Helpful Comparisons

Via Liva Jan on Twitter

I had a seminary professor, Howard Hendricks, who warned his students against the dangers of comparison. At Dallas Theological Seminary, everyone received feedback on their work through a campus mail system. Students gathered near the campus mailboxes, pulled their papers, and the game began.

“What’d you get?”

“How’d you do?”

Hendricks said that if we did it in schoolwork, we’d do it in ministry. We would look at people who were leading churches that are growing numerically or launching new ventures or preaching to large crowds and make one of two mistakes.

If we were leading a growing ministry, we’d be susceptible to pride and self-conceit, thinking that our success could be traced to ourselves. Rather than giving God the glory, remembering the fruit we bear is a sign of God’s presence and grace or that our gifts and abilities trace themselves to God’s favor, and crediting countless co-laborers for their contributions to shared work, we act as though we are the ones who made everything go, that we did it all for God and that God and others should worship and thank us for all of the wonderful things that have taken place.

Conversely, if we work among rocky soil and see little signs of progress, labor among a sleepy congregation that is in need of renewal, or if we’re placed in a small community hidden from the attention of the world, we think we’re failing. We mistakenly believe that God has forgotten us or that the work that we are doing is insignificant in God’s sight. We compare our work to the wrong standard. We do not consider if we’re being faithful with the “talent” God has entrusted to us. Our service is not done unto the Lord. The comparison game leads us to look to others for our sense of well-being in ministry and in faith. As a result, we miss what God is doing in and through us right where we are.

I’ll confess this has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. Like most everyone, I have ambitions and the desire to be successful in what I do. I’ve wanted to “do great things for God” or to be admired. Rather than thinking about my calling, my need for growth, and my next step in faith before God, I’ve compared myself to others and how they are doing rather than considering carefully how I am doing.

The Christian difference here is that I am not only measuring my growth against myself. I am measuring my growth against Christ, in whom I am called to maturity. Ephesians 4:14-16 puts it this way:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Note that Paul calls each member to grow up into Christ. But as we grow, we do so as part of the fellowship of faith. In fact, membership within the body helps us to become all we’ve been created and redeemed to be in Christ, nourished within a kingdom ecosystem that allows each to flourish and to bear fruit that has been appointed in service to the whole.

One last thought that enables us to free ourselves from comparison to others: as part of a redeemed community, we remember that all other members, like us, were sinners in need of God’s grace. Therefore, there is no superiority. But we also remember that those who are part of the Christian community have been claimed by God’s love. Jesus died to demonstrate for us the depths of the love of God for us. Therefore, there is no inferiority. Christ died once, for all.

Boredom Can Be Okay

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If you are looking for a riveting interview, read Daniel Silliman’s conversation with Kevin Gary in Christianity Today. The subject? Boredom.

Boredom isn’t all bad. As a parent of two kids, I worry that they aren’t bored enough. Too many easy distractions are at hand, too much entertainment is far too available, and technology, wondrous thing that it is, can constrain just as much as it can free us to explore creative possibility.

And I’m probably not bored often enough. I’m just as prone to reach for my phone, an iPad, or a project in order to occupy my thoughts and my time.

Silliman and Gray talk about boredom: what it is, the problems it presents, and how we deal with it in our moment. At one point, their conversation turns to boredom, and Gray is asked about boredom in church and whether we should, occasionally, be bored during a service of worship. Gray responds:

Church services can be part of a boredom-avoidance scheme: “Let’s try to really entertaining with our music!” I do think that does us a disservice, because we’re guiding people to steer clear of boredom rather than engage with it.

It’s an uncomfortable mood state. But learning how to push through that to get to something enjoyable and meaningful is a discipline and, I would say, a virtuous practice.

With a liturgy, there’s nothing going on and then there are epiphanies where all of the sudden, significance breaks through. There’s a lot of tedium between the beginning and the end, but then there are moments of, Oh my gosh, this is joy. But you have to be patient with the bored state.

