“I really ought to give more time to prayer.”
“I should be reading the Bible more.”
When I hear people expressing these sentiments I often have mixed feelings about what they’re saying. I’m not suggesting that they have no need to pray, or read the Bible, or whatever exercise of faith they aspire to. But why the ‘ought’ and the ‘should’? What image of God lies behind these sighing expressions?
Is the Christian life about earning good-conduct medals?
Does God want us to bribe him into giving us favours?
Can’t spirituality be happy?
What’s the real purpose of ‘holy habits’?
Paul made some helpful comments about spiritual discipline:
“Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 NLT
“Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 3:13-14 NIV
The bit about being disqualified sounds ominous, but let’s not take it out if context. He was talking about athletics. People who engage in sports do it voluntarily. Some make sports their primary career; but, even professional sportsmen and women do it because they want to. And, whether they are amateur or professional, their desire to perform at their best is a personal compulsion.
God doesn’t become any greater when we pray or read the Bible. We can’t improve him. He doesn’t change. He is the ultimate perfection. What changes when we exercise spiritual discipline is our own lives. It is we who improve. But we can’t make God love us any more by our efforts. He already loves us beyond all understanding. Nevertheless, healthy self-discipline is beneficial.
When you start out on a fitness regime, who do you do it for? Obviously, for yourself. It’s your body that will become fitter. It’s your health that will improve. It’s your life that may be prolonged. We congratulate people for looking healthier, for losing excess weight, or for showing improved fitness. So, why not set out on a spiritual fitness regime for your own sake. You will benefit – and there’s nothing to be ashamed about in that.
How can you establish holy habits? By wanting the best from and for yourself. You can start with pure selfishness by saying “I need more time with my God”; then find time to meet that need. Treat the matter as you would approach a fitness regime. Start by wanting it; begin the process by taking it slow and steady (don’t expect to run a marathon after 3 week’s training). Don’t push yourself too hard – build up gradually. Don’t let setbacks discourage you.
For many people, the problem is time. Work demands most of your day; children, or other dependants, require attention; church activities fill what might have been ‘free time’. But, there are always times we could use to focus on the Lord. There’s the time spent in the shower (God doesn’t mind the wet!), there’s the journey home after taking children to school; or the moments waiting for the computer to boot up; or the commute to and from work; or the walk to collect lunch; or the wander round the shops; or the seconds between parking the car and getting out. These may not be ideal times for prayer – but ‘ideal’ can come later when our life changes (as it always will). Right now, any solution is good if it contributes to our spiritual health.
There are many kinds of sport, and most sporting activities contribute to fitness. We choose the activity that suits our individual emotional, mental, and physical needs. Some people love to run, and set their sights on completing a marathon. Others can’t stand the monotony of pounding the streets, and prefer the variability of gym sessions, or the companionship of team sports. The routes to spiritual fitness are also many and varied.
Don’t force yourself to follow spiritual practices that bore, horrify, or oppress you. There are many ways to pray. There are many ways to read the Bible. Some of them will suit you ideally, so choose those. It may be that, as your holy habits become ingrained, you will feel comfortable about trying different ways of spending time with God – and that’s good. But make a start that’s true to you. Let’s revisit that sentence; don’t beat yourself up for not praying or Bible reading and then not do anything about it; make a start. Once you’ve overcome the inertia and your spiritual fitness regime is under way, it’s easier to adjust your direction and try new things.
Be happy. You’re on the move!
For a range of ideas about establishing holy habits, read the book, Still Digging – Scratching the surface and plumbing the depths of prayer. This book is available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle eBook formats.