Being grateful to a Supreme Being and to other people is an acknowledgement that there are good and enjoyable things in the world to be enjoyed in accordance with the giver’s intent. Good things happen by design. If a person believes in the spiritual concept of grace, they believe that there is a pattern of beneficence in the world that exists quite independently of their own striving and even their own existence. Gratitude thus depends upon receiving what we do not expect to receive or have not earned or receiving more than we believe we deserve. This awareness is simultaneously humbling and elevating.
Emmons writes that gratitude increases spiritual awareness, promotes physical health, maximizes the good, protects against the negative, and strengthens relationships. It “frees us from ourselves,” though gratitude can be “hard and painful work.”
According to Emmons, to remain in the discipline of gratitude we must pay attention and actively remember what we have received that we are grateful for, which can be reinforced by practices like letter writing or keeping a journal, and through worship, particularly when our liturgies help us notice God’s activity and recall God’s faithfulness both past and present. God may have been active in our lives directly or through a neighbor. And signs of God’s faithfulness may be found in our lives today or through hearing the story of Scripture. Gratitude requires an “external focus.” A self-focused way of being inhibits gratitude.
Comedian George Carlin joked, “I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older. Then it dawned on me – they’re cramming for their final exam.”
That may be true. It’s definitely funny. But it is misguided, at least insofar as it suggests there may be an entrance exam for eternity, or a minimum Bible reading requirement. God measures us not by what we know but who we know, by how we know the Father, and Jesus, the Son who was sent. We’re justified, or declared righteous, by faith in Jesus. But if we know him, God should see evidence of that relationship reflected in the content of our lives. The Bible is one resource that helps us know God better, so that we might walk with God more faithfully.
Many friends that I’ve made through the years have expressed interest in the Bible. They’ve been encouraged to read it. They’ve wanted to learn what is there, to understand the text, and to allow it to enrich their lives. But they’ve struggled to begin, or, once begun, they found it difficult to continue, or confusing in content. They understood that the Bible can help them grow in their spiritual life, but they struggled to understand how. And because they were unable to read the Bible profitably, they failed to make Bible reading a habit.
But that doesn’t have to be the case.
So how do we make it a habit? How can we read the Bible routinely and profitably, not only for knowledge of what it contains, but for knowledge of God?
I’m going to share ten pointers that have helped me. Throughout my years of study and in my practice of ministry, I’ve read the Bible from beginning to end a handful of times, and I’ve read select books more times than I could count, either for personal study or in preparation to teach. I’ve become more and more familiar with the story of Scripture by listening to sermons, reading books, and attending classes by learned instructors who helped me understand what I found in Scripture. I’ve also been to church as a matter of habit and through sermons, the public reading of the Bible, and in small group settings (like a Sunday school), I’ve been equipped to read the Bible with a measure of understanding.
I’m not done learning. But here is what I’ve learned, so far.
1. Acknowledge the Bible is not an Easy Book, but it is Understandable
The Bible is a collection containing sixty-six individual books–thirty-nine books in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, or First Testament) and twenty seven books in the New Testament. There are a number of genres among those books, including narrative, history, genealogy, poetry, allegory, apocalyptic, epistolary, prophetic literature, and wisdom writings. There are various authors, some known, and others unknown to us. These books span centuries. The Old Testament was written hundreds of years (or more) before the birth of Jesus, while the books of the New Testament were written between the 40s or 50s (at earliest) to the 90s (arguably) of the Common Era.
When you read the Bible you are reaching back across history, trying to understand language, culture, idiom, geography, and context that is different from our own. The Bible is not an easy book.
But it is understandable. Through reading the Bible we can access the thoughts and stories of those who recorded their experiences with God, and we can learn from those experiences. We can learn what God is like, how God relates to humankind, and how we are called to live in light of the reality of God and what has been done in and through Jesus. We can also learn a great deal about what we are like, how God has made us to reflect God’s image, how we have been broken by sin, and how God has worked to redeem us through God’s action in history.
The Bible may not be an easy book, but it is an understandable book.