Gray is also asked what to do if we find ourselves bored during a church service. He advises:

More often than not, I just sit there in my head and mull around a bit. But I think that’s okay. I think that can be a good practice, to be in your head, thinking about your thoughts. I’ll ponder the Scripture and maybe compose my own sermon, how I would talk about them. That’s a way of attending to the text. But even if I’m not doing that, I think it’s a good thing to practice just sitting.

Apart from church, we no longer have many spaces where we sit with ourselves. I think there’s value in learning how to sit.

Boredom can be a gateway to creativity, insight, and innovation. It can also serve as a great occasion and reminder to just “be.”

A Way of Love, Joy, and Peace

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There is an emotional and even spiritual weight to life; we all feel it, especially as we age. An easy life is a myth, if not a red herring–the by-product of an advertising-drenched and social media-duped culture. Life is hard. Full stop. No comma, no but, no endnote. All the wise men and women of history have said as much; no new technology of substance or pill will ever erase humanity’s fall. Best-case scenario, we mitigate its effects as we advance Jesus’ return. But there’s no escaping the pain.

Why do you think there’s so much addiction in our world? No just substance abuse but more run-of-the-mill addictions to porn or sex or eating or dieting or exercise or work or travel or shopping or social media or even church?

And yet, even church can be an addiction, a dopamine hit you run toward to escape a father wound or emotional pain or an unhappy marriage…but that’s another book.

People all over the world–outside the church and in–are looking for an escape, a way out from under the crushing weight to life this side of Eden. But there is no escaping it. The best the world can offer is a temporary distraction to delay the inevitable or deny the inescapable.

That’s why Jesus doesn’t offer us an escape. He offers us something far better: “equipment.” He offers his apprentices a whole new way to bear the weight of our humanity: with ease. At this side. Like two oxen in a field, tied should to should. With Jesus doing all the heavy lifting. At this pace. Slow, unhurried, present to the moment, full of love and joy and peace.

An easy life isn’t an option; an easy yoke it.

John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry [affiliate link], p. 87-88

Jesus not only offers us “equipment.” He offers us himself. And he not only offers us himself in his incarnation and on the cross, or from his place at the right hand of the Father, or from heaven. He lives “in” his disciples. Our life is hidden with Christ in God, even as we are called to “put on” or “clothe” ourselves in Christ.

Comer is playing here with Matthew 11:29-30, driving home the notion that we must join our life to Jesus’ life, we must walk in step with him as his students, apprentices, and disciples, and learn his way. I’m leading a retreat this weekend, and this book will serve as grounds for discussion. We will explore the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence, Sabbath, simplicity, and slowing. Notice, in all of these disciplines, all of life must be ordered in such a way that creates space for their keeping and observance. They require ordering and differentiation. They necessitate clear choices and make more plain the pace, narratives, and commitments of the everyday culture and habits of life that subvert, compete with, and challenge the pace, story, and way of life in the kingdom of God.

In Disciples Indeed, Oswald Chambers wrote, “I have no right to say I believe in God unless I order my life as under His all-seeing Eye.” The gospel we often preach focuses on life in the world to come. But the good news of Christ is not only concerned with what’s next. It has implications for life as it is lived today. Following Jesus will not make life easier in the immediate. In some ways, it may make it harder, at least in the short term. But in the long run, faith in Jesus is wisdom, not only for the resources that will be near at hand for this life as a citizen in his kingdom, but for the ways in which it will prepare us to serve in God’s great universe in the coming world without end. Our souls are made for eternity. Apprenticeship to Jesus prepares us for all that eternity will hold, not only for lasting fellowship with God, but for service.

For Itself

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Here is Charles Bernstein’s Why Do You Love the Poem?

