As the New Year begins, many Christians will launch into resolutions that include attempts to improve their walk with God – daily Scripture reading, a more disciplined prayer life, more regular church attendance. One barrier to the resolutions becoming routine is the burden of guilt we needlessly attach to these Christian disciplines.
We assume that God will love us more or rate us more deserving of his grace based on our performance. So, when our enthusiasm for these disciplines wanes or life becomes more complicated than our rosy resolutions, our lapses send us into recriminations for our failures. We feel disappointed with ourselves but are more concerned that God is disapproving of us. We have failed again to be the saints of our dreams, or the person Jesus desires. So, rather than putting ourselves through regular frustration with ourselves or facing the frown of God, we choose to abandon the routines.
We may screw up our resolve again for a while, but the inevitable inconsistencies of our humanity and the pressures of our lives doom our resolutions to the dust bins of good intentions. Maybe we will do better next year.
Growth without Guilt
Is there a better way to grow close to God without being motivated by the pressure of our guilt or God’s disapproval – both of which ultimately make us want to keep our distance from anything that reminds us of our failure or his frown?
One approach that can help is thinking of these Christian disciplines as bread rather than a bribe. Too many Christians pray, read their Bibles, and attend church activities with the intention of making sure that God will be nice to them. They put themselves through the routines and rituals of the Christian life with the motivation of gaining God’s love or staying on his good side.
If we could see daily Bible reading as the opportunity regularly to feast on the goodness of God’s Word, then it would become bread for our soul.
These believers have been told that good Christians pray frequently, read the Bible daily, and go to church regularly. So, they do what they think is needed to get the points with God that will earn his love or convince him to grant the good stuff that they love. In essence, they are trying to bribe God by going through the misery of church attendance, the penance of prayer, and the burden of Bible reading – the longer and more difficult the better, more points that way.
Reading without Earning
But what if we could understand that reading the Scriptures, like prayer and worship, is bread for our souls, not barter for God’s blessings? Throughout his Word, God is showing us how relentless is his love for sinful people, how resolute is his care for those who have failed him, and how great is his grace toward those who do not deserve it.
If we would read God’s Word to see his grace, rather than to earn it, then we would read the Word to feed our souls with his love rather than to plug “the vending machine in the sky” to spit out nice things. We would feast on God’s grace rather than try to leverage him for blessings. His Word would be the source of our assurance, peace, and strength, rather than a burden or a bribe. We would not flee his frown but would run to his smile.
If we could see daily Bible reading as the opportunity regularly to feast on the goodness of God’s Word, then it would become bread for our soul. As much as we hunger for breakfast after a night without food, we would long to come to the Lord’s Word for the spiritual nutrition that we are privileged to receive to fuel the joy that is our strength for all the days of our lives.
Prayer without Penance
Similarly, if prayer were not a ritual to make God listen to us, but a privileged conversation with the King of the Universe, then we would not begrudge the time spent with God. We would marvel that, even when we do not know how to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with fervency beyond our ability to express, and our Heavenly Father responds with such wisdom, power, and love that all things work together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:26-28).
Such promises are better than anything we can imagine – better than God actually granting the pony or bicycle for which our children pray at Christmas, or the prayers for better jobs and sweeter marriages that such children offer when they grow up. Our God is actually promising to bend the universe (“all things”) to accomplish what is eternally best for us in response to our prayers.
If we actually perceived the regular miracle of grace that is operative in our meager prayers, then none of us would consider our conversations with God a burden. We would not try to bribe God with our prayers but would beg for the opportunities to pray. We might even become more like the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon who once upset his people by saying, “I hardly ever pray more than five minutes.” But then, he concluded, “Or, go five minutes without praying.”
Body without Burden
Finally, we would find church activities less burdensome, if we thought less about God taking attendance, and more about the privilege of being chosen to encourage his children and to be encouraged by them. God uses a body of believers to represent Christ to us, and to have us represent the Jesus who indwells us to them.
We are not gaining an audience with God by worshipping with others; he already indwells us. We are experiencing more of the fullness of his presence when we gather with others who know him. They teach us more of the extent and varieties of his care when we work and worship with persons as needy and as blessed by the grace of God as we.
Means “of” Grace
Sometimes we get disoriented to the blessings of the biblical disciplines because of the terms the church uses to describe their expression. We speak of the “means of grace” by which God makes his wisdom, power, and love known to his people.
If we actually perceived the regular miracle of grace that is operative in our meager prayers, then none of us would consider our conversations with God a burden.
In the history of the church, we categorize Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments of the church among the ways that God expresses his grace to us. Sadly, in our human fallibility, we inevitably think of the means “of” grace as the means “to” grace, as if these are the things you need to do to gain the grace of God. But, if you had to earn grace, it would not be grace.
The means of grace are the ways they God nourishes believers with the love he provides out his mercy not because of our merit. He makes his love known to us through these means, but they do not qualify us for his love – grace does.
Means of grace are manna for our souls, not means of bribing God for favors. They are bread, not barter. By the participating in these means we grow in understanding and experiencing God’s grace, but he never grows in love for us. His love for us is turned to the max every second of every day and for eternity, not because of any bribe that we offer but because of the blood Jesus shed.
By sheer grace we have been pardoned of sin and partake of heaven. The means of grace don’t change that equation, they enable us to see it better and experience it more on this side of glory. Knowing this, all hearts that yearn for closeness with Jesus feed regularly on his Word, seek him frequently in prayer, and meet him often among his people.
All are the privileges that he provides out of his grace. Not one increases his love toward us, but all bless us with greater appreciation of his heart. That appreciation keeps our faith strong through the trials of life and fuels our desire to meet with him through his means of grace.
Bryan Chapell is the Stated Clerk of the PCA, a pastor, and the author of best-selling books, including the new devotional, Daily Grace, that includes Scripture, devotions, and prayers for every day of the year.