2. Join a Community of Interpretation
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in his treatise Against Heresies I:10:2-3:
As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it.
Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master; nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.
It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself.
Irenaeus believed that the Christian faith was a received tradition, one that was passed down carefully from one generation to the next, without change or adaptation, tracing itself back to the teachings of the Apostles. This idea traces back to the Bible. In Titus 2:1, Paul exhorts Titus, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” Paul wants Titus to pass on what he has been taught.
In 2 Peter 1:12-15, we find another example that shows early church leaders passing down a received set of teachings. Peter writes, “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.”
In early Christianity, we find evidence that the earliest ideas and teachings were contested. But there also appears to be a solid core that emerged as normative for Christian faith and practice. A canon of texts and a tradition of interpretation became established, and while the canon has remained, the interpretative tradition is more like an ongoing conversation. Some aspects of the tradition are firmly established. Others continue to be debated.
Today, there are a number of established traditions, the oldest of which is found in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The Protestant traditions are more nascent, but nonetheless they are well developed, and in their beginnings sought to return to apostolic or primitive Christianity, returning the church to the Bible and the teachings of the Apostles themselves.
Whether you are a Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, or non-denominational Christian (or some combination thereof), solidify your ties to a community of interpretation. Learn from others of like conviction who have read the Bible and offered an interpretation of its meaning. Discover where you agree and where you disagree, as well as where the tensions rest. Uncover what unites the Christian tradition, and where traditions differ. Learn your own tradition’s weaknesses, and come to respect other traditions’ strengths. Stand firm on your convictions. But also have humility concerning the claims you make. You may be wrong, even if you doubt it.
3. Clarify Your Reason for Reading
Why do you want to read the Bible?
In John 5:39-40, Jesus said this to the religious leaders of his day, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Jesus points to motive. He observes that while his opponents read the Scriptures, they did so in a way that led them to miss the coming of Israel’s Messiah. Jesus suggests that if they read the Scriptures to encounter God, and not as an end in itself, then perhaps they would have recognized him for who he was and they would have found eternal life in him.
If you want to read the Bible to win arguments, to appear knowledgeable, to impress God, or because you think reading the Bible may result in God granting you blessing or favor, perhaps you should revisit your motives. Do you want to read the Scripture in order to know God, to meet Jesus, to become better acquainted with the provocations of the Spirit? Do you want to grow in holiness, flee from sin, increase in love of neighbor, learn compassion for enemies, and more? Do you simply want to be the person God created you to be? What’s your reason for reading?
N. T. Wright said, “The Bible is the book of my life. It’s the book I live with, the book I live by, the book I want to die by.” Wright regards the Bible as a companion resource for life, a guide, and as instruction to prepare for death. He trusts that in and through it, God has spoken and that God speaks.
Why will you read it?
4. Acquire a Good Bible and a Few Study Tools
If you’re going to read the Bible it is a good idea to have one that is readable and accessible. All you may have is an old King James family Bible, its pages worn and hard to read. That’d be a start. But if you’re not familiar with ye Olde English, it might prove challenging.
A Bible commentary, like The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary. Commentaries come in multi-volume sets, and there are several good, reliable series. But having a one-volume commentary can come in handy, especially if you’re just beginning your study of the Bible and are building your theological library.
A Bible handbook, like Stephen Miller’s Complete Guide to the Bible. Zondervan also produces a Bible handbook; there are others. But Stephen has always been kind to me, and I count him as a friend.
5. Ask God for Help and Honor God’s Leadership
A. W. Tozer wrote, “The Bible is a supernatural book and can be understood only by supernatural aid.” That is true, to a point. All people can profit at some level from the reading of Scripture. But those who profit most will do so by seeking first to know God through the Bible. Any knowledge of God that we obtain is always a work of God’s supernatural grace.
That’s why you should ask for help. Pray while you read, and earnestly and simply ask God to enlighten your mind and enable you to understand. Apply what you learn. And if you ever feel challenged, that’s good. Maybe God is unearthing something that needs to change. Honor God’s leadership.
To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (” a man of one book”).
Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: – “Lord, is it not thy word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou ‘givest liberally, and upbraidest not.’ Thou hast said; ‘If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know, thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”
Wesley had a method. He entered solitude, welcomed God’s presence, opened the Scriptures, asked good questions of the text and of himself, lifted his heart to God and asked for help, read comparatively, meditated on what he had read, sought counsel from others, studied other books, and taught others what he had learned.
I read devotionally and acquisitively, and most often I employ the inductive Bible study method, which you can read about here.
7. Formulate a Plan for Study
Looking for a Bible study plan? Here are several. Here are others. If you have a study Bible, open it up and browse the introductory material. There is likely a plan there.
You could study one book of the Bible per month. If you did that for every book of the Bible, you could read the entire Bible in five and a half years. I read four chapters each day, plus a Psalm. I underline as I go and make notes. When I finish, I’ll choose another copy of the Bible and begin again. That’s my plan.
What’s your plan?
8. Set a Rhythm
I begin each day with Bible reading and prayer. That’s my rhythm. I have a daily reminder in my tasks, which helps me to stay on track.
Set an appointment on your calendar. Make it a daily task. Recruit a trustworthy friend to ask you if you have been routine in reading.
9. Let the Bible Read You
In Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue, C. Stephen Evans helpfully applies the wisdom of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to our reading of the Bible. Kierkegaard’s reading of James 1:22-27 led him to conclude that Scripture is like a mirror, reflecting God, reflecting itself, but also reflecting us. Evans observes, “One way we can go wrong is by making God’s Word simply an object of scholarship to be studied rather than reading it to hear God speak to us.”
In Self-Examination, Kierkegaard offered this advice in reading the Scriptures, “Remember to say yourself incessantly: It is I to whom it is speaking; it is I about whom it is speaking.” Through the Bible, God addresses us. When you understand the Bible, apply it. Put it into practice.
10. Stick With It
C H. Spurgeon said, ““Bible study is the metal that makes a Christian,” and A. W. Tozer remarked, “Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian.” Once you begin, stick with it. Don’t quit. And if you do stop for a while, don’t be overwhelmed by guilt. Begin again.
If it helps, bring to mind the words of Psalm 19:7-13, which says:
The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
I’ve given up more than once. I’ve bogged down in the commandments. I’ve gotten lost in a genealogy. But I’ve come back. I’ve made a new beginning. I’ve kept reading.
Jonathan Edwards is one of the greatest minds in American history. He is most well known as a Puritan minister, particularly for his role in the First Great Awakening, and is still read in literature and history courses for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Though known as “America’s Greatest Theologian,” his theological work also has significance for philosophy, particularly metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory.
Edwards is someone I have read, but not as closely and carefully to this point as I one day aspire to. But one document I have read is his “Resolutions,” which begins, “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.” He sets a guideline for himself, “Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.”
Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.
5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
9. Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
13. Resolved, to be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality.
17. Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
24. Resolved, whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then both carefully endeavor to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.
25. Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.
28. Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.
34. Resolved, in narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
37. Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed, and wherein I have denied myself: also at the end of every week, month and year.
42. Resolved, frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God,
which was made at my baptism; which I solemnly renewed, when I was received into the communion of the church; and which I have solemnly re-made this 12th day of January, 1722—23.
47. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good, and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented, easy, compassionate, generous, humble, meek, modest, submissive, obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable, even, patient, moderate, forgiving, sincere temper; and to do at all times what such a temper would lead me to. Examine strictly every week, whether I have done so.
52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.
56. Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.
67. Resolved, after afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them, what good I have got by them, and what I might have got by them.
70. Let there be something of benevolence, in all that I speak.
A close examination of the document shows that Edwards added to his list over time. His first list of resolutions was not his final list. He found room to grow, new resolutions, new matters of focus for his life with God.
Such a list clarifies convictions. It offers a helpful guide, a standard, and a rule for living.
These are not resolutions for a year, but for a lifetime.