For the sentiment. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the sentiment.
For the message. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the message.
For the music. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the music.
For the spirit. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the spirit.
For the intelligence. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the intelligence. 
For the courage. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the courage.
For the inspiration. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the inspiration. 
For the emotion. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the emotion. 
For the vocabulary. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the vocabulary. 
For the poet. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the poet.
For the meaning. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the meaning.
For what it stands for. — Then you don’t love the poem you love what it stands for.
For the words. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the words.
For the syntax. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the syntax.
For the politics. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the politics.
For the beauty. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the beauty.
For the outrage. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the outrage.
For the tenderness. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the tenderness.
For the hope. — Then you don’t love the poem you love the hope. 
For itself. — Then you love the poem.

From poets.org

This poem arrived in my inbox on July 27, and I’ve kept it there, returning now and again. I subscribe to their poem-a-day email newsletter. Not every selection that hits my inbox connects with me. Most don’t. But this one has hung with me.

My reason for returning is tangentially related to the poem. Bernstein makes a fine distinction between our appreciation of a thing for what it is in itself and our appreciation of a thing for its benefits. He’s right to do so. Our love for a thing can be self-centered rather than other-centered. We get this wrong all the time.

This isn’t just true of poems, or movies, or painting or other forms of art. It can be true of our relationships with friends, family, loved ones. It can be true of our relationship to God.

That’s why we should always search our hearts and examine our motivations. Do we love first because of a benefit we receive or because of an appreciation of something intrinsically good, true, and beautiful standing apart from my experience?

If we get the order wrong, we dishonor the moment, the person, the encounter. But if we get the order right, the benefits only increase in their richness, glowing more magnificently, appreciated more deeply, because we have rightly appraised their source.

Brother Lawrence on How to Practice God’s Presence

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The presence of God is the concentration of the soul’s attention on God, remembering that He is always present.

I know a person who for forty years has practiced the presence of God, to which he gives several other names. Sometimes he calls it a simple act–a clear and distinct knowledge of God–and sometimes he calls it a vague view or a general, loving look at God–a remembrance of Him. He also refers to it as attention to God, silent communion with God, confidence in God, or the life and peace of the soul. To sum up, this person has told me that all these descriptions of the presence of God are merely synonyms that signify the same thing, a reality that has become natural to him.

My friend says that by dwelling in the presence of God he has established such a sweet communion with the Lord that His spirit abides, without much effort, in the restful peace of God. In this center of rest, he is filled with a faith that equips him to handle anything that comes into his life.

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, p. 67

Brother Lawrence stresses this kind of communion with God is by God’s grace, that it is the result of sustained attention and discipline, and that it occurs in the depths of a person at the level of soul as a result of cultivated heart to heart interaction between the individual and God. This kind of interaction may seem natural once it has become established in life, but only in the sense that it is the kind of interaction with God that we were made for, having experienced a supernatural restoration through the workings of God’s grace that is what Christians mean when they speak of salvation’s fullness. Salvation is not only rescue, but healing.

Many Christian people I know desire this kind of interactive, steady, ongoing interaction with God. But others do not believe it is possible–at least not for them. Brother Lawrence states that this is possible. Indeed, believing that it is possible opens the door to the realization of dwelling more fully in God’s presence.

Brother Lawrence then describes the means. First “is a new life, received by salvation through the blood of Christ.” This Carmelite lay brother, recording his wisdom in the seventeenth century, understood that entry into God’s presence involved the receiving of new life, or regeneration.

The second means is “faithfully practicing God’s presence.” Simple. Or so it sounds. Doing this requires that “the soul’s eyes must be kept on God, particularly when something is being done in the outside world.” Maybe it isn’t so simple. But be patient. The key is stick-to-itiveness. Brother Lawrence writes, “Since much time and effort are needed to perfect this practice, one should not be discouraged by failure.”

