Do you enjoy practicing? As in, music, or dance, or sports … those are the categories I think of most when I hear the word practice.
Erwin McManus wrote (in Wide Awake), “You can’t just sit back and hope that the life you long for will simply come to you.” Anything worthwhile is hard work and inconvenient. It takes practice.
When I was in college I fell in with a group of leaders and students that taught the value of spiritual practices. It was what I needed to hear and do, so I joined right it. At the time, for me, that meant scripture memory, bible study, teaching, and group worship.
As I got older my list expanded. To my surprise, running became a spiritual practice even though spiritual pursuit had no bearing on why I started running in the beginning. It’s as if God saw me doing something on a regular basis, in a systematic way, and decided to join me. In my new post knee-replacement era I’m walking instead of running; I expect walking will become a spiritual practice in the same way that running did, but only time will tell. Maybe cycling, also.
And my list of spiritual practices has continued to grow. Most of my hiking and backpacking is in pursuit of God, and I expect to hear from him on the trail.
Writing has certainly become a spiritual practice for me, helping me learn what God is telling me, setting it in my life, allowing me to work out my theology and understanding. Writing also allows me to tell the story and share the lessons I learn. It is in those stories that I see the real work of God.
But there is more to this than modifying our behavior and reshaping our heart. The Apostle Paul wrote: “But I discipline body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (I Cor. 9:27, NAS)
What specifically did Paul mean when he said he disciplined his body? I doubt Paul went to weight lifting classes. Was he a runner: He certainly referenced it often in his writing? He also mentioned boxing; do you think he was into boxing? In the NLT translation of the Bible, the verse says, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should.”
We don’t know what disciplines Paul engaged in, but he was a man who believed in spiritual practices.
But even more mysterious than Paul’s workout discipline is this: what did he mean that he would be disqualified?
Disqualified from what? Preaching? Writing? Traveling? Mentoring? Was he afraid he might lose his turn, or people would stop listening, or maybe he’d die too soon?
It’s unsettling that I could be disqualified from teaching because of the way I take care of my physical body. I don’t want to be disqualified because I was too soft or too lazy to treat my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. So I keep practicing.
Here’s the thing. I’ve learned that if I do the practices: read from my Bible every day, read spiritual books, pray, find time for solitude and searching, share and teach what I’ve learned, memorize and meditate, get around other believers and let them influence me, listen to good teaching and preaching … and all that; well, if I’m true to the practices, God speaks to me. Through constant practice, Christianity makes sense beyond my rational mind; it makes sense in my heart and soul.
Spiritual practices don’t earn us an audience with God, or mark us as serious disciples, but the process of repetition changes us, changes our heart, changes our motives, and changes our character, to be more like Jesus. Spiritual practices don’t attract God’s attention, but they focus our own attention toward God. They open our ears
How about you? What are your regular spiritual practices? How do they help you know and understand God?
I’ve been pondering the phrase, Practicing Faith, for the past year, ever since I heard my friend Rabon give a talk with that title at our annual Iron Men retreat. But it goes back even further; I’ve engaged in spiritual practices since I was in college, being guided by Max Barnett and the Baptist Student Union at the University of Oklahoma. I’m publishing this piece, which I wrote a few years ago, because it speaks directly to my own heart and my current journey on the trail.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32