How Christian growth is not just a matter of gruelling disciplines

ID-100355387When we ask how a Christian grows in their relationship with God, the answer given often sounds like a long list of gruelling routines which are not for the faint-hearted. The basic list of duties always includes at least the following: Bible reading, prayer, church and sharing your faith. The fine print often includes more which people have to sign up for if they really want to grow in their walk with God:

a) reading the whole Bible through each year (4 chapters a day), as well as regularly reading other theological books and listening to celebrity preacher’s podcasts.
b) at least 30 minutes of prayer a day, with the use of prayer lists for friends, missionaries, family, and the persecuted church
c) Attendance at a Sunday church service, a midweek Bible study, and involvement in at least one church ministry.
d) really committed Christians will sign up for some part-time Bible College study as well.

The problem with such an answer is that this places the emphasis for my growth with God entirely in the wrong place- on the things which I do. My walk with God all depends on how hard I try, and how successful I am in my Christian duties. When the emphasis is all on the things which I do, there are 2 very real possible results. Firstly, a person may be successful in mastering these activities, but they cause the person to be filled with pride and self-righteousness, which robs of any real enjoyment of God. Alternatively, a person may try but keep on failing to keep up the list of duties, and so their life becomes filled with guilt and shame, and again, no enjoyment of God.

The error in this thinking is as old as the sin of Adam and Eve- that we can become somebody because of the things we do. Satan said to Eve that if they ate the fruit, they would become like gods. The Bible is full of warnings about people who think that God will be impressed with them simply because of the things they do, whether it be offering sacrifices, fulfilling religious routines or just by doing good works. Christians too commonly   think, if only I can do lots of Bible reading, prayer and other Christian duties, then I will earn God’s approval, I will be a really good Christian, and God will love me even more. This is not what true Christianity looks like, but this is a lie which is natural to our hearts, and which we constantly fall prey to.

What is the truth of the gospel? The truth of the gospel is that God accepts us as his beloved children not because of anything that we do or don’t do, but because of his grace and perfect love given to us in Jesus. Our actions must flow out of this identity which God has already given us- they aren’t required to give us our identity.

The Bible often talks about God’s work being like a plant or a garden growing. Plants need certain things to grow- sunlight, healthy soil, clean air, and water. If plants are not given these ingredients, there is little chance of any growth taking place. But growing plants is a bit different from baking a cake, in which, it really is all up to me to put in exactly the right ingredients and bake for the correct period of time. Plants grow not because of my skill in digging dirt, or in my watering technique. Plants ultimately grow because it is in their DNA to grow as plants, provided they are in a healthy environment and receiving access to sunlight.

It is in our DNA to grow as Christians, if we are consciously living out our identity as sons and daughters of God, received by faith through grace. It does not happen because of any duties which we do. Sometimes we might behave like the toad in the old children’s Frog and Toad stories, who planted some seeds, then yelled at his seeds, “Now seeds, START GROWING!”. Upon their failure to show themselves, he started reading them stories, singing them songs and playing the violin to coax them into appearing. Sometimes Christians behave similarly in thinking that if they just do a list of activities, then they deserve to grow, and they fail to realise that their focus has shifted from God’s grace and love given to them for free in Christ to their own works of Bible reading and praying.

However, Christians do need to cultivate a healthy lifestyle which will allow God’s grace to do its wonderful work and bring growth within us. Just as a farmer applies discipline and even hard work in creating a healthy environment to allow plants to grow, there are structures which we can place in our life to allow our love for God to really grow. Here then are some tips for the sort of lifestyle we can seek to put in place.

Cultivate gratitude. If the key to our growth with God is accepting God’s grace rather than doing Christian duties, then it makes a lot of sense to intentionally pursue the discipline of living life with an attitude of thanksgiving and joy in what God has done. This could mean:
* starting each week by thanking God for 3 things He did in your life the previous week;
* writing out a prayer to pray which thanks God for His grace and love which relates to a specific issue you struggle with. For example, if you struggle with resentment to parents, write a prayer thanking God for the way He is your perfect Father, thanking Him for the lessons he is teaching you through your (sometimes difficult) parents, and thanking him for the many good things you can see in your parents.
* Begin each day by reading out and praying thanksgiving prayers you have written.

Listen to God in the Bible. Much could be said about how to get the most out of reading your Bible than what can be mentioned here. The key however is to aim for quality rather than quantity. That is, don’t just read the Bible and then close it after reading the amount of verses or chapters you aimed for. It really doesn’t matter how much you read- the important question is whether you are listening to what God is saying to you in it. The best way to do this is to read slowly, and after you have read a certain amount, consider the passage again and ask yourself what truth or verse is the most important thing which God wants you to listen to at the moment in your life. Develop the discipline to consider that you have not spent time in the Bible if you cannot say what God has said to you from it each time.

Commune with God in Prayer. There are many aspects to speaking with God: worship, thanksgiving, confession of sin, asking for various needs. Jesus provides us with a great pattern to follow in the prayer he taught his disciples to pray in Matthew 6:9-13 in which these various aspects can be found. The biggest challenges to overcome for a healthy prayer life are often tiredness and distraction. So plan to vary the way you pray to keep it fresh and overcome these challenges. Prayer walking is a great way to overcome tiredness and the distractions of the internet or young children. Meeting with a friend to pray can be helpful at a time of the week when you struggle most with tiredness. Singing songs to God alongside a favourite worship album can awaken your mind when you may not be in the mood. Speaking out loud or writing prayers down can be helpful to focus your attention. Prayer should become a great joy for you in your walk with God- not just a duty to perform.

Recognise what God is doing in your Circumstances. Do you believe that God is at work in your life, every day of the week? When you take time to reflect on what is going on in your life, you will begin to see lots of moments which can be seen as the working of God to teach you more of his character, more of your sinfulness, and more of his grace and love to you. Think back over the last week- did you suffer from depression, stress or anger? These are indications that God has work to do in your soul and opportunities for spiritual breakthroughs if you let God do his work. Did you see anybody whose example inspired or challenged you? Did you see anybody in need of compassion or assistance? Intentionally reflecting on the events of your life will open up new opportunities to grow in your relationship with God as you see him at work in every circumstance of your daily life.

Take Time Out to Rest and Recharge. The idea of resting on the Sabbath day was really big in the Old Testament- and the principle is still there for us to obey in the modern world. Our culture unfortunately values busyness as a symbol of success, and unfortunately that involves living a life frantically running from one activity to the next without any space to breathe. Intentionally planning to have days where you enjoy time spent with God, various types of recreation, and your relationships with friends and family is a vital part of cultivating our relationship with God. Don’t neglect it.

Establish a Pattern of Life.
  We all use patterns of life for the things which are important. We eat three meals a day at various times. We have start and finish times for school or work. If you want to prioritize your relationship with God, you will be wise to make a plan to help you fulfil it. This will probably involve looking at your pattern of life on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, and set routines in place which may help you act out the different activities we have discussed here.

There is one other vital component of growing in your relationship with God. Anyone who starts out on the journey to know God will find that the road is difficult. Most people who seek to do it on their own will find that they make little progress. That is why we need each other- knowing God is a team sport rather than an individual one.