As I’ve thought over what I wrote over the weekend about prayer, I’ve returned to the idea that prayer needs a context to make sense in our life with God. Prayer is not only about getting answers, or fixing problems, or changing the course of history, though God is certainly free to give us answers, or address our issues, or change our present reality. Prayer is a part of something bigger. It is not an isolated activity, but is part of a larger whole.
What is that larger whole?
Dallas Willard explains:
Hearing God’s word will never make sense except when it is set within a larger life of a certain kind.
To try to locate divine communication within human existence alienated from God is to return to idolatry, where God is there for our use. To try to solve life’s problems by getting a word from the Lord is to hide from life and from the dignity of the role God intended us to have in creation. As John Boykin remarks, “God does not exist to solve our problems.” We exist to stand up with God and count for something in this world.
We must ultimately move beyond the question of hearing God and into a life greater than our own–that of the kingdom of God. Our concern for discerning God’s voice must be overwhelmed by and lost in our worship and adoration of him and in our delight with his creation and his provision for our whole life. Our aim in such a life is to identify all that we are and all that we do with God’s purposes in creating us and our world. Thus, we learn how to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). That is, we come in all things to think and act so that his goodness, greatness and beauty will be as obvious as possible–not just to ourselves, but to those around us.
That’s the greater context. We pray, not so that we can fulfill a religious duty (one that can be undertaken either happily or unhappily), nor to get God to do what we want, but instead to be in relationship to God and to live according to God’s greater purposes, to learn how best to fulfill the purposes for which we have been made and the vocation to which we have been called.
Anglican priest and poet George Herbert said, “Prayer should be the key of the day and the lock of the night.” Martin Luther once remarked, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
But I’ve concluded that though people try to pray, want to pray, and desire to pray, they still wonder if they are doing it right, enough, or correctly. Countless times I have heard people say that they want something more. Friends have also shared they wish to be more disciplined. The longing, the hope itself, is a gift from God, a sign of God’s work, and a wonderful beginning.
If you want to develop a prayer habit, firstly take heart. The evidence of God’s activity and grace is found in the desire itself. God is drawing nigh to you. Draw near, then, to God.
Where Do I Begin?
In Luke 11:1-13, we are told Jesus was praying, and when he finished his disciples made a request, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus then offered his friend a set of words. In Luke’s account, it is a version of the Lord’s Prayer, the more familiar form of which is given in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus tells his disciples to address God, to ask that God’s kingdom come, to provide for us, forgive us, to help us forgive, to free us from temptation, and deliver us from evil. If this was all we had to go on when it comes to prayer, this alone would be a mighty foundation.
But again in Luke, Jesus follows the words of a prayer with instruction on the character of God. Jesus tells stories to illustrate. Read the passage. Jesus says that when we pray, we should be persistent and audacious, and that God will honor the bonds of friendship. He is even more faithful than the neighbor we might disturb in the middle of the night. Jesus encourages us to ask, seek, and knock.
Finally, he illustrates God’s way of relating to us like a parent by making a comparison to earthly parents. People give good gifts to their children, even though they are inclined toward evil. God, being good, certainly exceeds us in the capacity to provide good things, in a good manner. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask, not only for things, but for the Holy Spirit, who indwells those who trust in Christ. God not only provides what we need when we ask, but gives us God’s very self, which is, in fact, our greatest need.
If you wish to begin a prayer habit, be like the disciples. First, ask Jesus to teach you to pray. Then, pay attention to his teachings. Memorize his words. They can help you tremendously. Truly think and meditate on the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray. And as you do so, consider the character of God. Is God someone that you really want to know?
Generally speaking, we enjoy being with those we long to know better. We soak up the moments. We cherish common experiences. We tell stories. We share. It can be likewise with God, if only you give thought to who God is, and how among all beings who have ever existed or ever will exist, God is unsurpassed. God is the fullness of beauty and truth, the wellspring of grace, the font of wisdom and the source of all knowledge. God is always out for our good, and is the source of all love. We do not have to spend time with God, but God extends us the privilege. And God, being all-good, all-powerful, all-wise, and all patient, joins us in our concerns, whether large or small.
