Week after week, bewildered people come to me with frustrated desires and earnest questions: “What is wrong with me? Why do I feel so distant from God? What must I do to get closer?” Having done everything they know or deem themselves able to do, they now feel weary, discouraged, and orphaned in their relationship with God. Although they’ve tried their best to follow Jesus, they have lost sight of Him or figure that He’s nowhere to be found.
An exhausted, overextended executive asks, “How can I escape always feeling spiritually numb?” A lonely student wants to know, “What can I do in order to know that God is with me?” A woman in recovery who reads the Bible every day wonders, “Why doesn’t reading Scripture help me stay strong when I’m desperate for a drink?” Feeling ripped apart by the relentlessly competing demands of his too-busy life, a spiritually demoralized pastor pleads to feel closer to God. A single mom, grieving her son’s tragic death asks, “Has God now abandoned me because of something I did or didn’t do?”
The raw honesty of their questions reveals something the executive, the student, the addict, the pastor, and the mom have in common. In the midst of harried and hurting lives, they desperately long to experience the reality of their belonging to God. This desire gnaws at their souls while they continue searching for what they must do to make it happen.
I understand their desperation. After nearly 50 years of trying to follow Jesus, I feel that I am nowhere near becoming the person I thought I’d be by now. When I was younger, I assumed my failures and inconsistencies were due to my youth. I believed that when I was older, I would have learned what I needed to know and would master the art of Christian living.
Now I am older—a lot older—and the secrets are still secret from me.
However, I’m no longer embarrassed or afraid to admit I’m unfinished, incomplete, and imperfect—a work in progress. Neither is God surprised or disappointed with my lack of development. God’s work in my life will never be finished until I meet Jesus face to face. Desiring to follow Jesus isn’t about being complete and perfect; it’s about doing my best and trusting God to finish what He began.
Plus, I believe my longing to please God (no matter how great or small the longing) does please Him. Despite my stumbling, bumbling, clumsy, and erratic efforts to follow the Savior, any measure of desire is irrefutable proof that God is at work in my life. I would never yearn to follow Jesus if the Holy Spirit did not first pursue me.
Jesus responds to desire, never attempting to restrict or ignore its expression. He answered people who interrupted Him, yelled at Him, touched Him, screamed obscenities at Him, barged in on Him, and crashed through ceilings to get a friend to Him. Jesus cares deeply about our desire. Just look at the gentleness and concern He demonstrates over and over in the Gospels, as He welcomes people who want something more. That is not to say the Lord is some sort of cosmic vending machine. However, He responds to desperate people, allowing their desire to draw Him into their sense of neediness. Pleas to the Savior for help of any kind engage Him at a soul level. Whether they are misguided, self-serving, and destructive, or sincere anxieties and yearnings, Jesus sees them as opened doors to relational connection.
Who is a disciple?A disciple is someone who understands and does specific things. Yet far more fundamentally and profoundly, a disciple is someone who loves a specific Someone—the Someone who wants more than a close personal relationship with us. The wild, raging, consuming love of God deliberately draws us into a symbiotic fusion, a oneness so substantive that once we wake up to it, we realize, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Following Jesus is the greatest opportunity and highest challenge ever afforded the human race. Despite the undeniable difficulty or complexity involved, our heart’s desire for real life—life as God intended—will never be satisfied until that desire transcends all of the questions, insecurities, and dizzying concerns that accompany the decision to be a disciple.
Perhaps a risky self-disclosure will help clarify what I mean: When my wife and I got married, truthfully, I had a lot of fundamental, unanswered questions: Can we afford to be married? Are we mature enough? Will we regret the decision? Yet my longing to experience a lifetime of oneness with her trumped all of my concerns. Following Jesus into a lifetime of one-ness is like that but on a much grander, eternal scale. Our destination, safety, survival, or future condition are not the primary issue. The focus, goal, and reward lie not just in following but in following Jesus. Thus, the essence of what it means to be a disciple is the same as the starting point—which is simply living in the reality of our oneness with God.
