How can I actually live the Christian life?

This came up at a meeting of my teenage daughter’s small group; by this question, her friend said:

…I don’t mean going to church and having devotionals and stuff; I mean getting better at sharing God’s love with people when I talk to them.

That’s not quite verbatim, but you get the idea. What did they conclude? I asked. They didn’t. “What do you think?” she asked me.

Well, I have a pretty good idea, actually. But like my old posting on how to overcome anger or a more recent one on overcoming anxiety, my last two steps are going to be “do that for 20-30 years” and “repeat as needed.” But I’m not yet limited to just repeating my old stuff; I’m actually still reading and learning new things. I’m not yet limited to just repeating my old stuff; I’m actually still reading and learning new things. (sic) In particular, I read something in The Anti-Alzheimer’s Prescription about taking care of ourselves so that we can do what we know we should.

OK, so here’s what I think we should do to be a blessing to those around us.

  1. First, we have to be connected to God. As I’ve written elsewhere, this involves the spiritual formation practices or something like them. We need to pray — not just recite formulaic prayers, but we need to talk and listen to the Lord. We need to read the Bible reflectively, we need to worship and praise him, we need fellowship with other believers (including ones that annoy us), and we need to pay attention.

    In other words we have to do the disciplines, the practices. A few notes on this:

    • Very important: this is not an attempt to work changes from the outside in — spending our “time at the surface repairing the holes in the shiny veneer” (Sara Groves, Just Showed Up For My Own Life). This is doing practices that actually change the way we think.
    • The Navigators have a model they call the wheel, illustrating the basics: keeping Christ at the center, practicing obedience, interacting with the word (meditate, memorize, study, read, hear), prayer, fellowship, witnessing. Use it if it’s helpful for you.
    • I wrote “including ones that annoy us” above because this is one of the ways we see our need for God, and also his power. When my family and I lived in Japan in the ’90s, we heard about “mini-church,” where people were assigned to small groups based on geography or something. This scheme doesn’t put you with people in the same life stage or situation. Sometimes you’re put in with people you don’t even like. This is good because if we only hang out with people we like, we might deceive ourselves into thinking we’re not really all that depraved after all. But when we are put with people that bug us, we realize that we need real power from God in order to obey the new commandment from our Lord, “that you love one another as I have loved you. By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

      And our brothers and sisters in Christ can be very difficult to deal with. That’s why Jesus made that new commandment a command rather than a “you’ll probably do this without my telling you.” But we have to do it because, as John says, “he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). The good news is that God does show up and helps us to really appreciate some of our more difficult brothers and sisters. And even if we never come to be best buddies with them, we certainly have a clearer picture of our own brokenness, which is a powerful antidote to the cult of self-sufficiency.

    • As the Lord has given us differing spiritual gifts, I believe he has also made us with different spiritual “temperaments” if you like — we have different ways that we feel most connected to God. Many of us have taken classes or done self-assessments to discover our gifts, but not so many have gone through the analogous process to find our temperament or the spiritual pathways that best fit us. The phrase comes from the title of a 1996 book by Gary Thomas. A Google search will show summaries and self-assessment tools like this one, as well as excerpts (some quite long) from the book. Again, this is just a tool; if it’s useful to you, great.
    • We need to train ourselves for godliness. Reading the Bible is great but disciplines also include practices that we can do with willpower, which when done consistently over a period of time, enable us to do what we cannot do with willpower. (I’m sure Dallas Willard said something like that, but I can’t find the exact wording.)

      Here’s an example from the physical world: Could I run a marathon tomorrow morning with sheer willpower? Nope. But could I run a marathon six months from now, by exercising my willpower several times a week between now and then? Almost certainly.

      Now how patient can I be tomorrow morning? Well, I could be a little patient.

      Could I be more patient a few years from now? If I train myself for patience between now and then? Probably. I could drive in the slow lane on purpose; I could practice the skill of not running for the train when another one will leave in 15 minutes; I could choose to let someone go before me in the grocery checkout. If I do that consistently over time, I can become a more patient person. But that’s why it’s discipline; it doesn’t come naturally.

  2. Take care of yourself so that you can do the other things. Get enough sleep. Keep your workload (including volunteer commitments) at a reasonable level so your stress won’t be too high. Too much stress can throw off other aspects of our lives.

    Vincent Fortanasce, the author of The Anti-Alzheimer’s Prescription gave the example of getting to bed early, then waking up in time to prepare a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. But then his pager went off — he had forgotten something and was already late. Oops! Forget the oatmeal; a donut and a double-espresso would have to do. You can imagine that this low-protein breakfast, rich in fat and sugar, sent a jolt through his nervous system and did not put him on a good trajectory for wise decisions the rest of the day. Which might result in more stress, more poor decisions regarding diet or time management, and possibly getting to bed late and setting him up for a bad day tomorrow.

    The theory is that our decision-making is “informed” by two systems. One is the sort of pre-verbal emotional “reptilian” way of, well… reacting. “Knee-jerk” may characterize this mode of operation, which comes to the fore when we’re hurried, haven’t had enough sleep, haven’t been eating well, and so on. The other is the more measured, rational, wise set of mental processes. (This two-system model is described at some length in this Nobel lecture.) It’s not exactly “the flesh and the spirit” (Romans 8:5-7) but it sometimes feels that way.

    Dr. Fortanasce points out that as we more consistently get more sleep and more consistently manage our stress well, we will be able to more consistently choose wisely — it’s a virtuous cycle. He wasn’t talking about spiritual growth, but his comments certainly apply. Certainly, stress is part of modern life — even postmodern life. But there are some stresses that we need not take on. Do I need to head up another committee at church? Maybe not! If the Lord doesn’t supply a willing person to lead that committee, maybe that’s a sign that the committee doesn’t need to exist.

    And that’s how the steps help each other: if we’re reading and meditating on the Bible, if we’re staying connected to God, if we’re in fellowship, that will help us have God’s perspective on things, which in turn will help us choose wisely so that we’ll have more time to stay connected to God, to grow, and to become more like Jesus. What a deal!

  3. Although I am not really a fan of technique, sometimes a class, a workshop, or a seminar can be helpful in learning how to communicate love and empathy. Of course if you take the class or whatever, you have to apply it. It’s not about certificates or degrees, but you already knew that.
  4. Do all that for 20-30 years.
  5. Repeat as needed.

And may the Lord fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might that you might have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the father, who has qualified us to share the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

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