Knowing this is a challenging but indispensable practice for the spiritual life, since all that we speak and feel and think and do is a reflection of the condition of our hearts before God, Brother Lawrence counsels that, as you begin seeking to practice God’s presence, “it would not be wrong to offer short phrases that are inspired by love, such as ‘Lord, I am all Yours,’ ‘God of love, I love you with all my heart,’ or ‘Lord, use me according to Your will.’ However, remember to keep the mind from wandering or returning to the world. Hold you attention on God alone by exercising your will to remain in His presence.” When you attention wanes, you speak reminders over your life. This is prayer.

The foremost challenge I experience in practicing this spiritual discipline is remembering, and attention. Brother Lawrence writes that we practice God’s presence by first remembering God is present. Turning the focus of the full self toward God, we make operative what we already confess and, by experience, confirm to be true. God is with us. We then learn to remain with God, not only in moments of quiet time or devotion (though these are immense helpful when kept and observed), but in all of life’s moments.

The Christian hope includes the belief that we will spend eternity in the presence of God. What we now experience in part, we will then receive in full. Why not begin experiencing a greater glimpse of what that means now? “As now, so then,” as one of my old teachers would say. We may not only benefit by living more completing in the love and joy and power that is found in Christ. We will then also magnify Christ as we become increasingly conformed to him.

An Unbroken Life of Humble Quiet Adoration

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But to some at least He gives an amazing stayedness in Him, a well-nigh unbroken life of humble quiet adoration in His Presence, in the depths of our being. Day and night, winter and summer, sunshine and shadow, He is here, the great Champion. And we are with Him, held in His Tenderness, quickened into quietness and peace, children in Paradise before the Fall, walking with Him in the garden in the heat as well as the cool of the day. Here is not ecstasy but serenity, unshakeableness, firmness of life-orientation. We are become what [George] Fox calls “established men.”

Such men are not found merely among the canonized Saints of the Church. They are the John Woolmans of today. They are housewives and hand workers, plumbers and teachers, learned and unlettered, black and white, poor and perchance even rich. They exist, and happy is the church that contains them. They may not be known widely, nor serve on boards of trustees, or preach in pulpits. Where pride in one’s learning is found, there they are not. For they do not confuse acquaintance with theology and church history with commitment and the life lived in the secret sanctuary. Cleaving simply through forms and externals, they dwell in immediacy with Him who is the abiding Light behind all changing forms, really nullifying much of the external trappings of religion. They have found the secret of the Nazarene, and, not content to assent to it intellectually, they have committed themselves to it in action, and walk in newness of life in the vast fellowship of unceasing prayer.

Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 15-16

You could be one of these people. I could be one of these people.

Kelly writes about the life of inward prayer in a way that is clear and compelling, showing how prayer can be cultivated from the level of our conscious thought life and progressing further, deeper within, to become the rooted and established orientation of the soul. This is what he means by “an amazing stayedness,” or a “well-nigh unbroken life of quiet adoration.” How is this cultivated? By a conscious decision of the will, and a steadfast commitment of the heart. And, of course, God’s grace.

Psalm 16:8 says, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” With practice and a disciplining of the heart and mind, this is possible. You could be one of these people. I could be one of these people.

Planning Toward Spiritual Growth

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The crucial thing is that, as disciples, we have a plan for carrying out the decision we have made to devote ourselves to becoming like our master and lord–to increasingly live in the character and power of Christ. Disciples are those who, seriously intending to become like Jesus from the inside out, systematically and progressively rearrange their affairs to that end, under the guidance of the word and the spirit. This is how the disciple lives.

Dallas Willard, “Discipleship as Apprenticeship” in Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks, p. 284

When I was a seminarian, I wrote a twenty-eight page “life vision” document. I offered my autobiography, analyzed my life’s ups and downs to that moment, considered my gifts and opportunities, articulated my understanding of my call, outlined my goals, and presented a vision for what my life with God might look like. In the few years following this assignment I returned to this document now and again. It’s on a hard drive somewhere in the bottom of a drawer now. I did find it a helpful exercise at the time. It got me to think carefully about my intentions.

