The Spiritual Disciplines You Didn't Choose
God wants to move us from a place of rebellion and resignation to acceptance and joy.
There are two kinds of spiritual disciplines but today I want to talk about the kind that we understand less and that we struggle with more. The first kind of spiritual disciplines are the ones we choose. Those are the ones most people think of when it comes to Lent. If you've been hanging around our church offices last week you may have overheard somebody say, "I'm giving up coffee," or, "I'm giving up chocolate," or, "That's nothing, I'm giving up Facebook."
We understand these disciplines. They're the ones that were in the gospel reading where Jesus says to his followers: "When you give to people in need … when you pray … when you fast." He assumes that you will do this. As a follower of Christ it will be a part of your life to choose spiritual disciplines like this. And he makes this one central point: When you do them, don't ever do them to try to prove to yourself or someone else how spiritual you are.
The only reason to do the spiritual disciplines that you choose is because you have a Heavenly Father who sees you, who longs to draw you close, and who wants to reward you with the intimacy of his presence, with the tenderness of his compassionate word to you, who wants to give you the grace that you need for this moment. And that reward, that should be so compelling that yes, you would even do these disciplines as difficult as they are. It is not easy to give money when you know you might need it. In fact, you do need it. It's not easy to pray, to set aside time and to stop our motion and the self-management of our life and cry out in need. It is not easy to fast and go without food or something and feel the hunger. And yet as hard as those disciplines are, most Christians I know would say they are not as hard as the spiritual disciplines you don't choose.
Let's look at those. Jesus teaches about this type of spiritual discipline in Matthew 5. For example, in Matthew 5:11 he says, "God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers." I don't know one person who said to themselves this year, "You know what, for Lent this is what I'm going to do, I'm going to be mocked, lied about and slandered; that's my discipline for this season of my life." And yet a sovereign God allows this type of discipline into our lives. Why would he do that? How do we make sense of that? How would we even begin to respond to that? I want to look at that together with you this evening.
Trials of Many Kinds
First of all, the spiritual disciplines you don't choose are described by James as trials of many kinds, so your spiritual discipline that you didn't choose is going to be different from someone else's. In other words, they can come in all shapes and sizes. But they have this in common: they test our faith. What that means is they knock us off balance, they make us wobble in our faith, and suddenly we're asking questions like, "God, where are you? What possible sense could this situation have for me? I don't understand that, God." And our faith begins to wobble. That is the many of kind of trials that James talks about, the trials that come to test your faith.
Now at this point in the sermon it would be tempting to insert an illustration about someone going through a trial and how they handled it. But today I want you to supply that personal story. I want you to think about this question: what is the spiritual discipline in your life that you did not choose. It is a situation that has come into your life. You didn't want it, and you don't want it now. If it was in your power you would remove it. But there it is. And it is painful, and it is rocking you. You don't understand what God would be doing through that trial. You don't see how that could fit together with a good and loving God's purpose for your life, and yet here it is.
What is that for you? For some of you it may be a child who has special needs, maybe there's severe allergies, there are learning disabilities, there is something that is time consuming, awkward, expensive, and it frustrates your child and it frustrates you because you see them struggling with it. Maybe it's a job. Why can't you get a job in this crazy economy? Or maybe you've got a job but you're underemployed and it is frustrating. Or maybe it is a health thing where it is getting worse and worse and it is expensive, frightening, embarrassing, and hard to deal with. Maybe it is a relationship where you've been reaching out and you're getting nothing coming back. How many of you have identified something like that now?
Three Responses to Trials
Now, how in the world do you respond to that? This has come into your life under the providence of a sovereign God and it is a trial that is testing your faith. It's a spiritual discipline you did not choose. I want to suggest three ways that you can respond to that, and some of these insights I'm drawing from or adapting from this little book called Interior Freedom by Jacques Philippe, a French writer. I recommend it.
Philippe says the first way you can respond to this kind of situation in your life is you can rebel. You push back against it, you fight against it, and you get angry. You're mad at God, you're mad at the world, you're mad any anybody who had something to do with this. Maybe it was a doctor, maybe it was a teacher, maybe it was somebody at your work and you're just pushing back, you're complaining, your friends are hearing about it from you, and you rebel. I think that for Americans that is kind of our default position. I think that is probably the most popular response.
