‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ Mark 12:30
Of all the Jewish laws, Jesus pointed to this one as the most important: ‘Love God!’ The command begins with the heart, because what is in the heart shapes how we live — our attitudes, our thoughts, our speech and our actions. As Jesus elsewhere said, ‘The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks’ (Luke 6:45). If a person truly loves God, this will be evident in how they live.
At its core, then, Christianity is about a loving relationship with God. You may have thought it was about attending a church or reading the Bible, about doing good deeds or hanging out with other Christians, but while such activities are important this is only the case when they are part of our relationship with God. Everything worthwhile in the Christian life stems from our love for God, and the more we love Him the more we will live in a way that glorifies Him.
But how do we love someone we can neither see nor touch?
Thankfully, in marriage, God has given us an excellent illustration of our relationship with Him, and even if you have never been married the concepts are still simple to grasp. While there is no guaranteed formula for a successful marriage, there are a number of things husbands and wives can do to develop their relationship and thereby grow to truly love one another — things like spending quality time together, ensuring good communication and being open about feelings. In the same way, there are things we can do to help us in our relationship with God.
In the very first marriage, back in Genesis 2, after God had decided it was not good for Adam to be alone, He made the first woman, Eve, as ‘a helper suitable for him.’ (v18) This word ‘helper’ does not imply a position of inferiority. Rather Eve was to be a partner, a companion, working in a complementary role with her husband.
They were commissioned by God to rule over the world and fill it with their offspring, and while Adam was responsible for this work, he obviously could not accomplish it on his own — he needed the partnership of his wife!
Our relationship with God is also a partnership in which both parties have a complementary role to perform.
In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul called them to ‘work out’ their salvation, yet in the same breath he encouraged them that God was ‘working in’ them. ‘Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ (Phil. 2:12–13)
The Bible is clear that God’s role is to transform us to be more like Christ, changing our hearts to love Him more and so increasingly live for Him. That is God’s work. But what about ours?
For centuries God’s people have engaged in practices that have proved vital for their relationship with God. We call this ‘spiritual discipline’, and this is our role in ‘working out’ our salvation. In this book we will look at the following seventeen areas of spiritual discipline that have stood the test of time:
- Focus on God: worship, prayer, Bible study and meditation.
- Focus on Others: fellowship, service, submission and witnessing.
- Focus on Ourselves: simplicity, fasting, battling temptation and giving.
- Focus on Daily Life: solitude and silence, thanksgiving, confession and living for today.
It is important to note that these things are not love for God themselves, rather they are a means to that end. Spiritual discipline is really self-discipline that has the spiritual goal of growing our love for God.
As we work through the various areas of spiritual discipline we will see how each, in its own way, works towards this goal of loving God. If we can keep this as our focus, rather than treating spiritual discipline as the goal, then we won’t get caught up in a life of worthless effort that will simply burn away to ashes before the judgment seat of Christ.
As we saw at the outset, practices like these are not what makes us Christians, but as we work at them, God works with us by growing our love for Him and so transforming us to be more like Christ.
This must always be our objective in spiritual discipline. If the practices themselves are our goal we run the risk of turning spiritual discipline into worthless rituals. Our motivation and desire must always be to have our hearts changed — love for God must be the most important thing in our lives, just as it is also the greatest privilege.
‘Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness.’ (2 Pet. 1:5–6)
One of the most common complaints about being a follower of Christ is how much hard work is involved. Trying to live a godly life is not easy and it is not long before you wonder whether all the effort is really necessary. After all, Christians make much of the fact that we can do nothing to make God love us any more than He already does. And while this is true, it does, however, rather miss the point. When it comes to the call to ‘make every effort’, the issue is not God’s love for us. Rather this work has the goal of increasing our love for Him.
Consider marriage. No matter how things may appear, a wedding does not automatically produce a good marriage. To survive the ups and downs of life together, husbands and wives need to grow in their love for one another, using the tools available to them that help develop a loving relationship and partnership. None of these come easily or naturally at first, so building and maintaining a good marriage takes continued time and effort.
Similarly, in spiritual discipline we find the tools that can help us in our relationship with God — practices that Christians have used to this end for centuries. While some of these will prove to be easier than others, they all take effort and perseverance if they are to be effective in growing our love for God. The good news is that, as we persevere in them, things begin to change…
When a couple work together at their marriage, those same tools that at first seemed hard and even alien to them become the very things they delight in, because their love for each other has grown and matured.
So too, as our love for God grows and our relationship with Him deepens, we engage in spiritual discipline, not because we have to, but because we want to. Far from the heavy burden they first appear to be, these practices will become our joy! Why? Because that’s how relationships work – all relationships.
Paul likens our relationship with God to a family, with God as the father and the Church being full of His children. No matter what else Christianity may involve, it is essentially about having a loving relationship with God. This is the great privilege and joy of being one of God’s people — part of His family.
Paul also compares our life as Christians to a fight and a race: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.’ (2 Tim. 4:7–8)
This comparison to the Christian life with a fight and a race is appropriate. After all, love for God is not something that simply appears, fully mature, overnight. As with any other relationship, it takes time and effort to grow and to develop, working together with God. God’s role is to ‘change our hearts’, bringing our desires and attitudes more in line with His own. Our role is to engage in spiritual discipline. This is our fight. This is our race. And like any fight or race, if they are to truly make a difference we need to persevere in them and go the distance!
Let’s consider marriage again. As mentioned earlier, husbands and wives have tools to help their relationship, such as good communication and spending quality time together, but even the best of marriages will start to fall apart if the effort to use them is not maintained. Good marriages take time and effort ‘til death us do part’.
And when it comes to our relationship with God, simply spending a few weeks trying out some areas of spiritual discipline will have little effect in growing our love for Him unless we persevere in them and press on toward the goal to ‘receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.’ (James 1:12)
In this book we will consider the seventeen areas of spiritual discipline listed earlier over the course of sixteen weeks. Each week consists of five sessions of individual study, reflection and application, ending with a final session of questions either for personal consideration or group discussion.
My prayer is that these studies will help us all as we persevere, ‘going the distance’ in our relationship with God, playing our part in helping to grow in our love for Him.
- What is your initial reaction to the thought of engaging in spiritual discipline?
- Which of the areas covered in this book have you engaged in, and how have they helped your spiritual growth?
- Do you agree with the statement that Christianity is essentially about a loving relationship with God, and why?
- Read 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Romans 12:1-2. Our relationship with God involves a partnership. How would you define the role that we play and the role that God plays? Consider your own experience of this partnership.
- Read 1 Timothy 4:8-16, noting the words that speak of the effort to which Paul is calling him. How can we reconcile this with Jesus’ statement, ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matt. 11:30)?
- Read 1 Timothy 4:16, Hebrews 10:36 and James 1:12. Why do you think perseverance is so important for us in our relationship with God?
- In what ways have you had to persevere in other relationships, whether in the home, at work or in your local church? How do they compare with those you have not continued to work at?