In the past five years, I have relied upon a personal “rule of life” document that contains daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual commitments that are practical, measurable and move me toward growth in my life with God. It is one page long and hangs on the wall in my home office. Most of the commitments found there have been integrated into my routines. I live in “close contact” with these commitments. So when I review this document, it is often to quickly gauge the degree to which I am living in accord with the practices I have identified, to notice if I am off track, and to make course corrections as necessary, all to the end of keeping me on track concerning my big goal, which is becoming the person God has made me to be in Christ Jesus.

Having a plan to “increasingly live in the character of power of Christ” is not constraining. The plan I have developed has been a prayerful undertaking. It has been born of trial and error, careful study, and a yielding of the self to Jesus and his leadership. Because it is not written in stone, it is subject to change if God leads in a different direction. I have asked Jesus to make me more like him. He has a clear view of what that might mean. I do not. My understanding is partial, at best, and in certain crucial respects even at the present moment, likely mistaken.

My decision to devote myself to becoming like Jesus began with the realization when I was young that Jesus knew what he was talking about. He was to be obeyed, not because he was God, though that fact is not inconsequential. Rather, Jesus appeared to me then to be undeniably good. His life had authority. I consider this an evidence of grace. Then, later, I began to see that Jesus not only was very wise and reliable as a moral teacher, and not only offered a way of salvation after death, but invited me to experience life with him now in his present, open, and available kingdom.

In the school where I serve now, we invite students to develop a personal covenant or rule of life. We ask them to discern the contours of their life with God and to begin walking the path that Jesus invites them to tread. This plan for discipleship includes the practice of the Christian spiritual disciplines. It also includes the act of envisioning Jesus himself, leading the student along life’s way, not only toward an eternal destination, but in becoming a particular kind of person suited to dwell in eternity, a person displaying Christ “in” them to those whom they encounter, whether at a hospital bedside or a check-out line, in five o’clock traffic or on a pew.

Most Christian people I know are living according to a “way,” having integrated certain habits, practices, and ways of living and being which orient them toward God. The majority of their commitments “stuck” as a result of participation in a community of faith. If asked, they will share that they pray, or routinely worship God, or even study the Bible. They may feel as though they are failing or flailing, but if asked, they will certainly say that they are followers of Jesus Christ, that they desire to know him more fully and resemble him more closely.

But if pressed, I wonder how many of my friends would say they have a plan, that they are “systematically and progressively seeking to rearranged their affairs” to align with Christ and the character of Christ so that he would be made increasingly manifest in their lives. I wonder how many would see that as a sensible or possible outcome of discipleship to Jesus, or as a worthwhile undertaking.

If we desire to work in a particular field and need to receive training in order to have a job in that field, most of us would know we’d be required to save money or secure a loan, go through an application process, complete a course of study, and then use a credential to help us to get a job. Or if we wanted to play a piece of music, or learn a language, we would feel confident in identifying the kinds of things we’d need to plan on and for toward those given ends, and how to evaluate progress in reaching our goal.

We do not possess that same confidence when it comes to Christian discipleship. But this need not be so. The elements needed in order to become like Christ are available to us, for he is available to us. We have access to Jesus and his life through reading the gospels. But we also have access to him through prayer, for he is “with” us. God is with us. If we wish to grow like Christ and live more fully in his kingdom, we simply ask, and he hears us. He will help us to identify the means for growth in him. Those who ask, receive. Those who seek, find.

My Chief Care

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My chief care should not be to find pleasure or success, health or life or money or rest or even things like virtue and wisdom–still less their opposites, pain, failure, sickness, and death. But in all that happens, my one desire and my one joy should be to know: “Here is the thing that God has willed for me. In this His love is found, and in accepting this I can give back His love to Him and give myself with it to Him. For in giving myself I shall find Him and He is life everlasting.”

By consenting to His will with joy and doing it with gladness I have His love in my heart, because my will is now the same as His love and I am on the way to becoming what He is, Who is Love. And by accepting all things from Him I receive His joy into my soul, not because things are what they are but because God is Who He is, and His love has willed my joy in them all.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 17-18

Yes. But it can be hard to do.

