By J. Aaron White
It’s an odd condition. A man reads weighty theological books written by other men who, in their lifetimes, exemplified spiritually disciplined lives. From the patristics to the Reformers to the Puritans, page after page of this man’s personal library is filled with exhortations to fervent prayer, diligent study, selfless service, biblical meditation, and a dogged warfare against indwelling sin. Yet the man himself develops an allergy of sorts toward the lifestyle prescribed by his beloved authors. When called to a more disciplined and strategic pursuit of godliness, his face swells and his lungs tighten. With a gasp of air, he unleashes the only epithet he can muster amid the onset of his allergic reaction and exclaims, “Legalist!”
Can the pursuit of a spiritually disciplined life potentially be nothing more than rank legalism? Yes. However, does Scripture promise sanctification and growth in the Christian life apart from our grace-empowered efforts? No. Let’s consider the following passages:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29).
“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).
“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
“…work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7).
A saying heard in many military and paramilitary circles is If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The same could be said of developing spiritual muscle. So, let’s consider some practical ways that we can structure our lives so that we maximize our efforts in the pursuit of godliness in the coming year:
1. Plan to Pray – Martin Luther once said: “As is the business of tailors to make clothes and cobblers to make shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray.” Although Christians know that prayer is an integral part of their spiritual development, they often find themselves nodding off in the garden while the Master goes on to pray alone. We must plan to pray. Block off times in your schedule and label them PRAYER. Plan to pray or, as many of us know, it won’t happen.
2. Plan to Study – R. C. Sproul doesn’t mince words: “Here then is the real problem of our negligence [in study]. We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work.” The reward of discovering jewels in God’s gold mine is immense, but there is a cost. Consider choosing a particular book of the Bible to become an expert in (well, sort of). Then, go out and buy a few commentaries pertaining to that book and start digging in. Don’t be afraid to pencil in set times of study too!
3. Plan to Meditate – No, not that kind of meditation! Scripture speaks of meditation as filling one’s mind rather than emptying it: “…his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2). After studying a section of Scripture, put your books down and go about your day. As you go, think on and mull over a specific point, verse, or word. This doesn’t just happen; there are a million distractions that come our way in life, so we must commit ourselves to the fruitful task of daily meditation.
4. Plan to Confess – Even though the cross stands as the ultimate reminder that confessing our sin should be a joyful, life-giving endeavor (Romans 8:30-34), we are still prone to act like our father Adam and hide in the bushes. It’s safer in the bushes since we don’t have to do the messy and difficult work of coming out into the light and taking ownership of our failures. Therefore, plan to confess. Find another believer and plan to confess your sins one to another. Moreover, encourage one another to fight and kill those sins (Heb. 3:12-14).
5. Plan to Evangelize – There are few spiritual disciplines as scary as this one; yet, the joy that inevitably accompanies it is sweet indeed. Plan to share the gospel as you move into your various circles of influence. Give a theologically helpful book to your kid’s gymnastics teacher, give a gospel tract to another mom at the park, ask the hairdresser if she goes to church, or tell your favorite barista that you’ve been praying for them. Place a reminder on your car’s steering wheel that will provoke you to think about such things as you head out into the chaos of another day.
A joyfully disciplined Christian life that pursues God as a treasure worth having is not legalism. The great theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) preached extensively on delighting in and enjoying God. Yet he was also known as an intensely disciplined man: “Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of” (Resolutions, #22). If you build up your spiritual antibodies through the joyful development of godly disciplines, you will likely never suffer from the strange allergy that winces at the call to godliness. I pray that 2021 finds us planning and scheming to obtain maximum joy in God!