February 26, 2015

The Spirit and Spiritual Disciplines

The following is an excerpt from my new book, From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel. If you want to read more, you can find the book on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Christianbook.com.

Knowing that we have a Helper--as Jesus calls Him--in the Holy Spirit gives us a fresh perspective on spiritual disciplines—everything from Bible-reading, prayer, fasting, giving, and church attendance.

As I was coming to recognize my goodness obsession, I didn’t know quite how to view spiritual disciplines. For many years, I looked to spiritual disciplines as a checkpoint of how I was doing as a Christian. I was a “good” Christian if I did them and a “bad” one if I did not. But this to-do list way of practicing spiritual disciplines, I discovered, is self-oriented. I created them. I set certain standards for myself, and I used them as a type of formula for spiritual maturity.
In this scenario, God was a supporting actor and I was both director and main actor. I could, in effect, practice spiritual disciplines without actually relating to God. And those disciplines in themselves could not change my heart or cause me to grow spiritually. In all my efforts to effect change in my life, something was missing.

That’s because spiritual disciplines are not intended as replacements for the Holy Spirit. They are intended as ways to ask for and receive help from the Holy Spirit. God is the director and main actor. We belong to Him. Spiritual disciplines, when practiced correctly, place us in positions of submission, acknowledgement of need, and ready receptors when the Holy Spirit moves, leads, speaks, or convicts. I am essentially using spiritual disciplines like a door, opening my heart to God, ready to receive from Him. They are a means of continual receiving.

Knowing the role of the Holy Spirit actually elevates the spiritual disciplines beyond a to-do list, because they are our way of asking for the Holy Spirit’s help. 

Prayer, for example, becomes a vital connection to God. If, as we’ve established, the Holy Spirit is the only One who can reach into the heart of man and if, as we’ve established, we can’t control or affect heart transformation, our role and responsibility in partnership with the Holy Spirit is to pray for Him to act.

For me, this comes into play often as I consider how to help my children know God and trust in Him. When my first son was born, a struggle with fear was also borne in my heart. In the beginning, trivial fears gripped me: What if he won't sleep when the book says he should sleep? What if he cries like this for the rest of his life? What if I never shower again? But when he was diagnosed as having autism, the realities of motherhood and the weight of profound fears landed hard. Would he ever speak? Was his future a hopeful one? Would he ever enjoy relationships? Would I be able to parent this child how he needed to be parented?

What I soon realized was that all moms struggle with fear at some level. Every mother wants their child's emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being, and every mother wants to do right by her child. Every mother fears that she might not be enough, or that life might be a big bully to the one she loves.

I recognize my fears as a mother, and I also recognize my typical responses to those fears. I either anxiously feed the fear and am motivated by it, or I attempt to tamp down the fear through my own effort.

My primary method of handling fear is the second response—the control of fear through effort. And what do I fear most? I fear that they won't know and be assured of what God has done for them in Christ. I fear that they won't love God or love others well. So I set goals of what I want to instill into my children. I make lists of activities to help them grow. I write down ideas that other mothers share. I scour blogs and Pinterest. I pack the schedule with opportunities. I help them pursue friendships. I peel open the Bible every morning after breakfast and read it to them.

This doesn't sound so bad, so why is this response to fear such a bad thing? Being purposeful with my children is not inherently bad, but if it is motivated by fear, it is sin (Romans 14:23). It’s sin because, if we believe that our efforts are the way to protect our children or produce heart and character transformation in them, we're saying that we are God. We're saying that we can control life and circumstances. We're saying that we have the power to do what only God can do. This is why controlling our fears through effort is so dangerous.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my typical responses to fear as a mother and recognizing that, truly, my children belong to God, and that I have no ability to produce character in them. I can teach them and lead them to this end, but only God can actually do it. Wouldn't I much rather allow Him to protect, provide for, and work in the hearts of my kids? A million times, yes.

So what is our response to the fears we have as mothers and in any area of life, for that matter? He gives us a way to ask for help and for things to change: we can pray! We are to pray fervently for our children and ask the Holy Spirit to do what only He can do. And we not only pray, but we trust the answer that He will give, which is so often different than what we think it will be or should be.

We must also be obedient to put the structure in place that He asks us to put in place in our families, but we recognize that it is not actually this structure that will do anything. It's Him, and it's only ever been Him.

This is true for anything we are concerned about, whether it’s marriage, career, ministry, relationships, or suffering. The change or growth we desire can only be done by the Spirit. So instead of controlling, we pray. Instead of self-sufficiency, we pray. Instead of trusting in behavior modification, we pray. Instead of fear, we pray.

We have a Helper, after all, whom Jesus promised would help us when we call on Him.

This is, in fact, the posture of a child who looks with complete security and assurance to her father for help and guidance. We are now children, brought to the Father’s table, and, because we are no longer orphans, we don’t have to act as orphans who must take care of themselves. Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). How did He come to us? He came to us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is our guide and our sufficiency, and by depending on Him, we are looking to our Father for help and for our needs to be met each day. The Holy Spirit leads us to the Father-heart of God.