“I haven’t read my Bible in awhile.”
In a student center on campus, this college girl was updating me on her life, and in response to my question about her walk with the Lord, she confessed her lack of initiative and continued, “But I don’t want to be legalistic about it, so I am just going to wait until I have a desire to open up the Word.”
I am going to be honest, I don’t remember who this girl was, because I have had this conversation numerous times. In fact, I am sure I felt this way at a similar stage in my own life. As someone who loves the checklist and thrives with clear expectations, I found myself often viewing my faith through the lens of what all I needed to do, and it became a legalism in which I thought my good-girl-following-the-rules position was what God wanted most. I worried that He was disappointed in me when I skipped a quiet time or got distracted in church. The thing is, I so badly wanted to please God that I used my list of rules to measure whether or not I was doing “well” spiritually – and while this did help me evaluate whether or not I was prioritizing Him, it was a constant burden that kept me from experiencing joy and freedom in Him.
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Gnats in the dusk light of a November evening have always reminded me of fairy dust.
It’s the magic hour, that 4:30 slot when the sun slants low enough to catch my shape, shifting the shadows across the pavement so that a slow and easy jog looks like I am chasing my own form.
I’m not a runner. I wish I were one. I used to be, in high school, before the foot surgeries and the complacency of no longer needing to be in shape for year-round sports. But I am trying to start a new habit of running around 4:00 a couple of afternoons each week.
Once I am out on the paved trail that winds through town, I enjoy it. Our border collie pup Ridley typically accompanies me, and together we crunch over leaves, and he wags his tail at every passer-by who comments on how pretty he is. Somehow, he knows what they are saying, and he eats it up. We only run about a mile and a half to two miles, so don’t get any ideas that I am training for a distance race, but it’s enough to increase my heart rate and soak in the crisp autumn air.
I have been trying to develop this discipline since we moved into our new house three months ago – we are across the street from the town bike path, which makes it almost too easy to get out and go. But the times I have gone for a run have been few and far between, which makes it difficult to establish a habit, or to increase my distance I can run.
Disciplines take time to build, and they aren’t necessarily easy or enjoyable in the beginning. I get out and run not because I am excited to, but because I am chasing that feeling I get when I finally slow to a walk at the end – the tingly skin and tight muscles and deep breaths. And I often find that one healthy decision, like a run, leads to another, like eating an apple instead of the candy corn I still have stashed away from Halloween.
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The nation of Israel regularly found themselves in a period of decline and distance from the Lord, despite their attempts to rigidly keep the law. Often the issue came when they were incorporating the customs and religions of neighboring nations, continuing to “serve the Lord” but also serving their selfish desires and pagan gods. As you can imagine, this did not go over well with a Holy God who demands full allegiance to Himself alone.
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” (Isaiah 1:11)
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals I will not look upon them.” (Amos 5:22)
God is not simply after our rituals and our religion. The sacrificial system and the law were put into place as a continual reminder of the peoples’ need for God, and their inability to live in the way He commanded pointed them to their need for a Savior. Romans 4:20 tells us that “through the law comes knowledge of sin” – not “through the law comes our ability to be saved.”
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17)
I was talking about this yesterday with a couple of girls. When you stop to think about it, how incredible is it that God doesn’t just care about us going through the motions? He wants our hearts! He wants a relationship with us. He’s not after us being able to keep the rules. In fact, He knows we can’t keep the rules, and He loves us even in our mistakes and our shortcomings.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
God is after a relationship with us, and we have to remember that as we seek to live a life pleasing to Him. It’s not just about following the rules. We cannot accomplish salvation or maintain our deserving of it through our own abilities.
However, if we believe the truth that we are all broken, and none of us have a right heart, we will find that we don’t always want to live the way He commands.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
The point of spiritual disciplines (prayer, reading the Bible, worship, confession, etc.) is not to give us a list of rules to follow. They are designed to help us connect with God and deepen our relationship with Him. Similar to a friendship in which you talk and hang out and do fun things together to help you grow closer, spiritual disciplines help us grow closer to God.
And while He doesn’t want our numb routines, I’m not sure that the answer when we don’t feel like it is to wait until we feel like it. Because, if our hearts are broken and sinful, we aren’t going to always “want” it.
Rather, spiritual disciplines are more like working out. I don’t always want to run, and I don’t always want to read my Bible. But the more often I get out and run, the more I find enjoyment in various aspects of it, such as experiencing the angle of the sunlight and the crunch of leaves beneath my feet and the chance to clear my head from the day. The more often I run, the more easily I can breathe through the pounding of feet on pavement. It will (hopefully) become something I crave, something routine but something good for me that is producing results in my life, physically and mentally.
And the more often I open my Bible, even when I don’t “feel like it,” the more I will find enjoyment in the experience of quieting my heart, holding thick leather and heavy pages, searching for truth about God, and allowing Him to speak to me. Sometimes He does, and it’s joyous and convicting. Sometimes, it’s just sitting there, sacrificing that time for Him and trusting that He is present even if silent.
It’s a discipline, and while I don’t do it just for the sake of checking it off a list, I read the Word daily and trust that through it God is producing something in my life.
Even if I can’t see it yet.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)