A second way you can respond is to resign. You believe you are powerless in this trial, and you lie down. Now, in a way that is a move forward because you're acknowledging your powerlessness, and to the extent that you really are powerless in this situation, it is healthy to know and acknowledge that. But unfortunately this often leads to a sense of powerlessness without hope. You lie down in this trial and you begin to slip into despair. There is no ability to pray into this situation. It is over as far as you're concerned, so it is sterile. No life can grow in those conditions. Now Jesus, because he loves us, looks at us and says, "Oh, I hate to see you stuck in the rebelling place. I hate to see you there because you are just compounding the pain of this situation with your own bitterness and anger. I hate to see you slide into the icy depths of despair and resignation because there is no life there, there is no hope or energy for you there." So he offers to us out of his goodness a third way to respond.
When you first hear this word, rejoice, you will think that is impossible. But let's look at Matthew 5 where Jesus says, God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you. Here is how he says you deal with that: "Rejoice." He says, "Rejoice." And just in case you aren't clear that is what he means, he says, "Rejoice and be glad." I want you to choose that posture. I want you to enter into that by a power of your will to rejoice. James, the brother of Jesus, says in James 1:2, "Whenever you face trials of many kinds, the testing of your faith" here's what you do: "Consider it pure joy." He says the exact same thing. You rejoice. You may be saying, "Whoa, I'm over here in the rebel place response right now. Or I'm kind of in resignation. How would I ever get to a place of rejoicing? That doesn't seem possible for me. What would it take to do that?" Well, it is a long and hard journey. But it is a possible journey. And the central motion of the soul that will bring you from the one place to this new place is what Jacques Philippe calls "choosing what you did not choose." What does that mean?
Choosing What You Did Not Choose
Well, it does not mean you sugarcoat your situation. It doesn't mean you go, "Oh, this is great, I love this." No, it is painful. It hurts, it is wrong, it is hard. If you could get rid of it, you would. You don't deny that. But looking at that situation with clarity and reality, you say nonetheless "I choose to accept this situation as a situation in which God can work, in which I believe God's love cannot be stopped and he can work in even this for my good and his glory." Even here he can bring me into a place of spiritual maturity; even here he can bring about eternal reward for me. That is what it means to accept it. And suddenly when this happens you will notice a profound difference in how you look at the situation. Suddenly instead of enduring it, you're actually now beginning to embrace it. Instead of thinking, "Oh, you just feel faith, que sera sera, it is faith," you begin to enter into freedom. Instead of feeling like something is being taken from you, you suddenly see that because you've chosen it, it is something being offered by you. And what was a prison actually becomes your palace.
Last year a woman named Margaret Geary made the news. She's 85 years old, a nun in a convent near Baltimore. All of the other sisters in her convent were going to a three day conference and she had to stay behind. So for three days she was left alone in her convent. Shortly after they left, she came down from her room to the kitchen to get a snack. She went to the refrigerator, pulled out a jar of water that had celery sticks in it, and walked back to elevator, got on and pressed the up button. Well, the elevator went up about two feet and then it stopped. She went, "Uh oh," and she tried to pry open the doors, and right then the electricity went out. Then she realized, "Oh, don't worry about it, I have my purse with me and it's got a cell phone." So she rummaged in her purse, pulled out the cell phone, and realized, "I can't get a signal inside this elevator shaft." At that point she started to panic. Then she realized, "You know what, I can either panic or I can pray. And it looks like I'm going to be taking a three day prayer retreat and I didn't have to reserve the space." So she sat on the floor of the elevator and ate some of the celery sticks and prayed, and then she drank some of the water and prayed. And then she rummaged in her purse and pulled out some of the cough drops down in the bottom and sucked on those, and prayed. And when she got tired she curled up and used her sweater as her pillow and put her purse in her back to keep that from hurting as much, and she prayed. And when the sisters finally got back three days later and got her out of the elevator, they said, "What were you thinking? What was it like for you?" She said, "Well, I finally realized God had provided for me an opportunity to draw closer to him."
And right now some of you feel like you're stuck in an elevator. It is not going anywhere. You can't get out. You can't pry open the doors. The lights have gone out and your cell phone is not working. You're thinking, "Would somebody come and get me out of this thing!" But if you will choose to see it through the promises of God's Word, this can be an opportunity that God has provided for you to draw closer to him. It all comes as you choose what you didn't choose.