After three years of doing life together, Jesus’ apprentices must have found His departure a huge adjustment: It forced them to learn new ways of keeping company with Him and letting Him live in every dimension of their lives. Their aim was the ongoing transformation of their spiritual core—the place of thought and feeling, of will and character. For Christians ever since, there has been a vital link between the desire for real life, keeping company with Jesus who lives within, and devotion to spiritual disciplines.
What is a spiritual discipline?
The day that you and I accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, our heart became His home. At that moment, in ways beyond our ability to comprehend, we each became a brand-new person inside. We’ve never been the same since. Because this is true, being a disciple is less about “trying” and more about “training” as we settle into the reality of God living within us. Therefore, the point of practicing spiritual disciplines is not to strive for something we don’t yet have but rather to enjoy what we’ve already been given.
If this is true, then our motivation, approach, and practice of spiritual disciplines shifts dramatically. Instead of striving to get closer to God or earn His approval and affection, we’re free to enjoy them. This helps us to understand that our spiritual practices—our habits and routines involving prayer, Bible study, service, and community that we incorporate into our lives—are like points on a map, leading to a priceless treasure. Yet it is essential to realize they are not the treasure itself.
The point of practicing spiritual disciplines is not to strive for something we don’t yet have but rather to enjoy what we’ve already been given.
We must devote ourselves to our spiritual disciplines. However, we miss the point and endanger our souls when we think of spiritual disciplines as ends in themselves. Spiritual practices exist to create space in our lives and open us to God. They are never the be-all and end-all of discipleship. Ultimately, following Christ is about cultivating a loving trust of—and obedience to—the God who is both within us and beyond our very best efforts.
As important as they are, spiritual disciplines must never become a substitute for following Jesus and living in oneness with God. Yet we’re susceptible to making this mistake because the self-absorbed search for a way to be in control of our own well-being is the natural energy in every human soul. And whenever we yield to that desire, our spiritual practices lose some of their power.
Thus, practicing various spiritual disciplines is like “working on your tan.” There is “work” for us to do, but that “work” is mostly about positioning ourselves so that God can do what He does naturally—transforming us into the image of His Son. This is why some speak of the disciplines as “the path of disciplined grace.” Prayer, Scripture reading, solitude, silence—these are graces because they are freely given to us. Yet they are disciplines because there is something we must do. And that something has more to do with positioning than striving; more to do with conformity to Jesus’ way of living than our huffing and puffing to become like Him.
The life God uniquely designed for us to live and for which our hearts yearn cannot be achieved by our own efforts, no matter how disciplined we may be. Instead it comes only by way of a few prepositions: with, in, and for, what Eugene Peterson calls “prepositional participation.” These prepositions join us to God and His action. They are essentially the ways and means of being in on—and participating in—what God is doing.
My desperate huffing and puffing to please God, scrambling to win His favor, and thrashing about to fix myself were, in fact, an enormous insult to Him.
It’s essential for our experience and central to our understanding that we trust God and remain assured that we are neither now nor ever alone. We can trust that God is with us always: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). Furthermore, Jesus dwells in us: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). Finally, we can trust that God is for us: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31). With, in and for. These are the authoritative connecting, enabling, union-forging words that set us on the course God designed us to follow.
Although I spent years tipping my hat to the idea that God “is at work in you” (Phil. 2:13), my life was utterly consumed with overcoming my weaknesses, getting rid of my hang-ups, and achieving intimacy with God by sheer grit. I was oblivious to the reality that my desperate huffing and puffing to please God, scrambling to win His favor, and thrashing about to fix myself were, in fact, an enormous insult to Him.
One of the greatest discoveries of my life is the mysterious and liberating reality of my oneness with God, who unconditionally loves me as I am. Far from perfect, I’m nonetheless dazzled by the diminishment of my restless striving to earn God’s approval and grow closer to Him. Instead, my life is being radically renovated, from the inside out, by the One who lives within.
Photography by Zachary Zavislak