This summer I’ve had the real pleasure of leading a book club at my church in which we are reading Shauna Niequist’s Bittersweet. Each session, I kick off the evening with a little bit of teaching before the women are dismissed into smaller discussion groups. During our last meeting, we focused on the “bitter” part of “bittersweet,” reflecting on the Christian response to suffering. This week we lightened things up a bit and turned to the “sweet,” discussing how to be purposeful in our faith when life is good.
After delivering my lesson on the sweet seasons of life, I realized there was a particular concept I have never written about here. It concerns the necessity of using the sweet, peaceful, joyful or restful times in life as opportunities for spiritual preparation. I won’t share the whole of my talk now, but there is one nugget that I believe to be especially important. So here it is!…
When dealing with hardship or catastrophe in life, many Christians take a triage approach. We handle obstacles as they come, in order of urgency, and rarely take the time to plan ahead. Of course, this approach is not limited to spiritual matters. Our present economic situation is evidence of that same mentality. In the years prior to the Great Recession, we enjoyed great financial prosperity in which Americans were free to make risky investments without much fear. We saved little and accrued a lot of debt.
Then the economy took a turn for the worse and everything changed. Americans are saving again. They are being more financially conservative. Even highly qualified loan applicants are having trouble getting money from the bank. In short, Americans are now engaging in the kinds of practices that we should have been doing all along. It might not have prevented the present disaster, but it certainly would have blunted the impact for some people. Unfortunately, many of us simply weren’t prepared.
Returning to my original point, our current economic predicament has a spiritual parallel. When things are good, we become complacent. It is not until disaster hits that we batten down the hatches and get ourselves in gear. From a faith perspective, this complacency manifests itself in the neglect of prayer and reading the Bible. We know that God will always be there when we need Him, so it’s tempting to maintain a minimal connection when the sailing is smooth.
However, the point I made at church this week and the point I want to emphasize now, is that spiritual preparedness for the storms of life has nothing to do with whether or not God is available. He is always available. Spiritual unpreparedness is instead about your ability to hear Him. Do you remember the sound of God’s voice? Can you recall the shape of His character? If you have not been spending consistent, intimate time with God, the answer may be no.
Just like any other discipline that you learn, following God actually requires practice. In the same way that one learns an instrument or a foreign language through time and commitment, one must learn and grow into Christian discipleship gradually and diligently. The longer you follow God, the more you form habits of self.
On the other hand, if you stop practicing a musical instrument for several years and then suddenly pick it up again, you are likely to make mistakes. You will play clumsily as you remember the finger positions and notes. Likewise, spiritual neglect results in clumsy discipleship. We may turn to God when times are bad, but we might also find ourselves demanding things of God, becoming impatient with Him or others, caving into fear, and lashing out at loved ones in the process. The relationship will be unfamiliar to us.
Intimacy with God is not a switch we can just turn on or off. What’s more, the substance of one’s connection to God is not to be found in the simple act of prayer or reading one’s Bible. Those practices are certainly important, but the ability to seek and hear God is an entire posture of the soul, and it cannot be formed in a day.
Knowing this about discipleship, it is important to develop spiritual consistency between the good times and the bad. Rather than take a triage approach to faith, look to Paul’s example in Philippians 4:11-12, who possessed an intimacy with Christ no matter his circumstances. Although seasons of sweetness are great opportunities to rest and breathe, they are also opportunities to be diligent and prepare. So seek God now. Pray continually. Cling to His Word. Because even when the sailing is smooth, the call of the Christian life is still upon us.