When, Where, and What Do I Pray, and How Do I Grow?
Prayer is presence and conversation, being with and talking with. It is a posture, an inclination, a disposition. Prayer is a way of speaking and listening. It is also a habit of heart and mind.
When, where, and what do you pray?
The answer: you are invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things.
God is concerned with your life. Not only your manner of religious devotion or even simply in your wants. But with you. God wants you to know him, and God desires to become an intimate friend to you. This means you are invited to pray throughout your day, wherever you are, and in whatever you are doing.
It is as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray continually.” In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul adds, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That’s the challenge, isn’t it? We’re invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things. But we find that we pray seldom, perhaps (hopefully!) in church, and concerning what we may consider small, self-focused matters–things we worry God might not care much about.
But God does care about those small things, and the things we ask in boldness–the “impossible” things. God cares, and is concerned, because we care and are concerned. God’s all surpassing goodness, power, mercy, and grace mean that it is well within God’s means to meet us exactly where we are and to provide for us in the exact manner that we most need.
In reading this you might feel guilty or overwhelmed. I understand. So let’s back up. The invitation to pray moves us toward an ongoing presence and conversation with God that concerns the totality of our lives. But in order to arrive there, we must start smaller, think incrementally, and, finally, act with consistency over time.
First, start small. If you want to develop a prayer habit, set aside one to five minutes a day to pray. Designate a place. I often pray at my desk with my morning cup of coffee. I keep a list of concerns, written in a notebook, that I have tabbed so that I can easily turn to the names and circumstances I want to remember before God. For many years, my prayer dwindled to, “Lord, teach me to pray.” Or, “Help.” Or, “I’m hurt.” Or, “Remember your promises!” Or, “Thanks.” God honored each prayer, I think, and my short prayers were a small enough act to keep me going, to keep me on the path.
Second, think incrementally. You may begin with a short prayer. You may begin with a short list of concerns. But that time you spend in prayer, and those concerns, may grow. You may want to begin memorizing Scripture, praying God’s words. You may want to routinely read one of these great prayers from the Bible:
Remember, you can make the words of Scripture your own. You do not have to pray “original” prayers. You can borrow words. There are other prayers in the Bible, and other passages. You may want to chose a verse that is meaningful to you and bring it to memory, like John 3:16 or Romans 8:37-39.
You may also want to buy a book of written prayers, those that either point you to daily Scripture readings or offer you other devotional material that can structure your time with God. I’ve used the following:
There are other helpful guides out there. Keep your eyes sharp, and your ears open. Another possibility is to download the Bible app from YouVersion and sign up for a reading plan.
Third and most critically, act with consistency over time. It has helped me to set daily reminders to review my prayer list, memorize Scripture, and to set a top priority. This is a list I consult at the beginning of each day. Doing each of these has become part of my morning routine, as has reading four chapters from Scripture and praying a selection from Psalms with my spouse.
Have I missed my appointment? Yes. Have I fallen behind? Yes. But then I start each day new. Don’t let guilt weigh you down. Remember God’s grace.
How Do I Remain Disciplined?
One of the greatest aids in remaining disciplined is to be extremely clear on the reason you began in the first place. One of the Desert Fathers, Abba Anthony said, “Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an ax. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.”
In Luke 14:28-33, Jesus put it this way:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
In Luke 14:27, Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” To follow Jesus, you give up everything. But consider what you gain! You gain him, and the life that he has promised. Therefore, whatever it is you give, what you will receive from God will be immeasurably greater, and definitely worthwhile.
Why do you want to pray? To impress God? No. Hopefully not. But if you to become more like Jesus, grow in holiness, and walk the path of discipleship, if you want to open the possibility that you will transform and change and become more like the person God designed you to be, then you’re more likely to remain disciplined, to stick with it.
Moreover, if you want to know God, prayer will lead you into a space where this is possible. That relationship, above all, is a treasure beyond compare.
How Does Prayer Shape My Life?
Mother Teresa said, “For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” She also said, “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer,” and observed, “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.”
