God to take care of you, The way of life following Jesus is about living life with God. There are a lot of us who struggle with this, and it could take many sermons to tell people all about life with God, and if you’re asking yourself, “what does that even mean?” then you’re not alone. To me, living life with God is about quieting my mind and my heart. I acknowledge that there is a divine power all around me and in me and I try to adjust my disposition to be open to that divine power. It’s not always about talking or doing certain things, but it is about an awareness. Learning to cultivate that awareness can take a lifetime in itself, but that’s the gist of it.
Next of these principles is to be malleable. Sometimes it’s hard for us to recognize if God is trying to tell us something or if we’re just arguing with ourselves. Whatever the case, it’s important to remember that God is involved in some way, and so we need to be ready to change our hearts and minds at any moment. If you’re like me, you’ll have found yourself in emotionally destructive or divisive cycles. You’ll be angry and think you have every right to be. You’ll get depressed or bitter or selfish or proud or abrasive or rude, and it always feels logical, natural, maybe unavoidable. Usually, it is none of these things. And so we need to affix in our minds that we might be wrong at any time and be ready and open to changing our minds and attitudes. You’ll often find if you can maintain this openness to correction and readiness to shift gears, that you’re going to encounter less and less of these cycles anyway. But it is again about awareness. We need to cultivate awareness of ourselves, of our emotional states and of our disposition. If we don’t, we’ll most certainly fall victim to these little traps.
Next is a simple idea that everyone knows but tends to ignore or forget: Don’t give up. For me realization hits maybe a month later, when I realized I got tired of trying, got stuck in a rut, started thinking, feeling, talking and acting like none of it mattered anymore. And I look back and wonder how I got to where I was, because I didn’t notice. But my state of mind and life tells me that somewhere along the way I did give up. We don’t always recognize this for what it is. We might just call it a rough spot. But again, the issue comes down to awareness. Do you know when it is that you’re hitting a wall? Can you tell, when things start going south? If we maintain an awareness of where we’re at, we can intercede sooner in the process. But this in itself requires vigilance. Sometimes it seems like a catch 22, but hold onto the principle, Don’t Give Up, and that should at least help.
Finally, the last principle is possibly the most important: Grace. First, have grace for yourself. Too many Christians get bogged down in guilt. It is certainly better to humble yourself than to exalt yourself, but the way of Jesus was never intended to keep people in a perpetual state of miserable shame and guilt, constantly beating our breast and begging God to forgive us for our feeble attempts to do good. Give yourself some grace, and give others some, too.
In my last sermon I talked about the fact that we sometimes mistake the method for the goal. The goal, if you might recall, is to be like Christ, bear spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.), and live life with God. There are many methods we can employ to attain this goal. But the methods are not the goal themselves. The methods we use can help us support the aforementioned principles, which should help us reach our goals.Since this is already running long, I'll focus on methods in my next sermon.
For now let me sum up:
It's a messy life with God. There is no secret formula for getting it all right. All we have is the goal of new life in Christ. Attaining this goal requires that we hold on to certain principles and cultivate an awareness of God and of ourselves.
If you find that you go through a whole day without asking yourself how you're doing, where's God and what's he doing, or any type of question that might cultivate your awareness, then in my opinion, that's the place to start.
I'll end with a favorite quote of mine from C.S. Lewis:
"The gods cannot speak to men face to face, til we have faces."
A little cryptic, I know, but try to puzzle it out. Or just read the book ("Til We Have Faces").