6 Ways We Find Joy in Spiritual Disciplines

This weekend I read the cover story of Christianity Today, and honestly, it gave me anxiety.

The article is called “Can You Control Yourself?” It dives into the topic of self-control and spiritual discipline, filled with revealing statistics and suggestions for cultivating self-control in our lives.

So why the anxiety? I feel anxiety because I feel pressure to be faithful with all God has given me.

  • I need to tend to my marriage and family.
  • I need to take care of my physical body.
  • I need to cultivate Scripture reading and prayer.
  • I need to remain a diligent employee.
  • I need to practice my gift of writing.
  • I need to expand my mind by reading.
  • I need to remember daily and weekly chores.
  • I need to invest in my church community.

All these areas require daily discipline to maintain and grow. The thought of striving to be faithful in each of these areas every day overwhelms me. Additionally, by focusing only on being “faithful,” my life is deprived of joy, and stewardship becomes a chore.

So how do we maintain and grow habits of faithfulness through self-control and spiritual disciplines without becoming anxious or joy-deprived? Here are six points to help us along the way:

How do we maintain and grow habits of faithfulness through self-control and spiritual disciplines without becoming anxious or joy-deprived?

1. By knowing our righteousness was already secured for us in Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:21
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

If our righteousness is in Christ, then that means we aren’t fighting FOR approval with God, but we fight FROM a place of approval with God. The verdict in already in and all who trust in Jesus are declared righteous.

2. By embracing grace to fill the space between who we are and who God has called us to be.

2 Corinthians 8:9
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

God will always give us the grace we need to walk uprightly with Him. And even when we do fail, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

3. By committing to the hard work of daily picking up our cross.

Luke 9:23
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

In some ways, following Jesus will never cease to be a burden because it will never cease to be lifestyle of self-denial.

As Bradley Wright shares in his CT article, “the idea that we are to substitute one response for another, regulating our desires and impulses, lies behind every biblical command to obey when we are tempted. We want to worry, but we are to pray. We want to curse, but we are to bless. We want to hate, but we are to love.”

4. By realizing we don’t have to do it alone.

John 14:18
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

If we were left to struggle for righteousness on our own, we would be a lost cause. Yet we have the Holy Spirit with us to help us through each day. This companionship gives us to courage to say with Paul, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

5. By realizing God’s expectation of us is not for instant sanctification but for the process.

1 Thessalonians 4:1, 3
“We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more…. For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

Sanctification is not an inconvenience to God. If He wanted, He could beam us off the earth the moment we gave our lives to Christ.

Instead of zapping you with perfection, God desires you to wrestle and walk in such a way that sanctification comes through struggle. His will is your sanctification—that we would participate in the process of becoming more like Christ each day.

6. By keeping our eyes on the future and on the promise of renewed life.

1 Corinthians 13:10
“but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”

In all our struggles, this is the hope—a day is coming when obedience and self-control will come to us as naturally as breathing. This is the promise of eternity.

God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

Even in our struggle with sanctification, spiritual disciplines, and self-control, we can trust in God for His promise, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

I wonder: When you do find it easiest to practice spiritual disciplines? When do you find it most difficult? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

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Is Following Jesus Always about Doing Something?

Last week I shared about loving God with all our strength and left an important question unanswered: Is following Jesus always about doing something?

If you’re a follower of Jesus, at one time or another you’ve probably believed one of the following lies: either “I need to do more for God,” or “I don’t need to grow spiritually any more.”

“I need to do more for God.”

You won’t hear this preached explicitly, but you may hear it implicitly. You need to be doing more for God—which is really a bummer since you’re already overworked and overstressed.

Growing up, my performance was directly proportional to my worth. I never thought about it, but this drastically affected my view of God—I knew about grace, but functionally, I expected God’s approval because of my spiritual accomplishments. I never considered He would love me in my failure—at least not as much as He loved me in my successes.

“I don’t need to grow spiritually.”

The second lie is hardly taught but often believed. If you believe you’re the most spiritual person of all your friends, or if you simply don’t care about spiritually growing, then you might be believing this lie.

This view treats Christian maturity as a plateau—you hike up the mountain of sanctification, but a few years in you hit the top and find the mountain to be a large plateau. If you’re the most spiritual of all your friends, why would you need to become more spiritual?

