This past Sunday, we looked at a shocking scene in Luke 4 where the people who knew Jesus best became the very first to attempt to kill him. They weren’t people from various walks of life with different worldviews. They were devout Jews in their own synagogue. They were the ones supposedly waiting for the Messiah their entire lives.
So what went wrong? How could those most familiar with the things of God become the very ones trying to kill him?
The short story is they had reduced an entire system designed to foster a deeper relationship with God to nothing more than a religious checklist. They were familiar with God’s Word. They were gathering together in worship. They were putting their hope in the promise that the Messiah would someday come. But their identity was not in the promise of what God would someday do for them. It was in the religious acts they were accomplishing on their own.
It’s a simple shift in focus that leads to devastating spiritual consequences. It led them to do the unthinkable, and we are no less in danger of making the same error today as they were in the first century.
The Danger of Type-A Christianity
I often feel this tendency in my own life. I’m incredibly task-driven and process-oriented. I’m constantly setting goals and developing pathways to reach them. I’ve set goals around Bible reading plans. I’ve set out to have a better prayer life or give more of my finances. But because of the way my brain works, these have often been some of the hardest resolutions to keep. And even when I am meeting my objectives, something still feels spiritually off in my heart.
Maybe you’ve felt the same way. You decide to read through the Bible in a year but it feels confusing, boring, or even empty when you do. You decide you’re going to pray more often, but when you set aside the time, you don’t know what to say to God. You decide to get more involved in church but it still feels like something is missing each Sunday.
There’s a reason why this happens to us. It’s not because God isn’t there. It’s not because the church isn’t important. It’s because we’re doing it with the wrong goal in mind. Deciding to take your spiritual growth more seriously isn’t like choosing to lose weight. It takes more than downloading an app, changing your diet, and watching the pounds fall off. It’s ultimately about your relationship with God. We’re tempted to treat it like a self-improvement project, yet nothing could be more destructive.
This is the same way the Pharisees in Jesus’ time approached spirituality. It was never about knowing God better or keeping his commands in order to honor him. It was about personal accomplishment and the esteem of others. It was about earning favor with God and the people around them.
The Role of Spiritual Disciplines
It’s easy to approach spiritual disciplines the same way. You start a Bible reading plan and for the first few weeks, things are going well. You’re checking off each day’s reading assignment and you’re feeling good about the progress you’ve made. You post a picture of you with your coffee and your open Bible on Instagram. But as you do it, you’re skimming through the passage. You’re reading it, but you’re not really seeking to learn anything from it. But because you’re able to check off the box, you assume you’ve achieved some deeper spiritual maturity – even though it feels a bit empty.
For those who are married, imagine approaching your spouse this same way. You decide to spend more time with your husband or wife and you set aside intentional time together each evening. But when you come together, you’re ignoring each other while checking email and catching up on social media. You never talk about the deeper things. You never pursue each other. But you can still check the box for the day and say, “We did it!” Would you actually expect to have a stronger marriage as a result?
In the same way, your relationship with God is just that – a relationship. It can’t be reduced to a daily checkbox. In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples that the key to spiritually thriving is abiding in him, the same way a grapevine is attached and abides in its branches. In other words, if you want to have a deeper relationship with him, you simply draw near to him.
This is where the spiritual disciplines come in. We abide by reading and applying his Word to our lives. We do it through prayer. We do it through community with other Christians in the local church. These spiritual disciplines don’t make us more mature on their own. Yet, by doing them, they create the space for us to know God’s heart more deeply, communicate with him more intimately, and serve him more effectively. We don’t do them to earn his approval or the approval of others. We do them simply to be with him and draw from his strength.
Reordering the Priorities
Digging into these practices should be our way of abiding in him, never a means to simply feeling better about ourselves. Don’t approach these disciplines as tasks to be completed. Don’t reduce God to a checkbox. Use them as opportunities to connect with the awesome, gracious, powerful, righteous, just, great, and good God who created you, loves you, sent his son to rescue you from your sin, and pursues you even when you’re at your worst.
Through the years, I’ve had to learn to disconnect my Type-A brain from my spiritual habits and focus on the relationship instead. I set aside time each morning to be in God’s Word, but I don’t set a pace. Some days, I’m reading through an entire letter. Other days, I’m focused on 5-10 verses. Right now, I’m taking a personal deep dive in 1 John, and I’ve been at it for months. A while back, I did the same thing in Ephesians.
When I consider the role of the church in my life, I’m far less concerned about the frequency of our family’s attendance and much more concerned about the depth of our community and service. In other words, being in our seats every Sunday isn’t the goal. It’s the minimum. We want to know and be known by those we worship with each week.
It helps to be honest with ourselves sometimes and consider our motives. Are you pursuing a relationship with God or a checklist? Are you content to go through the motions or do you desire more of Jesus reflected in your life? If you’re struggling in this area, don’t let shame or condemnation take hold. You’re not alone. Simply set aside time and ask God to readjust your heart. Confess where your focus has been off. Ask him for spiritual intimacy over spiritual accomplishment. You’ll be amazed by what he does next.