It becomes easier when one obtains a clear, compelling, truthful, robust, rich, more-fully-comprehensive, sought-after, earnest, biblically-shaped, experientially-informed vision of God. Merton writes the above because he possessed such a vision, a vision of the God “Who is Love,” revealed as Trinity, one God, three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yielding to God and actualizing the divine will becomes an “easy yoke,” to use imagery from Jesus, when one knows intellectually and existentially that God is out for our ultimate good in any and every circumstance in which we find ourselves.

How do we get there? How does it become easier to make my chief care “the thing God has willed for me?” Thinking on God is a beginning. Having thought, and entering a place of worship, not only points us toward our destination. It is itself the path. We do not only make this or that decision as a sacrifice or offering to God. We ourselves become the living sacrifices who are by grace transformed into the image and likeness of the Christ, who leads us in the doing of God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.

It is one thing to know the good. It is quite another to become the kind of person who is able to do the thing God has willed. In Christ, becoming the latter is our invitation and opportunity, opened to us by virtue of the resources made available to us by Jesus, presented to us in his kingdom.

Keeping God Before Us

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Last week I relayed a thought from Dallas Willard (1935-2013) explaining that to think of God rightly, in a manner leading to worship, “is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining the spiritual formation of the whole person.”

Here is Henry Scougal (1650-1678) suggesting much the same thing:

The awareness and remembrance of the divine presence is the most ready and effectual means both to discover what is unlawful and to restrain us from it. There are some things a person could attempt to mitigate or defend, and yet he would not dare to look almighty God in the face and then set out to do them. If we look to him, we shall be enlightened. If we set him always before us, he will guide us by his eye and instruct us in the way wherein we ought to walk (Psalm 32:8).

The Life of God in the Soul of Man, p. 133

Scougal observed that many believe Christianity, or the true nature of religion and spirituality, to be a matter of orthodox belief or doctrine, outward behavior or ethics, and/or emotion or ecstatic experience. But religious faith in the Christian tradition, while it may involve such things, is none of these in and of themselves. Rather, Scougal writes, true religion “is union of the soul with God. It is a participation in the divine nature. It is the very image of God drawn upon the soul. In the apostle’s words, it is Christ formed within us” (p. 29). Scougal refers to this as “a divine life.”

Biblical and theological knowledge helps us to know God as God has been revealed to humankind, and a careful study of the history of the Christian movement and the conclusions reached concerning sound and reliable teaching by God’s grace and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit are helpful for our own journey. So, too, is the adoption of patterns of life and protocols for decision making that result in godly action. Furthermore, there are feelings and emotions evoked by the contemplation of a transcendent truth, the observation of the nature’s wonders, or the participation in a healthy, vibrant community that can encourage us and inspire us along life’s long and difficult way.

But there is no substitute for a personal relationship with God stemming from an open and wholehearted response to God’s invitation to fellowship, made possible to us not through a doctrine, or an ethic, or a feeling, but through a person: Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:1-3 puts it this way:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

The invitation is open to all, to know and to be in relationship with the “life” who has appeared, who through faith imparts to us the gift of fellowship with God, and through fellowship establishes within us “the divine life.”

The Most Powerful Force in the Spiritual Formation of the Human Person

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As disciples engage in the practice of placing Jesus Christ at center stage in every branch of human knowledge, they are simultaneously being encouraged to train their thoughts ever upon God. In this way they enter not only a life of study, but also a life of worship.

To think of God rightly, as God is, one cannot help but lapse into worship; and worship is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining the spiritual formation of the whole person. Worship naturally arises from thinking rightly of God on the basis of revealed truth confirmed in experience. We say flatly: worship is at once the overall character of the renovated though life and the only safe place for any human being to stand.

Dallas Willard, “Transformation of the Mind” in Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks [affiliate link]