Monday, May 8, 2017
I cannot even finish the Introduction to David Mathis' Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines without stopping to write about it. This is a minor epiphany in the scheme of things, but it's huge to me (I think epiphanies have to be huge if you have one).
Ironically, I was prepared to be disappointed by this book. I'd heard a lot about it when it first came out, but had resisted the hype. My friend Diane, however, posted an article written by Mathis ("Do You Exercise for the Wrong Reasons?") and I liked it, so I decided to buy his book.
Amazon makes it so easy to snag something for your Kindle: one click. So I did the one click, took my Kindle off of "airplane mode," and watched the book magically load onto my Paperwhite. (These are the days of miracles and wonders.) I have several flaws as a reader: one of them is that I read every blurb, every acknowledgment, every footnote, every dedication, every epigraph: every everything. As I read the blurbs I felt a little disheartened: this sounded like a book for beginners. Yes, the blurbers were careful to say that "more mature" believers would benefit, but I was afraid I'd stumbled into a kindergarten class and I long for grad school.
I keep praying about arrogance -- I tend to it and I hate and despise it, so when a "kindergarten book" provides an epiphany it does double duty: I get the specific information that caused the realization, plus I get put in my place a little bit (all of this has happened before the end of the Introduction, remember).
The book is about spiritual disciplines -- I mean, it's right there in the title. I've read a lot about various spiritual disciplines over the years (I should define the term: these are "means of grace" (more on that in a minute) and can be listed in an infinite number of ways. Typically they include prayer, fasting, meditation, Bible reading, confession, worship, etc. But again -- every author's list tends to be a little different. Mathis divides them into three overarching categories: God's voice (Bible reading); God's ear (prayer); God's body (fellowship)). I began with Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline which I recommend with caveats and have lately focused on prayer -- I wholeheartedly recommend Tim Keller's Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Mathis also recommends this one).
I'm not sure what I was looking for, really. Looking back, I think that I thought if I got to a place where I was a "prayer master," if I became the most awesome Bible studier ever -- I could "earn grace" (oxymoron). This was not a conscious thought because I know better. But somehow I felt if I could just meet all the requirements -- like earning a merit badge -- I would be rewarded with more of God. Because I've always known that's the end goal -- these disciplines are means to an end and the end is more of God, more of Jesus, a deeper, richer, fuller communion with and understanding of the only One who matters. As Hosea says, "Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord."
So my goal has been worthy and I've been on the right track with my means -- but the how and why have all been a muddle. Which brings me to my period of enlightenment...
Mathis -- despite his title -- prefers the term "means of grace" to the expression "spiritual disciplines." That was the beginning of my epiphany. He quotes a lot from Donald S. Whitney's Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, a book that has been on my to-be-read list for a while, and which I have now nudged closer to the top. Whitney uses the examples of Zacchaeus (who climbed the tree that he might see and be seen by Jesus) and Bartimaeus (who sat beside the road and cried out to Jesus for healing) and says that they "placed themselves in Jesus's path and sought him."
Mathis says "We cannot force Jesus's hand, but we can put ourselves along the paths of grace where we can be expectant of his blessing...[T]ypically the grace that sends our roots deepest, truly grows us up in Christ, prepares our soul for a new day, produces lasting spiritual maturity, and increases the current of our joy streams from the ordinary and unspectacular paths of fellowship, prayer, and Bible intake given practical expression in countless forms and habits."
In other words, Jesus gives grace when he chooses to give grace (we cannot earn it -- Romans 11:6). I cannot run to Jesus and say, "See, Lord, I have read my Bible faithfully for six months straight. Now bless me with more of you." It doesn't work that way ("We cannot force Jesus's hand").
He also quotes heavily from John Piper's When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy: "The essence of the Christian life is learning to fight for joy in a way that does not replace grace." Mathis goes on, "We cannot earn God's grace or make it flow apart from his free gift. But we can position ourselves to go on getting as he keeps on giving. We can 'fight to walk in the paths where he has promised his blessings' [another Piper quote]. We can ready ourselves to remain receivers along his regular routes, sometimes called 'the spiritual disciplines,' or even better, 'the means of grace.'"
I will confess something. I have never gotten much out of corporate prayer. I've wanted to, but it has always seemed an exercise in futility. I know we are supposed to pray corporately, so I have always participated but without feeling any extraordinary blessing from it.
Last Thursday was the National Day of Prayer. A small group -- maybe twenty? -- of us gathered at our church to pray. I felt the Spirit in this gathering in a way I never have before. I was uplifted, encouraged, made more determined -- all from the exercise of corporate prayer.
So this is all starting to coalesce in my mind, in my soul -- God dispenses grace when and on those he chooses, but if we place ourselves in the common areas where grace is most often distributed we are more likely to get this gift. Jonathan Edwards called this placing ourselves "in the way of allurement."
Mathis writes, "The way to receive the gift of God's empowering our actions is to do the actions. If he gives the gift of effort, we receive that gift by expending the effort. When he gives the grace of growing in holiness, we don't receive that gift apart from becoming more holy. When he gives us the desire to get more of him in the Scriptures, or in prayer, or among his people, we don't receive that gift without experiencing the desire and living out the pursuits that flow from it."
This is so obvious -- you are probably thinking, "THIS is an epiphany?" But for this rule-following gal, this is an explosive realization. I read God's word in order to hear his voice in order to get more of his grace and a close relationship with him. Some days the reading is just reading (although I pray before I read -- every time -- that I might be aware that I am reading God's Word, a huge blessing, a great gift, one never to be taken for granted). Some days the words seem alive and surely written -- even thousands of years ago -- with me in mind. But I would never get that blessing if I hadn't done the reading.
I dunno -- I need to think about this more, but becoming aware of how I was subconsciously trying to merit grace has been a huge thing. I will meditate on this more -- and finish the intro!!!