Three Prayers of Encouragement
Now, this is a journey and it takes time, so I want to give you some prayers—three one-sentence prayers that I think will encourage you and help you in this movement of your soul. I hope these three prayers will be a part of our journey towards Good Friday and Easter. I pray they will help you move from rebelling to rejoicing, or from resigning to rejoicing.
Here's the first prayer: Lord, give me the faith to believe that you are a really good spiritual director. You see, God is a really good spiritual director and we don't give him a lot of credit for that. Here's how it works. Suppose that you used to get up and pray in the mornings, and sometimes you'd maybe go to a Tuesday morning Bible study or whatever, but now you have a colicky baby. Your child is screaming all the time and you can't console her and it kills you that you can't console her, and the screaming drives you nuts and you can't sleep. You're up often, t, you're enraged, and you're afraid of what you might do. You're at your wits end. And now when you just sit down for five minutes—forget about getting up in the morning to have quiet time or something—if you just sit down anywhere for five minutes, even at church, you just want to fall asleep. So you ask, "What good could this possibly have, Lord. I don't get this. Why would this be in my life? I would be such a great Christian if I didn't have this. I would be going and reading my Bible."
But here is the way God looks at it. God says, "You know, all day long I hold out my arms to people who complain and squall and aren't happy with me no matter what I do to them. I wanted to help you see what that's like for you. I wanted to share my heart with you. So I brought this colicky child into your life because it is the best possible way that you could learn that." Sure, you could read another Bible study about the Hebrew word hesed, which means "God's unfailing love," but would you learn as much, as good as that is, as you're learning right now? Lord, give me faith to see that you really are a good spiritual director. You have ordered things providentially so that I will be brought to maturity. James says, "Count it pure joy because this testing produces perseverance, which produces endurance, which produces maturity." There is no other way you can get mature without some of these spiritual disciplines you did not choose. If you could, it would be happening that way.
Here's a second one-sentence prayer: Lord, give hope that you're not done with me yet. We lose hope, but God is the God of the situation that has gone beyond hope. I was at the arboretum in our part of Chicago today and of course there are trees all over, beautiful trees, but I came to one place where a tree had been sawed right off. For some of you today that is a picture of your life. Some of you might be thinking, "That is my situation, the tree is down, it is not going back up. You can't prop the tree back up and kind of glue it onto the base. It is done, it is down." But the tree I saw had something else going on: right in the middle of that sawed-off trunk I spotted some beautiful bright green moss and an enormous and brilliant mushroom-like thing with many leaves and different colors. God seemed to be saying, It looks like it is cut down but it is not done yet. I'm not done yet." With Christ there is hope even beyond hope. That's true even beyond this life because according to Scripture our light and momentary afflictions here are preparing for us an eternal glory. Paul says that eternal glory will far outweigh all of our trials in this life. God is not done yet. So this Lent pray, "Lord, would you give me hope that you're not done yet."
Here's the third prayer for helping you accept the spiritual disciplines you did not choose: Lord, would you give me overcoming love. There is never a situation that you or I will be in where we cannot show love. There isn't one. You may say, "Yeah, but you don't understand my situation. You don't know what I'm going through. I love someone but they aren't appreciating or returning my love. I can't believe they would do that to me. Have you seen this, have you heard this? I can't … How do I …?" Here is what happens: When you choose to love that person, all of a sudden your love has become pure. You're not getting anything back out of that. All of a sudden that person's evil that is being done against you— and it is evil, let's not deny that—but now under God's goodness it has become a source of making your love more pure and more powerful. Because it's not dependent on what they're doing. The only reason you're possibly doing it is because it's coming from God. You're not even sure how you're doing it. So keep praying, "Lord, would you give me overcoming love."
During this season of Lent, our clergy have been calling us to this theme: "Christ, our hope of reconciliation." So let me ask, is there a strained relationship in your life? Is there somebody that you love but they aren't returning you love? Remember, there is no situation in which you cannot choose to show love.
Friends, this is a journey, but my heart's prayer for you is that if you're in a place of rebelling against the spiritual discipline you didn't choose, by God's grace and over time and with his help you will reach a place of rejoicing. I pray that if you're in a state of resignation you'll come on that same journey and you'll be able to say, "Lord, I do believe you're a good spiritual director. I do have hope that you're not done yet. I do sense you giving me a love that I didn't know I could have. So even here, even now, even this, I will choose what I did not choose."
Kevin A. Miller is the Executive Director of Ministry Advancement at Christianity Today and senior pastor at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois.