Josh is a sophomore at the local university. Though he didn’t grow up with any close Christian friends, this past year he was drawn to surrender his life to Christ through the example first and then the testimony of several of his college friends. He went public with his faith through baptism and the excitement of his new found faith lasted for several weeks.
Now Josh is somewhat depressed, struggling with school, family, and money issues. He desires to experience the same peace and joy he sees in other Christians. From several Bible studies with his LifeGroup he gathers that Christians are supposed to read the Bible often, pray at lot, and be involved in serving. He hears that it is by doing these things that we are changed. As little as he understands these, he jumps into them with all his effort. He reasons that must be how he will have the peace and joy he sees in others. After several months of failed attempts, he is ready to give up. He is beginning to believe that he will never have peace and joy. As a last hope, he comes to me and asks, “What am I doing wrong?”. What follows is my letter to him, the new Christian.
First of all I commend your desire to pursue peace and joy as a Christian. Most young guys your age, and many people in general, are looking for joy and satisfaction in everything this world has to offer apart from God. However the fact that you are coming to Jesus, believing that there is satisfaction to be had in a relationship with Him and pursuing it, is pleasing to God. What’s more is that it’s the only pursuit that will truly satisfy your soul.
I want you to know that I see this stirring in your heat as tremendous evidence that God is already working in your life. He is putting this desire in you, which He wants you to pursue and which he intends to satisfy. Remember the gospel – even when we weren’t looking for God, he was pursuing us, right? Our redemption was his idea. “…while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). What a reality! Likewise, you’re desire to know God more and mature in your relationship with Him is not your own idea. Rather it’s God who has taken the first step toward you, who has initiated your salvation and your growth, and now everything you’re doing is a response to Him drawing you to Himself. Be encouraged – your pursuit of God is a response to His work, not an effort to stir Him to work.
As you pursue this peace and joy, which you see in other Christians, I want to remind you of a very important principle that I’ve learned from Psalm 63. Let this give your pursuit some perspective: peace and joy doesn’t come from performing disciplines; it comes from knowing God Himself.
In Psalm 63 the psalmist engages in disciplines like gathering with other believers (verse 2), singing praises to God (verses 3-4), prayer and reflection (verse 6). But he does all this because of his ultimate desire which we see in verse 1: He wanted to know and be near to God Himself
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
The joy that life with God promises us is not simply satisfaction for a job well done regarding spiritual disciplines. Rather the joy is that we get to be with the creator of the universe, knowing Him, and being conformed to His image. It’s because knowing and living with God is better than life itself that we can say with the psalmist “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food” (Psalm 63:5). C.S. Lewis says it well: “God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
As we practice these disciplines we are also changed, not because of the disciplines themselves. We are changed because these practices place us before God in anticipation of enjoying His presence and receiving His transforming grace. As we practice certain disciplines like reading and reflecting on Scripture, memorizing scripture, prayer, solitude, serving, journaling, etc., we are setting time aside to meet with God, inviting Him to work on our hearts. It’s in these times that He works to reveal Himself, to reform our affections, and to change us. In these times He points out areas in our life that look more like our old lifestyle than like Jesus, and He gives us the the Holy Spirit to put those ways to death (Romans 8:4). Growing in our relationship with our creator like this is where joy and satisfaction are found!
So remember Josh, our goal as we engage in spiritual disciplines, or “holy habits” is not completion for completion sake; they are not an end in themselves. Rather they are the means, vehicles through which we attain our true goal: drawing nearer to God and become more like Christ.
Be encouraged friend. “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6).