If you read my last two posts, I attempted to make some helpful observations on the positive and negative aspects of tradition. I barely scratched the surface. I’ve enjoyed lively discussions, both within our team and with some of you readers. Many questions have emerged. Do our communities work too hard to preserve their specific identities instead of simply following Christ? Can traditions hurt our chances of reaching “outsiders”? These questions are fascinating; I hope we can address them in future articles. But for now, I’d like to take a step away from questions of church politics and practice, turning our attention in a personal direction. How do we respond to our tendency to establish patterns and routines? How does this influence our spiritual life? Ultimately, if we are going to see positive changes in our churches, it will start at a personal level. Before we fold our arms and pass judgment on shortcomings in our communities, I’d like us to look at our own lives to see if we truly exemplify the kind of reality we want to see in the church at large.
If we think our surrounding churches are steeped in lethargic ritual, we might be surprised how much we are guilty of the same thing in our own lives. In my own life, I’ve been startled to see how easily true spiritual discovery can be lost. At times I feel God’s presence powerfully, coming to understand aspects of His character and the Christian life in a deeper way. These moments are transformative, but too often as time moves on, I find myself following the same ideas without the same sense of intimacy. I’ve lost the framework that initially fueled my excitement. What’s happening? Somehow, instead of pursuing truth and intimate fellowship with Christ, I succumb to complacency.
This tendency has frustrated me. It is particularly deadly because it doesn’t happen consciously. I don’t start thinking, Hey, well I think I can afford to settle down now. I don’t need the same intensity in my walk with Christ. On the contrary, I’m dreaming big, excited about potential opportunities. But as I’ve seen God come through, my hunger for Him can be lessened. I wrote about this struggle in my earlier post, Hard Lessons in Success. After writing that post, at times it seemed I was watching the same lessons be played out all over again. I’d have a moment of success, become complacent, then lose the high ground I’d gained. It doesn’t feel good to stand back, hopelessly watching a bad scenario play itself out. But that’s how it felt.
I knew there had to be a better way. I knew God didn’t want me continually going through this cycle. What could be done? As I searched for understanding, I noticed a pattern. Whenever this sense of complacency kicked in, it was accompanied by a decrease in both the length and intensity of my prayers. In the past, I assumed this was a symptom of my problem, not a cause. After all, if I was losing focus in my Christian walk, no wonder my prayers were dry. In many cases, I could look back just two or three days to a time when I felt a tangible sense of God’s presence, often in personal prayer time. A powerful prayer time every two or three days is rather frequent, isn’t it?
That’s what I told myself. It wasn’t that I forgot to pray. I was still praying daily, but I thought the longer, extended times of prayer wouldn’t need to happen as often. So I’d have half an hour on the road and I’d think, Well, I had a long prayer time yesterday. I’ve been disciplined today and life is good. So maybe I’d pray briefly but without much urgency. Then two days later I’d wonder, Why does life seem so discouraging? Nothing has actually gone wrong, but my enthusiasm for life has evaporated. I’d start to analyze my own life, wondering if there was a structural problem in how I was spending my time, some relationship issue, etc. Somehow I wouldn’t tend to think, Oh, maybe I just need to cry out to God right now. I haven’t deeply done that in a couple of days.
But once I started to directly combat my prayerlessness, I was amazed. No, it doesn’t eliminate difficult days. But that sense of spiritual mundaneness leaves. If I’m having a difficult day, I’m aware of it, but when I choose to engage in intentional prayer, the lukewarmness goes away. Instead of feeling complacent, I recognize I’m part of a battle. I’m learning to allow the lack of feelings I experience to drive me to pray. God, why am I not feeling Your presence today in the way I did yesterday? If you don’t come through for me today, I’m incapable of getting through in my own strength.
I wonder if there is something significant about Jesus’ call to take up our cross daily.¹ This requires continual renewal of commitment. As we go about our lives, different challenges arise. Sometimes there are needs so pressing that we find ourselves crying out to God almost involuntarily. But other times our feelings are indifferent. We don’t sense the same urgency—it just feels like a drab day. Do we accept the idea that we simply need to go through our day feeling that way? Maybe we’d be better off if we viewed those days as self-inflicted. If we haven’t made it a priority to seek the Lord, why do we act surprised when our day seems so mediocre?
I’m not suggesting that every day will seem fresh and that God will always seem equally near. Our feelings will rise and fall. Can we take the example of David, who acknowledged that he was discouraged yet still made the conscious decision to praise God?² Once we allow our feelings to dictate our prayer life, we are going to lose our connection with God right at the time we need it most. There is never going to be a day where we can get through relying on yesterday’s energy or experience. But the Lord’s mercies are new every morning; God has faithfully provided for our needs and understands our need for a fresh touch.³
So I’d challenge you to think about your daily life. Perhaps you consistently make time to read your Bible and pray every day. But are you truly taking the time to have a meaningful connection? Or are you rushing through a reading plan, breathing a quick prayer, and then hurrying off to work? A strong relationship with Christ requires much more intentionality. I’ve challenged myself to make sure I set aside a certain amount of time every day to seek Him, regardless of my schedule or my mood. If we wait to “see how it goes,” most of the time this will mean we don’t spend much time with the Lord. Interruptions happen, we get consumed with the stress of the day, and the day slips through our fingers. May we set our hearts and minds to daily cry out to the Lord!
¹ Luke 9:23
² Psalm 42:5
³ Lamentations 3:22,23