Read, pray, serve—these are the disciplines of a Christo-centric life, we are taught. So we, the children, do do do our best to carry the load. We read read read, memorize the classics: John 3:16, Romans 8:28, Psalm 1:1. We sit by early morning light and pray pray pray, rub against the notion of prayer, treat it like the bottle from which the smoke of our genie-god rises. We serve serve serve, pass out bread at the homeless shelter, protest with the oppressed community, mow the lawn of every church widow. Serving, we hope, will conjure feelings of Christ-likeness, of living in fidelity.
Read, pray, serve; read, pray, serve; read, pray, serve. Rinse and repeat for forty days, for two years, for a lifetime.
In an honest moment, though, ask yourself—do I sense the presence of God in these disciplines?
There was a season in which I was a drunk. Typing that sentence is painful, but typing this one is worse: while I was a drunk, I was a by-God reading, praying, and serving Christian drunk. I hid my addictions behind the merit badges of Christian practice. After all, if I played the part, if I looked the part, who would be the wiser?
The truth is, I’m not sure I recognized what I was doing. I don’t know whether I realized I had long since forgotten the notion of a present, abiding God. Instead, I hoped that the motions of the spiritual life would somehow save me. Brick by brick, I piled them up—read and apply a layer of mortar; pray and add a layer of mortar; serve and add a layer of mortar. Higher and higher, brick by brick, my spiritual disciplines reached to the heavens. My, what a big altar I had built.
See what I’m doing here? Idol-making is a sneaky thing.
In his book, Beloved Dust (co-authored by Kyle Strobel), Jamin Goggin writes, “[p]erhaps nothing is as subtle and deceptive as the ease with which our forms of worshipping God (reading the Bible, singing, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, serving the poor, etc.) can be used for our own self-worship.”
See what he did there? Idol-recognition is a stinging thing.
In the days of my coming clean, I realized the truth of my own idol-construction. By grace and the counseling of a good therapist, I found a God that was less concerned with my acts of righteousness and fidelity. He was less concerned with my sacrifices, with my altars-turned-towers of Christian activity. Jesus, abiding friend to sinners as he was, wanted something more conversational.
Thousands of words could be written about this experience, and this is neither the time nor place. Instead, carve out a few minutes of silence and ask yourself these questions:
do I find the abiding, restful, friendly presence of God in the reading, praying, and serving?
Or, if I’m honest, is all this work sucking me dry; does it feel like the tiring work of monument building.
If you find no life in the reading, praying, and serving, then—pardon my meddling—you are missing the point. Disciplines flowing from white-knuckled fidelity are snares waiting to spring. But when flowing from love, from broken-down and humble devotion to an abiding, present God, they don’t feel quite so much like disciplines at all. Instead, they might be described quite simply as conversational, as communal, as acts of friendship.
OCTOBER’S TINY LETTER IS HERE!
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