I vividly recall my first time on the Camp Paradise ropes course. (If you’ve never been on a ropes course, it’s basically a high-wire experience for dummies, designed to stretch your abilities and help you overcome fear.) Allegedly, the ropes were thirty feet high, but I’m sure someone made a mistake. Clearly, I was thousands of feet in the air. Butterflies in attack formation assaulted my stomach. My sweat glands kicked into high gear. I was filled with anxiety. “This is not Camp Paradise,” I thought. “This is Camp Purgatory. This is where they make you go to pay for your sins!”
The instructors moved across the ropes effortlessly and without fear. They had taught me that, because of the equipment and rope thickness, I was perfectly safe. Did I believe them? Part of me did. But not my stomach and sweat glands. I tried hard to stop my anxiety. I made every effort to feel and act as relaxed as my instructors did. But neither their teaching nor my willpower was enough to transform my inner being. There was only one way: I had to go through training. I had to experience the ropes course. As I did, a change took place. Slowly, I came to trust that I really was safe. After a while, my whole being — even my stomach and sweat glands — began to believe it. I was being progressively transformed from a state of anxiety to a state of relaxed enjoyment. Training — practicing the ropes course day after day like the instructors did — allowed me to act with their same relaxed effortlessness.
Training vs. Trying
What does it mean to enter training? It means to arrange your life around certain exercises and experiences that will enable you to do eventually what you are not yet able to do even by trying hard. Training is essential for almost any significant endeavor in life — running a marathon, becoming a surgeon, learning how to play the piano. The need for preparation or training does not stop when it comes to learning the art of forgiveness, joy, or courage. It applies to a vibrant spiritual life just as it does to other activities. Learning to think, feel, and act like Jesus is at least as demanding as learning to run a marathon or play the piano.
To follow Jesus means learning to arrange my life around those practices that will enable me to stay connected to him and live more and more like him. In short, this is just another way of defining a spiritual discipline. A spiritual discipline is any activity that can help me gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modeled it.
What the Spiritual Disciplines Are Not
Unfortunately, for many people, the very concept of spiritual disciplines has become grossly distorted. So let’s be clear about a few things.
Spiritual disciplines are not a barometer of spirituality. The ultimate indicator of your spiritual health is your capacity to fully love God and love people. If you can increase your capacity without the practice of any particular disciplines, then by all means skip them. Disciplines are never ends in themselves — only means to a greater end.
Spiritual disciplines are not a way to earn “brownie points” with God. They are not about meriting his forgiveness and goodwill. They are not “extra credit.” They have value only insofar as they keep us vitally connected with Christ and empowered to live as he lived.
Similarly, a disciplined person is not necessarily someone who does a lot of disciplines. It is not a highly systematic, rigidly scheduled, chart-making, gold-star-loving early riser. A disciplined person is one who can do the right thing at the right time in the right way with the right spirit. A disciplined person is one who discerns when laughter, or gentleness, or silence, or healing words, or truth-telling is called for and offers it promptly, effectively, and in love.
Every Moment Counts
A group of us were discussing how to pursue spiritual life when one person, a mother with two young children, commented that it was easier for her to work on her spiritual life before she became a mom.
She had never been taught to consider the possibility that caring for two young children — carried out daily with expressions of gratitude, with prayers for help, and with patient acceptance of trials — might be a kind of “school of transformation” the likes of which she had never known before. To her, having a quiet time counted toward spiritual devotion, but caring for two children did not.
It all counts. Life counts. Every moment of life — at least potentially — is an opportunity to be guided by God into his way of living. Certainly, there are some foundational practices, like prayer, solitude, and Scripture meditation that are critically important. But all of life’s activities can become spiritual training exercises if you allow them to.
Sitting in traffic congestion can become a training exercise in patience. Mundane activities like cleaning the house or taking a shower can train our hearts in gratitude, if we use those opportunities to thank God for his daily provisions. Delighting in nature or in wholesome pleasures can train our hearts in joy. Even sleep can be a spiritual discipline. Yes, you read that right! Disciplining ourselves to get a good night’s sleep can train us away from anxiety and toward trust if we remind ourselves that the world is in God’s hands and it will get along very well even though we’re not awake to control everything.
There is no need to divide life into times to “be spiritual” and times to “just do life.” Every moment is a chance to learn from Jesus how to live in the kingdom of God.
From Growth, Copyright © 2000 by John Ortberg and published by Zondervan. Used with permission.
John Ortberg is a teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, and previously served as teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church. He is the bestselling author of Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them; If You Want to walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat; Love Beyond Reason; and Old Testament Challenge. He has written for Christianity Today and is a frequent contributor to Leadership Journal.;Judson Poling works with small group ministries at Willow Creek. He is coauthor of the Walking with God series and general editor of The Journey: A Study Bible for Spiritual Seekers.