Psalm 145:18 says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” Call on the Lord. Live as God’s friend. Serve others in the name of Jesus.
Prayer will shape you, will conform you to the image of Christ, Christ in you.
There is no such thing as a “magic pill” that can make you a great athlete or an accomplished musician, a master carpenter or a wise parent. We all know people who have an amazing talent or aptitude but have not realized their potential. The path to greatness, whether pursued consciously or unconsciously, is one that requires a rhythm of disciplined practice.
In the same way that no one becomes a great athlete or musician on the basis of a special talent alone, no one becomes like Jesus on the basis of a special gift from God alone. People grow–they become who they are–not because God zapped them while they walked across a field but because they make a conscious effort to respond to the grace of God and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, cultivate the gift they have received. Those who flourish in their lives with God have a Spirit-initiated rule of life, a rhythm ofpractices that enables them to welcome and respond to Jesus.
We grow via a Spirit-empowered and initiated response to the availability of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. For any positive change we experience, for any sign that we have become more like Jesus, praise be to God, for God is the initiator, the author, and the guide on the path of holiness. But to the degree that we are conscious of God’s work, we should also become consciously willing to take another step, to continue along the path, to grow in trust, to be sanctified in truth, and to answer the calling of Jesus, “Follow me.”
As Shigematsu says, flourishing in our life with God is fostered and supported by “a rhythm of practices,” or a way of life, a way that is flexible, life-giving, and grounded in God.
Does your spiritual life supported by a rhythm of practices? What are those practices?
Imagine a clock that was designed to keep time long after you were gone. Americans presently live an average of 78.69 years. Jeff Bezos helped fund the construction of a clock that will keep time 10,000 years. Assuming the next one hundred and twenty eight of your descendants live the average human life span, they may see Bezos’ clock tick its last tock.
This past winter, inside a mountain on Jeff Bezos’ sprawling West Texas ranch, Hillis and his colleagues began assembling the device. It is housed in a cylindrical 500-foot shaft cut into solid limestone. Visitors will enter through a jade-paneled door and climb a staircase that spirals around the clock’s gargantuan innards—5-ton counterweights, 8-foot stainless steel gears, a 6-foot titanium pendulum. If they choose to engage the clock’s winding mechanism, they’ll be rewarded with one of 3.65 million unique chimes composed by musician Brian Eno. But the effort is optional; at the top of the stairs is a cupola made of sapphire glass, which will keep the clock fed with thermal energy and sync it up with solar noon. Left unattended, it will mark the millennia on its own. Bezos, who helped pay for the project, told WIRED in 2011 that “whole civilizations will rise and fall” over the life of the clock. That leaves plenty of time to think about what’s beyond the four-zero barrier.
Human beings are geared more toward dealing with and facing immediate threats, deciding matters based on what benefits them most in the moment. But by taking the long view, when considering those who will come long after us, our perspective shifts and perhaps the decisions we make today will be less about ourselves and more about those who are to come after us, our posterity.
We’re a mist, a passing shadow, like grass that is renewed in the morning and in the evening fades. 10,000 years is a long time. But I hope to use this short span for good, and to leave something behind for those who will come after; hopefully something better, something good.
If you know me, you know I love books. Last week, I finished Jeff Pearlman’s Football for a Buck, which tells the story of the United States Football League. Pearlman is a great writer, I’m a sports nut, Donald Trump is part of the USFL’s story, and that made this interesting book more timely that it otherwise would’ve been. I also finished Michael Connelly’s latest Bosch and Ballard novel, Dark Sacred Night. I read everything Connelly writes. He’s a master of crime fiction, and Harry Bosch is one of my favorite characters in literature.
Amazon’s released their February Kindle deals. Here are a few notable books:
These are all either two or three bucks. The Name of the Rose is a detective novel, set in a monastery. I read it about ten years ago and enjoyed it. We’re using the Shigematsu book in my covenant group at Truett Seminary, and I think it is excellent. If you’ve struggled to formulate an approach to the spiritual life that works (meaning, in the past you’ve tried, got frustrated, and felt like you failed), you might want to check it out. I’ve enjoyed reading Henry Cloud, and thought those topics might be relevant to a few of my friends. Sider, McKnight, and Merton are authors I appreciate.
