Relationship or Discipline (or both)?
How is your relationship with Christ these days? This question is one that is quite familiar in Christian circles. Knowing that our passion for God has a tendency to ebb and flow, often we disciple one another by checking in on that relationship. But what is interesting is how we respond to that question. Often, we respond by saying something like, “You know. I haven’t been praying and reading my bible that much.” We often assess our relationship by the consistency of our spiritual disciplines. Isn’t that interesting? We know that the disciplines are not equivalent to relationship; however, we often use them as a spiritual thermometer of spiritual vitality.
Now, some might use this reasoning to say that the spiritual disciplines (or “means of grace”) are not that important. What matters is that you have a good “relationship” with Jesus, not that you are reading your bible, praying, and fellowshipping with other believers. However, if we were to compare our relationship with Christ to our marriage, I don’t think we could say, “My relationship with my spouse is great! We don’t talk, go on dates, or see each other. But our marriage is great!” On the other hand, we all know that a couple could do all those things and still have an unhealthy relationship. Any intimate relationship requires intentional, disciplined quality time, but they aid the relationship, not replace it.
When we view our relationship with God simply in relation to the spiritual disciplines, we will tend to compress that relationship into a checklist. Have I read my bible today? Check. Have I prayed for 15 minutes? Check. Have I gone to church? Check. I must be good! But when we view our relationship with God simply as the organic experience of good feelings, we will forsake intentional discipline when we “don’t feel like it.” In both cases, the result is a lack of intimacy with God. I think this is why we have passages like Hosea 6:6 where God says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, knowing God rather than burnt offerings.” The outward rituals and disciplines are good but they are not the point. God wants our hearts. But also, you have passages like 1 Tim. 4:7 where we are called to “train yourself for godliness…” and Psalm 1:2 where we should “delight in the law of the LORD, and on his law meditate day and night.” So it must be both. Relationship and discipline. But how do they relate?
The Purpose of Spiritual Disciplines: The Presence of God
If you take all of the spiritual disciplines in Scripture and narrow them down into three main categories you would have: the Word, Prayer, and Fellowship. There are others (such as evangelism, stewarding time and money, etc.) but these are the main categories typically described in Scripture and noted by theologians. Now, all over Scripture we are commanded to pursue these disciplines and not forsake them. We are called to meditate on God’s Word, obey it, and teach it. We are called to pray without ceasing, to fast before God, and give thanks to Him in all circumstances. We are called to not forsake gathering with believers, to use our gifts in service to the body, and worship Him together through preaching, singing, and the ordinances. Now, the question becomes: Why are we called to do these things? Isn’t our relationship with God something that He initiates? Isn’t our relationship with God simply by grace through faith? Why then all these practices?
This is why it is so easy to make the spiritual disciplines a checklist (and sometimes a legalistic exercise): the more “normative” something becomes, the less “special” it seems. And when reading the Bible, prayer, or fellowship become mundane, we either begin trusting in our own works or we feel dry and distant from God. And this is the shift in perspective we need. If we determine our relationship with Christ by the things we do, then those things become the goal. This is how reading the Bible and praying can become legalistic. We think if we do those things consistently enough, then we are fine. But they are not the goal. God is.
We can flip a switch but we cannot provide the electricity. We can read the Bible but not force God into illuminating our hearts with His goodness through it. He is the one in control, not us; however, He has told us that He will move in these ways. David Matthis writes (in Habits of Grace):
“God is lavish in his grace and he is free to liberally dispense his goodness without even the least bit of cooperation and preparation on our part, and often he does. But he also has regular channels. And we can routinely avail ourselves of these revealed paths of blessing–or neglect them to our detriment.” David Matthis, Habits of Grace
The point is this: We don’t read our Bibles because we are commanded to (although we are). We don’t pray because Jesus told us to pray (although He did). We don’t gather with other believers because it blesses us (although it does). We do these things because, through them, we are ushered into the very presence of God. We read our Bibles because His Spirit shows us who God is and we hear from Him there. We pray because we crave intimate conversation with our Father. We gather with other believers because God promises to be there with us. We see Him, feel Him, taste Him, and experience Him in these ways. That is the goal. He is the goal.
The Subtle Shift: Confessing Broken Affections
Recently, God has been reminding me of these truths and it has led to a lot of confession and brokenness. I have been coming out of about two years of dryness in my quiet time with God. I’ve had moments of intense joy but regularly, my quiet time has felt mundane. And I was content with it. I was checking the boxes and I genuinely felt, “Well, I can’t control how intimate I feel at times so I will persevere anyway.” And I believe there is glorious truth in that. However, it hit me. As noble as that sounds, if I was describing my relationship with my wife that way, I would not be so quick to think everything was okay. Imagine if I normally felt little affection for my wife. I kept going on dates and talking with her but just wasn’t feeling it most of the time. Would I be content with that? I don’t think so. I pray I would not. But why am I okay living that way in my relationship with God? Because I had equated my relationship with Him to the disciplines I was performing. And they were never the goal.
So, over the last few weeks, I have been coming to my quiet time differently. I have found myself confessing my own brokenness a lot more. I have found myself praying things like, “God, you are worthy of my undivided affections and I confess that I don’t feel that way right now. Please, help me!” I have prayed, “God, don’t let me read your Word right now and only think about how I might teach it. Open my eyes to see your glory in this text. I want to know you more.” I have prayed, “God, I have failed as a husband and a father. I have focused so much on myself and have failed to be a faithful picture of Jesus to my family. I need your help!” And in that place, the subtle shift of my attention to confessing the ways in which my affections for Christ are broken, I have felt carried in the arms of God to the cross time and time again. And that intimacy is being restored.
Yes, the normal means of grace can become mundane but they don’t have to be. Early in our faith, we don’t have to be told to read the Bible, to pray, or to come to church. We just love Jesus so much, we can’t help it. As time passes, habits set in and we can start to push the “cruise control” button. But that is where dryness and apathy take root. God is the goal. I don’t believe God intends for us to have a dry, affectionless relationship with Him. When you come and confess your broken affections, He will answer. Draw near to Him and He will draw near to you. Plead for His presence. Pray until your heart changes. If it doesn’t change, then come back the next day and keep praying. God will answer. Believe it. He will.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12-14