Spiritual Practices Should Not Be Drudgery
When I was in the first grade, the Sunday school class I attended had a poster board hanging on the wall with everyone's names to keep attendance. Every Sunday you were present, you got a little foil star to lick and then stick on the line by your name.
If you went a month without missing a Sunday, you got a big star to stick on the board to note that achievement.
The kids who had the most of those big stars at the end of the year would get a pin and a certificate and stand with the winners from the other classes, smiling broadly in front of the congregation on some random Sunday.
The prize should have been cash. That would have motivated me more than a pin I'd never wear and a certificate my mom would keep in some album.
But what I learned from that attendance board and the foil stars, and the affirmation of the congregation on some random Sunday (yep, I won one of those awards) was a misguided lesson that I carried with me for much of my life:
God likes me better when I work for God's approval.
This is one of the most insidious and wrongheaded notions we can have, but boy, do we hold on to it when we have it. It's hard to let go of, and sometimes no matter how enlightened we think we are about how God works, we can't shake it entirely.
This may resonate with you. You may have had that same notion and didn't know what to do with it.
It could be that you participate in the life of your church with that notion hanging around your neck the whole time. You attend Bible studies, go to worship on Sundays, get involved in small groups, serve on mission projects, and the entire time you're thinking, "Is this enough?"
Some of us dutifully read books on Christian living, daily devotions (like this one), and the like, hoping that somehow if we do that every day, we'll curry some favor with God to gain God's approval or just feel better about ourselves.
Here's the thing, when our motivation to pursue our spiritual development is grounded in simply "doing our duty" or hoping that God will be pleased with our effort, it can begin to feel hollow and meaningless over time.
Before we know it, we find ourselves struggling to find purpose, becoming disillusioned with our faith, our church, and even God. Or we live our life of faith with a sense of drudgery, putting one foot in front of the other, never feeling like we're getting anywhere.
But the fact of the matter is that all of the things we mentioned---attending church, bible studies, missional work, daily prayer, and reading---are life-giving activities when they are approached in healthy ways.
Theologian and author Brian McLaren once wrote the following, which speaks directly to this very thing:
But we will make clear from the start that the purpose of spiritual self-development is not to earn anything or merit anything. Rather it equips us for spiritual self-giving as an expression of love for God, self, others and our fellow creatures.
What if, instead of feeling like we ought to engage in spiritual practices, we approach them as something we get to do? What if we saw them as a path to grow closer to God and others, not some requirement?
What if we began to see spiritual self-development as a way to understand and learn to love ourselves, as we are loved by a God who wants us to flourish and live in abundance?
May you find ways to engage in spiritual practices today and every day from this day to discover joy in your faith, closeness with the Divine, and fellowship with the people around you.
May you also find peace as you learn more about who you are to God--and that you don't have to earn God's love. And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.