It is hard to judge the significance of our actions when so much of our life is mundane, repetitive, routine. We grow up, get educated, get a job, gain friendships, and go on with our days. Then we ask, “Is this it?”
This past week I listened to a friend who was reflecting on whether or not they were doing enough, whether they were settling, or if they should push, take risks, and do something big, whatever that might be. They wondered if they were missing out, whether or not they should be more like other friends in their same stage of life who had broken radically with their past, traveled the world, found employment in far off places, and appeared to be living a more exciting life. They wondered if that could be them, if those possibilities were open, or not.
These ponderings, and the longings associated with them, are both common and natural. It is good to be reflective and to ask if the path chosen is right, proper, and fitting. I thought every question, every thought being voiced by my friend was admirable and good, demonstrating self-awareness, humility, and an openness to change.
But to ask those questions, and to answer them well, another layer is needed. What is that layer?
It is easy to say, but hard to do.
We need evaluative criteria by which to judge the answers, to hold in check longings and desires which may only reflect our tendency to compare or our propensity for disquiet and restlessness, or, more darkly, our enviousness. There is a need for a sense not only of what is good, but what is good for me. Once we have established our criteria, we do the hard work of applying it to the life, circumstance, and the unique contours of the self, the person.
This isn’t easy to do. Why? Because we tend to judge our choices, and the choices of others, on the basis of a value set that has been determined by our time and place, what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called a “contemporary” or “the moment.” Kierkegaard saw that we needed another vantage, “the Eternal,” to determine the significance of an action, a choice, a life, or an accomplishment.
The “view of the moment” is often what we utilize in making judgments. But those same moments, if eternally understood, may be far more significant than we have imagined.
By the help of a sense perception, a living generation often believes itself able to pass judgment on a past generation, because it misunderstood the Good. And it is even guilty of committing the same offense against a contemporary. And yet it is just in regard to his contemporary that a man should know whether he has the view of the moment, or the view of the Eternal. At some later date, it is no art to decorate the graves of the noble and to say, “If they had only lived now,” now–just as we are starting to do the same thing against a contemporary. For the difficulty and the test of what dwells in the one who judges is precisely–the contemporary. The view of the moment is the opinion which in an earthly and busy sense decides whether a man accomplishes anything or not. And in this sense, nothing in the world has ever been so completely lost as was Christianity at the time that Christ was crucified. And in the understanding of the moment, never in the world has anyone accomplished so little by the sacrifice of a consecrated life as did Jesus Christ. And yet in the same instant, eternally understood, He had accomplished all. For He did not foolishly judge by the result that was not yet there, or more rightly (for here is the conflict and battleground of the two interpretations of what is meant by “accomplishing”) the result was indeed there.
Kierkegaard understood that the full result of our actions, though “there,” may not be fully seen by us in our time or moment.
In our daily lives, our actions, choices, rhythms and routines may appear to us to be mundane, but eternally understood those same actions may be filled with an incomprehensible significance we can only partially imagine. We need a vision of the Good, and the perspective of the Eternal.
This realization is a step, but only a small one, toward being more present to the people and responsibilities you assume each day, for while it is only natural to wonder whether one is stewarding one’s life well, we should not miss the opportunity to live in view of the Eternal and the Good, that which will last and never pass away, the kingdom of God, which is near and at hand.
One week ago today I visited Barnes & Noble and bought a Moleskine 2018-2019 daily planner. It was fifty percent off retail and my first major victory of the year, so I added it to my goals ex post facto: “Buy planner at discount.” That’s one way to keep your New Year’s Resolutions. Do, then record. Shoot, then aim.
I didn’t stop there, and I changed my methodology. I made forty goals. Some are very specific with measurable outcomes. Others are a trajectory. A few goals are continuations of a previous beginning; others are repeats of previous failures. As Bruce Lee said, “A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” Bruce Lee also said, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”
After aiming, action.
