The Truth About Spiritual Disciplines
Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Imagine a group of people coming to your home and interrupting your Twinkie-eating, TV-watching routine with an urgent message: “Good news! We’re from the United States Olympic Committee. We have been looking for someone to run the marathon in the next Olympics. We have statistics on every person in the entire nation on computer. We have checked everybody’s records — their performance in the president’s physical fitness test in grade school, body type, bone structure, right down to their current percentage of body fat. We have determined that out of two hundred million people, you are the one person in America with a chance to bring home the gold medal in the marathon. So you are on the squad. You will run the race. This is the chance of a lifetime.”
You are surprised by this because the farthest you have ever run is from the couch to the refrigerator. But after the first shock passes, you are gripped by the realization of what’s happening in your life. You picture yourself mingling with the elite athletes of the world.
You allow yourself to imagine that maybe you do have what it takes. At night you dream about standing on the podium after the race and hearing the national anthem, seeing the flag raised, and bending low to receive the gold medal.
Here’s my chance!” This race becomes the great passion of your life. It dominates your mind. It occupies every waking moment. To run the race well — to win it if you can — becomes the central focus of your existence. It is what gets you out of bed in the morning. It is what you live for. It is the chance of a lifetime.
Then it dawns on you: Right now you cannot run a marathon. More to the point, you cannot run a marathon even if you try really, really hard. Trying hard can accomplish only so much. If you are serious about seizing this chance of a lifetime, you will have to enter into a life of training. You must arrange your life around certain practices that will enable you to do what you cannot do now by willpower alone. When it comes to running a marathon, you must train, not merely try.
This need for training is not confined only to athletics. Training is required for people who want to play a musical instrument or learn a new language or run a business. Indeed, it is required for any significant challenge in life — including spiritual growth.
Training Vs. Trying to Be Like Jesus
I devote this chapter to the single most helpful principle I know regarding spiritual transformation. It is by no means original with me. People who are wise in the ways of spiritual growth have understood it for centuries. I came across it at a time when I felt frustrated and stagnant in my own life with God, and through it I gained a firm hope that I really could grow. Through it — in a way I didn’t recognize at the time — God was speaking to me. Here is the principle:
There is an immense difference between training to do something and trying to do something.
I wish I could describe the hope I felt when I first came to understand this truth. I found it in Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines, and most of this chapter flows from the spirit of understanding that underlies his work. For much of my life, when I heard messages about following Jesus, I thought in terms of trying hard to be like Him. So after hearing (or preaching, for that matter) a sermon on patience on Sunday, I would wake up Monday morning determined to be a more patient person. Have you ever tried hard to be patient with a three-year-old? I have — and it generally didn’t work any better than would my trying hard to run a marathon for which I had not trained. I would end up exhausted and defeated. Given the way we are prone to describe “following Jesus,” it’s a wonder anyone wants to do it at all.
Spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wisely.
This is what the apostle Paul means when he encourages his young protégé Timothy to “train yourself in godliness.” This thought also lies behind his advice to the church at Corinth:
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
Athletics was familiar imagery to Paul’s audience. Corinth was the site of the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics in prominence in ancient Greece. Paul himself had probably been in Corinth during the games of A.D. 51 and, according to Gordon Fee, may even have made tents for the visitors and contestants needing accommodations. That a competitor would strive for the crown by simply “trying really hard” apart from training was unthinkable. In fact, any athlete who entered the games was required to undergo ten months of strict training and could be disqualified for failing to do so. Paul said he, too, had entered a life of training, “so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”
Respecting the distinction between training and merely trying is the key to transformation in every aspect of life. People sometimes think that learning how to play Bach at the keyboard by spending years practicing scales and chord progressions is the “hard” way. The truth is the other way around. Spending years practicing scales is the easy way to learn to play Bach. Imagine sitting down at a grand piano in front of a packed concert hall and having never practiced a moment in your life. That’s the hard way.
This need for preparation, or training, does not stop when it comes to learning the art of forgiveness, or joy, or courage. In other words, it applies to a healthy and vibrant spiritual life just as it does to physical and intellectual activity. Learning to think, feel, and act like Jesus is at least as demanding as learning to run a marathon or play the piano.
For me, this truth brought light to the darkness. For the first time as an adult, I found the notion of following Jesus a real, concrete, tangible possibility. I could do it.
Following Jesus simply means learning from Him how to arrange my life around activities that enable me to live in the fruit of the Spirit.
Excerpted with permission from The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg, copyright John Ortberg.
* * *
Have you been trying really hard to be like Jesus only to find yourself growing more and more frustrated? What do you think of the plan to train instead? Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you!