Last week I started a series on spiritual disciplines. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart, because, well, I didn’t even discover spiritual disciplines until I was over forty. At that point in my life, I was so exhausted from the “Good Christian” rat race that I couldn’t go on. I didn’t have any spiritual or emotional energy left and no boot straps with which to pull myself up.
Trying hard is such a burden. And it’s one we were never meant to bear.
John Ortberg summarizes it this way in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted:
Let’s say that I decide I want to run a marathon. A lofty goal for sure, but not completely out of the realm of possibility.
So on the day I decide to run a marathon, I vow to give it my very best and to try as hard as I can. I am absolutely committed and determined to do this thing.
I get up off my couch and head to the starting line. I’m fully prepared with all the right equipment and head knowledge about how to run well. I’ve studied and carb-loaded and rehearsed mentally, mapping the race out in my head and planning my strategy.
Enthusiastic, I start the race with single-minded purpose. No one has ever tried harder to run a marathon than I am trying right now.
But it doesn’t matter. I simply will not and cannot reach the finish line.
We all know the answer.
Because I haven’t trained for it.
Training vs Trying
Every marathon runner trains before attempting a marathon. The human body just isn’t designed to run 26 miles without working up to it, no matter how determined and devoted a person may be.
To run such a race requires months of training and hard, disciplined physical work. In fact, it requires a lifestyle of training rather than trying.
Sometime kids at the schools where I play piano will ask, “How did you get so good at piano?”
Well, I didn’t just wake up one day as a prodigy.
I’ve spent years — about 40 of them — honing my craft. I’m a good pianist, but you know what? I’m still learning new tricks. I’m still in training to be even better, to improve my art. It’s a lifelong process and it’s second nature to me at this point. I don’t try harder to be a better musician. Instead, I’m constantly in the mindset and physical discipline of training.
The same premise is true with spiritual disciplines.
Contrary to the “try-hard” religion that I learned growing up, spiritual discipline is all about training — real, physical and mental training — with the goal of drawing closer to Christ. The apostle Paul compares our Christian journey to an athlete’s race with precisely this idea in mind.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-25
As Ortberg says,
“Trying hard can accomplish only so much. If you are serious about seizing this chance of a lifetime, you will have to enter into a life of training. . . learning to think, feel, and act like Jesus is at least as demanding as learning to run a marathon or play the piano. . . Following Jesus simply means learning from him how to arrange my life around activities that enable me to live in the fruit of the Spirit.”
Once I learned to wrap my brain around the concept of training vs. trying, everything changed for me. I was finally able to begin letting go of my own legalistic way of thinking — the idea that I’d drilled into my own head that God was more pleased with me when I checked off my prayer and Bible study and “good girl” boxes.
I started viewing spiritual practices as activities that I “get” to do rather than chores that I “have” to do.
So many Christians never get the concept. I certainly never did.
But this simple change in mindset from trying to training is the road less travelled. It has made all the difference.
It’s a small thing, but if you grew up thinking and learning the way I did, acquiring such a radical new perspective is nothing short of revolutionary.
Tell me what you think! Have you learned about spiritual disciplines, and if so, which ones do you find most helpful? I’d love to read your ideas in the comment section below.