I divide my goals up into categories. The first is family. Most are simple. I plan to go on a date with Molly once per month. We have set financial goals for savings this year (and strategies to reduce expenses), as well as ways to spend time together as a family, including trips to the local zoo, using gift cards for our meals out when we have them, and going camping. I have a big organizational goal to catalogue my library, systematize my paper and digital files, and make accessible the thousands of photographs dispersed across multiple hard drives. I am fairly organized, but there is more I can do.
We know we are getting things right when we have peace at home. Our relationships to one another, to money, to our possessions, to our community, and to the natural world all require attention, each in their own way. Each relationship has bearing on the others. Peace is not only the absence of conflict, but the presence of harmony, wholeness. That’s what we want at home.
I am a Christian. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to grow, and growth involves change. There is a sense in which I will never fully arrive. The maturation process will be ongoing. But it is possible to mature. There is a process, and there is progress. It may not always be a straight line, but God brings about growth. Spiritual growth often involves three elements that I try to remember: Vision, Intention, and Means. See, decide, and do.
Philippians 2:12-13 is a helpful guide. Paul writes, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” God works in us, and we work our salvation out.
The inward changes God manifests in us take shape in our lives, and thus in the world, through obedience. Obedience isn’t such a nasty word when the one who commands is good, and the one who obeys freely wills to act, trust, and follow.
When we have a vision of who has God called us to be in Christ, we respond with an intention to follow (meaning, it is our sincere desire to become and do the things Jesus himself did and taught), and then we take up the means, or ways, God has made available to us, the same means Jesus himself utilized during his life, such as prayer, service, Bible study, solitude, silence, worship, fellowship, and others.
This year, our family has a specific target for financial stewardship as part of First Methodist Waco. Molly and I will make it a habit to read the Psalms together and pray daily. I’m reading through the Bible this year, learning to fast, teaching Sunday school, empowering others for leadership, and revisiting New Testament Greek (eek!).
I’ve shared with friends that I want to become wise, and I want to become a saint, and while I know I am a saint by virtue of my status in Christ, I want to reflect that reality more than I presently do, especially since I am cognizant there are times, moments, and maybe even prolonged interactions where I do not fulfill the calling I have as a disciple of Jesus. I want to be all God intends for me to be.
In our family we value strong, healthy bodies. In recent years we have learned about proper nutrition, wise food choices, and appropriate supplements, such as a daily multi-vitamin and Omega-3s. We’ve used Advocare products for a few years (and if you’d like to learn which ones and what we think, contact me). Have we always gotten it right? No! But have we learned? Yes.
I have set a target weight, an exercise routine, a specific number of race events I’d like to compete in this year, state parks I’d like to hike, and a way to approach playing basketball each week. My big goal in this area is fairly simple: have a healthy heart, working limbs, and the ability to enjoy time with my kids. I don’t have to be a bodybuilder, just sound and capable of fun.
Every person is creative. Some of us are just more aware of it than others. I write, take photographs, and draw. Those activities require creativity. In order to be creative in those endeavors, I need to read, learn, and grow. I plan to read sixty five books this year, take courses at the local community college in art, blog routinely, participate in a photo challenge, and be more disciplined in how I structure my work hours.
I also plan to spend more time in the kitchen and learn how to cook a few (more) things, which means Molly will be my teacher. I’m looking ahead to 2020, when I’ll attend a writers conference. That’s a sentence I never imagined myself writing.
Lastly, I have community goals. I want to be a good neighbor and grow my friendships, so I’ll put together a few poker games, work with others around me to organize a few block parties, and continue coaching youth sports. I also plan to give blood (I do not enjoy needles), but it is something I want to do, partly to honor one of my grandparents, and partly because I can and because it is right. Molly and I also plan to routinely invite friends over for dinner, to open our home and practice hospitality.
I review my goals daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually in various ways and to different degrees. If I accomplish all of my goals it will be borderline miraculous.
My greater hope is to become a better person. If I move marginally in that direction, that will be a win, and all praise, glory, and honor will be to God.