Whether we realize it or not, the root of this error is the same as the first: We’re comparing our spirituality to others and making following Jesus about what we’ve done rather than about heart transformation.

The Right Way Forward

The right way forward begins with a simple truth: The goal of Christianity is not doing something; it’s becoming someone. It’s not about knowing something; it’s about knowing Someone.

The success of your spiritual life is not determined by your location but by your inclination.

Today, do you desire the same things Jesus does? Today, are you putting off sin and putting on righteousness in the way you speak, act, think, and love? Not, “have you done a lot of things for God,” but rather, “is your heart, soul, mind, and strength conforming more to the person of Jesus today?”

For the last several posts I’ve been talking about engaging with the Bible, and this is the lynchpin to it all. The Bible shows us how to live, and it shows us our shortcomings. James describes the law of God like a mirror, showing us how our own lives compare to God’s standard. And all of this should lead us to two humbling truths:

1. We can’t do it on our own.

2. We don’t have to.

I never considered God would love me in my failure—at least not as much as He loved me in my successes.

The responsibility is laid on us and taken away in one moment. We hear Jesus say, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), and then we hear, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Active, passive, active

The two verses above are not contradictory. Consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:22-24:

Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and [be] renewed in the spirit of your minds, and [put] on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Let’s break down this active, passive, and active sequence:

  1. Put off your old self. We do this. God has worked in our lives up to this point, and now we choose to turn to Him in repentance. (P.S. This is a daily discipline, not just at the moment of conversion.)
  2. Be renewed in the spirit of your mind. Paul does NOT say “renew the spirit of your mind.” Why? Because we can’t. At this point, God has to do what we cannot do: transform our minds.
  3. Put on the new self. God puts us on a new track, and now we begin to pursue the new life through the renewed mind He has given us.

Following Jesus isn’t about doing something; following Jesus is about becoming someone. Not rule following—heart transformation. And we become this someone when we cooperate with God’s work in our lives.

I’m excited to dive in further next week with this question: How do we cooperate with God’s work in our lives?

In the meantime, I want you to consider these questions (and comment below if you’d like):

  1. Which of the two errors mentioned at the beginning do you tend to believe more?
  2. Consider the statement, “The success of your spiritual life is not determined by your location but by your inclination.” How does this view change the way we think about our spiritual lives?

Once you know God’s Word, do this.

What’s the point of loving God’s Word with our heart, soul, and mind if we don’t apply it with all our strength?

Real quick—my last several posts have turned into a four-part series of loving God’s Word with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Each post stands on its own, but in case you want to read the others, here’s the link:

As a teenager, I often spent afternoons listening to Francis Chan sermons. Don’t applaud just yet. This righteous habit was more of a holy (read “not healthy”) addiction. Listening to one sermon a day was normal; listening to two or even three a day wasn’t uncommon. In a matter of months, I devoured years of sermons.

And then one day a sermon stopped me cold in my tracks.

“Some of you listen to these messages online,” Francis said, “and that’s all you do. All you do is listen, but you never apply.”

The conviction hit deep. I see now what I didn’t then: Listening to God’s Word without the intention of applying it is worse than not listening to God’s Word.

Hearing and Doing the Word of God

The Bible is filled with promises—for good or for bad—about listening to God’s promises. James says if we listen to the Word but don’t obey it, we deceive ourselves (James 1:22-25). Psalm 103 talks about God’s promised love and faithfulness for generations toward those who not only keep His covenant but also “remember to do his commandments” (vv. 17-18). Jesus couldn’t say it any clearer: “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15).

Perhaps the best illustration is the man who built his house on a rock. We all know the story—don’t be the guy who built his house on the sand. But when I hear this passage, I assume the man who built his house on the beach was ignorant of God. That’s simply not true.

Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matthew 7:26).

In other words, both the wise man and the foolish man heard the words of God. Both may have felt convicted. But only one applied them. Conviction validates spirituality, but action builds a house.

Here are three simple points I take away from these passages:

  • Jesus leaves no middle ground. He doesn’t talk about the weekly churchgoer who feels pretty convicted during the pastor’s sermon and considers for about 30 seconds whether something in their life should change. You either build your house on the rock or you build it on the sand. We’re all building houses.
  • Obedience requires intentionality. In other words, you will never accidentally obey Jesus. We need to “remember to do His commandments.” Houses don’t get built on the rock on accident.
  • Obedience benefits us. If you view God as a slavedriver, then obeying God is a burden. But if you see obedience as the truest path to our joy and flourishing, then we should desire a heart that obeys God, even if it’s contrary to how we feel. Obedience now leads to stability when the storm comes.

The Burden of Learning

It was William Wilberforce who famously said, “Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.”

This is the reality every time we read the Bible or listen to a sermon. And I fear the church is trapped in-between. We love listening to a good sermon. We love conviction because it validates our spirituality. Yet I fear we’ve become addicts of conviction and cowards of action.

Conviction validates spirituality, but action builds a house.

Many people who go to Bible studies and church services bear this weakness. We study and talk about God’s commandments, and that’s good. But it’s better to do them. On the last Day, none of us are going to hear God say, “Well said, good and faithful servant.” Well done is always better than well said.

On the last Day, none of us are going to hear God say, “Well said, good and faithful servant.” Well done is always better than well said.

God’s Word is valuable to us only insofar as it renews and changes our lives. Yes—I believe the very act of listening to God’s Word is valuable, and not every sermon or quiet time is going to lead to radical transformation. My concern, however, is for a church who feels convicted at God’s Word but doesn’t do anything about it.

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute—is following Jesus always about doing something?” And the answer is no. I’ll dive into this question next week, but for now I want to leave us with a simple application.

I appreciated this note from Pastor Rick Warren on not only listening but applying God’s Word to our lives:

The best way to become a doer of the Word is to always write out an action step as a result of your reading or studying or reflecting on God’s Word. Develop the habit of writing down exactly what you intend to do. This action step should be personal (involving you), practical (something you can do), and provable (with a deadline to do it). Every application will involve either your relationship to God, your relationship to others, or your personal character.

Being a doer of the Word isn’t easy because it will always require intentional effort from us. But God wouldn’t tell us to build a house on the rock if it was already built. When you hear or read God’s Word, choose to be intentional with it. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).

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Seek It Like Silver

Almost losing my wedding ring taught me a lot about reading the Bible.

My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.

Proverbs 2:1-5

Snow in April—you can almost expect it when you live in Minnesota. A few weeks ago I was standing in a parking lot, clearing heavy, sticky snow from my car. It was warm enough I didn’t wear gloves, and after a few minutes, my car was free.

The next morning, however, I woke up to find my wedding ring missing. After checking all usual around the apartment, I realized my ring was lost. In the back of my mind, suspicion gnawed. My ring is a slightly loose on my finger. Snow is slippery and silent. I wasn’t wearing gloves. While I was cleaning my car, my ring could have fallen off.

At 7AM I was back in the parking lot. Most of the snow had melted except for the outlines of parking spots. Meticulously, I began my search. Raking through the snow with my ice scraper, I looked for anything small and silver and metallic (which is very hard in a pile of snow, I might add). After half an hour and no ring, I gave up.

The good (and humorous) resolution to this story is that my wife found my ring, and she found it the one place I hadn’t diligently searched—under the bed sheets.

Searching for Gold

A couple weeks ago I talked about our expectations when it comes to spending time with God. The truth is, God has already prepared Himself to meet with us. Previously, I talked about preparing our hearts to meet with God through four simple prayers.

This week, I want to talk about engaging God with our minds.

Proverbs makes it clear: If you want to know God, you have to look for Him. Jeremiah 29:13 echoes this truth when it says, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Once we’ve committed to meet with God and have prepared our hearts, we have to do a little digging.

The best method to “dig” into God’s Word varies from person to person or from passage to passage, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Read Scripture.

You can’t learn more about God from His Word if you’re not reading it for yourself. Try reading something from both the Old and New Testament each day.

2. Restate Scripture.

Can you say in your own words the main point of the passage? Journal it or say it out loud. (You may have to ask the right questions if you’re reading an awkward Bible passage.)

3. Mark Scripture.

I didn’t like this idea until I did it. Maybe you don’t think you’re the kind of person who’s going to use five different highlighters in your Bible (it’s okay, me neither). Here are three simple ways to engage text through markup:

  • Put boxes around actions of God
  • Uunderline the promises of God
  • Circle relational words like “therefore” or “for” when it means “because.”

“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”

4. Memorize Scripture.

Move beyond reading to retention. Commit the promises of God to memory, and you’ll have them in moments of need. You can read a guest post from my friend Dakota on memorization here. If you need somewhere to start, I would recommend checking out Fighter Verses.

5. Pray Scripture.

Scripture makes the best prayers because they arise from God’s own words. For example, after reading Proverbs 2:1-5, pray, “God, I pray I would be the kind of person who seeks diligently after Your promises. Incline my heart to understand, and help me persevere when I don’t feel like seeking You in Your Word.”

One clarifying word: Our response should NOT be,

“Well, I really don’t have time to do this every time I sit down to read the Bible, so I guess I’m not a good Christian.”

God wants your heart, not your religiosity. Are you using the minutes you give to God each week to pursue aligning your heart with His?

God has not commanded us to follow a routine. Instead, He has invited us into a holy pursuit. Each day, we choose where to pour our time, focus, and energy. Engaging Scripture is one way we choose to put God first in our lives.

Seek Him, and He promises, you will find Him.

4 Daily Prayers to Transform Your Time with God

For many years I’ve prayed a simple prayer almost every day when reading God’s Word.

There’s a problem with our Bible reading. It’s us.

Last week, I talked about meeting with God in the middle of our busy lives. But the obstacles keeping us from God aren’t just around us—they’re within us.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we bring a lot of baggage into our spiritual disciplines, particularly Bible reading and prayer. Sometimes I get halfway through reading a chapter in my Bible and realize I can’t tell you a single thing I just read.

We have a spiritual attention problem. When we come to God, we’re often distracted—anxious or preoccupied with our thoughts. Now add social media to the mix, and it’s no wonder we struggle to focus for any extended amount of time alone with God.

So what do we do? First, ask—do you believe God wants more out of your Bible reading than distracted participation? He desires to encounter you, mature you, and equip you (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Expect more.

Second, recognize sin as the problem keeping us from God. He isn’t keeping the relationship at arm’s length—we are. As long as sin is in the world, our selfishness is the culprit of our spiritual blindness.

Third, realize Bible reading is a supernatural activity. Jesus said, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The only way we get the spiritual nourishment God desires for us out of His Word is if He gives it. And He longs to give it.

Recognize:

1. God wants more from your time with Him.

2. Sin blinds us from seeing God clearly.

3. With God’s help we can encounter Him.

I.O.U.S.—Four Daily Prayers

Seeing these truths, here are four simple prayers to help us center our hearts during our time with God. These prayers were first shared by John Piper and have helped me daily see more of God in His Word.

I—Incline my heart to Your testimonies.

Psalm 119:36
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish gain!

What do you desire? This first prayer is a chance to ask God to turn our affections from everything else that ultimately steals our joy. So I pray, “God, turn my heart from all my other desires and incline it to turn to You today.”

O—Open my eyes to see wonders in Your Word.

Psalm 119:18
Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law.

“God, I recognize that I’m spiritually blind without Your help,” I pray. “Help me to see how amazing You are in the pages of Your Word!”

When we pray like this, we’re asking God to do the very thing He’s written down for us to ask in the Bible. Don’t you think that’s a request God is eager to answer?

U—Unite my heart to fear Your name.

Psalm 86:11
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.

Only one thing can sit on the throne of our lives at a time. Our desires are often divided—we want God, and we want our own way. We need to come against this sinfulness by praying, “God, unite all of my desires to just one—knowing You.”

S—Satisfy me with Your love.

Psalm 90:14
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

Finally, simply, and joyfully, ask God to satisfy your heart. He desires to be close to you. He desires for you to encounter Him in your Bible reading. Ask, and He’ll answer.

These four points aren’t a magic formula. Maybe this seems rote to you. Or maybe you have another method you use when reading the Bible (if so, please share in the comments!!).

Whatever the case, remember the point: God wants to encounter You, and the best way to encounter God is to prepare your heart. These four simple prayers are an act of agreeing with God’s desire to meet us. Ask for His help, His illumination, His rule, and His love to wash over your time in His Word. I can’t imagine He’d say no.

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