When the winter finally thawed, I could go outside and sit looking over the creek, my back propped again the rough bark of a tree. Other days, I’d slip through the heavy doors of the chapel and sit in the silence of cold stone. I’ve been bent over the kitchen table sipping my morning coffee, curled in a hammock listening to a chorus of birdsong, seated on the cement porch of a cabin at dawn—all with Bible and journal in hand.
I grew up with a brand of spirituality which told me that the key ingredients to my growth as a Christian were to read my Bible and pray. We called it a “quiet time,” preferably alone, preferably in the morning—and the closer you got with God, the longer it was (or at least that’s what my teenage ears heard). Journaling and Scripture memories were other important practices. I think a great number of my generation who grew up in the church have had similar experiences. Many of us feel guilty for missing quiet times. We also feel guilty for not experiencing the prescribed emotional longing for our “quiet time” or the emotional uplift after its completion. It seems that so much of our spiritual life is defined by these times alone with the Lord. Our spirituality of private, personal piety is the measuring rod for the intimacy of our walk with God.
Is this really the measure of spirituality? Why must the emphasis be so internal? What if the emotions aren’t there? What if dryness sets in?
In all of our emphasis on internal piety, we can easily overlook plain old ordinary obedience. Perhaps out of our obsessive fear of works-righteousness, we’ve forgotten the biblical emphasis on our actions of obedience as disciples of Christ. Our actions matter. Our obedience matters. Jesus (and many other voices in the New Testament) seems to suggest that it’s connected to the validity of our salvation. Yes, we are saved completely by the gracious act of God on our behalf. We were hopeless—and he did everything. And yet Jesus spends so much of his time teaching us how to live. The moral of the parable I sang about as a child—“the wise man built his house upon the rock” (Matthew 7:24-27)—is not primarily about some abstract sense of putting Jesus on the throne of your heart but about obeying what he says.
Repeatedly in Scripture we read of how our lives should be transformed through the power of the Spirit. And in fact, one of the promises of the astonishing new covenant in Jeremiah 31 is for the law to be written on our hearts—and of what use would this be if it’s merely existential and not for the purpose of enabling us to obey the way of God?
We develop such angst about our personal practices of piety. We develop anxiety when we don’t feel the “right” way about God, as if our emotions determined everything. We compare our own spiritual lives to others and try to measure who has a deeper connection. May I dare to say that these are more cultural than biblical?
Let me say here that the Bible is of immense importance. It holds the teachings of Jesus and the grand story of God’s redemptive interactions with our world. We do well to study its pages and to commit it to memory. Prayer is also of immense importance, as long as we are talking about an intimate dialogue with our Lord and not vending-machine spirituality. We do well to pray alone and in community, to experiment with various forms of prayer, and to develop a lifeline of conversation and abiding presence with God. We should not neglect these practices.
However, if our form of Christian spirituality is only these things—we are missing something crucial to the Christian life—we are missing the transformation in which our lives should begin to look ever more like that of our Lord Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say that we will be known to be Christians by the length and quality of our quiet times—but he does say that we will be known by our fruit.
Are you more gentle than you were several years ago? Are you more patient with your children and your spouse? Do you lose your temper less often?
Is your speech more gracious and upbuilding? Do you have more control over the words coming from your mouth? Do you carry through on your word? Are you more truthful?
Do you have more joy than you did several years ago? Do you have more hope and peace? Are you less fearful and worried?
Are you more generous with your time and finances? Are you more loving and kind to your neighbors? Are you more willing to help those in need?
Are you less envious than you were several years ago? Are you more focused on the good of others than yourself? Are you less proud and less self-seeking?
If we see these sorts of fruit in our lives, we can rejoice, recognizing that they come through the work of the Holy Spirit in making us new. They are marks of our abiding connection with Christ.