I read a story about a disciple who asked his master whether there was anything he could do to make himself grow spiritually.
The master answered: “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
Disconcerted, the disciple asked what then was the use of the spiritual exercises the master had taught him.
And the master replied: “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
This week I’ve exercised. I’ve exercised physically. I’ve exercised spiritually. Neither come naturally for me. Neither come without resistance from me. If I can find an excuse to avoid either, I’m apt to use it. Because in the pre-exercise stage, it just doesn’t seem appealing to me. I don’t want to have to shower or change clothes again. I don’t want to feel the discomfort of pushing muscles to the next level. All I want are the end results. I want to be healthy, fit and wearing those cute little ModCloth dresses now.
Spiritual exercise is the same. I don’t want to wake up early for a little Jesus time. I don’t want to be quiet or still so the Spirit can get my attention. I don’t want to feel the discomfort of surrendering. All I want are the end results. I want to be close to God, to have the heart of Jesus, and to be in sync with the Spirit.
But there is a difference between these two types of exercises.
With physical exercises, I, at least, can make myself grow physically. I know which exercises burn more calories than others and how long to do them to see a difference. There are specific exercises targeting specific muscles if I need to develop those. There is a lot of control in physical exercises – if I’m willing to do them.
I’ve always seen spiritual exercises as doing the same thing. If I just do more Bible study or prayer time, I’ll be a better Christ follower. If I just sacrifice more, then I can transform myself into the likeness of Christ. I’m such a control freak. Even spiritually, I overestimate my abilities to control and assume it is up to me completely.
The idea that there is nothing I can do to make myself grow spiritually seems so wrong. Yet so right.
We are called to surrender to God – even our pursuit of Him, our belief that we can find a deeper way to His heart, His affections. So often the motivation behind our spiritual exercises is to induce God’s love. It is as insane as a doctor inducing a woman to give birth after she has just given birth. Everyone is focused on the breathing exercises and waiting for the head to show. In the meantime, the baby is already bundled under the heat lamp, crying loudly in the room, fully present and waiting for everyone to notice.
God doesn’t want us to waste time trying to induce that which is already alive and ours. We do spiritual exercises to notice; to not miss what is already fully alive and present – God’s immense, all-consuming love for us and God’s enjoyment of us. This Love will do the transforming, not us.
It is the subtle yet cavernous difference between pursuing closeness to God and pursuing God Himself.
I’ve by no means got this one figured out. It is going to take a lot of deprogramming; a lot of spiritual exercises focused not on reaching for God but rather receiving God. It is a completely different posture but one I’m relieved and humbled by.
My favorite forms of physical exercise are the ones where I’m so busy enjoying the activity or who I am with to realize I’m exercising. Like going on an awesome hike with a friend. My body is being stretched and muscles are being used but I’m too busy enjoying the beauty of the world and the person. It doesn’t feel like exercise. It feels like home.
I think God wants our exercises with Him to feel more like that. Like enjoying the beauty of the world and the Person we are with. It doesn’t feel like exercise. It feels like home.