We are two weeks into 2015, and despite the disappointment many of us are feeling at the absence of Mattel hover boards, flying cars, and three-second pizza hydrators, materialistic advancements shouldn’t dictate our level of optimism. Besides, just because our present isn’t a Zemeckisian future doesn’t mean we can’t experience some improvements and upgrades in our own lives that make living them more enjoyable than ever.
From a spiritual standpoint alone, there is plenty you can improve upon as you journey hoverboard-less through 2015, and none of them are incredibly difficult or far-fetched. At a time of year in which droves of people are making the same old New Year’s resolutions (which studies show only have an 8% success rate in the first month alone!), why not instead to commit to a process of growth rather than berate yourself for reaching goals that are rarely realistic in the first place.
Here are three practices that can help you experience a brighter 2015, and the great thing is that none of them become lost causes if you happen to neglect them once or twice before spring arrives. The point, of course, is to keep at them – transformation is a slow burn, not a sudden explosion.
#1 – Engage in Spiritual Exercises
When you think about it, physical exercise and spiritual exercise are a lot alike. Not only do both require long-term commitments of time and focus in order to notice significant change, but they also involve forces that are not under our control. Physical exercise involves working our bodies into a state in which internal, metabolic processes can do… whatever it is they do… so that we can experience the benefits of greater strength and health. No one is able to force those internal processes to start – it is simply what takes place with increasing effectiveness the longer one commits to an exercise regimen. In short, I do what I can so that my body is able to do what it does best.
And it’s nearly the same with spiritual exercises (sometimes referred to as “spiritual disciplines”). It is not the outward commitment to prayer, study and meditation that actually transforms heart and mind. The Bible reminds us that “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). In other words, I do what I can so that God’s Spirit will begin to change me from the inside out.
The thing is, a lot of Christians live as if there are only a couple of accepted spiritual exercises. Many “quiet times” are composed of little more than reading a short passage of Scripture (with or without the aid of a devotional book) and praying through a perpetual list of wants and needs. While there is nothing inherently wrong with either, such a meager regimen often becomes stale, and it doesn’t consistently focus us on what God’s Spirit desires to accomplish in our lives. I wish that more Christians would reclaim the wealth of disciplines and exercises that have been undertaken for centuries.
Ever walked through the weight room at your local fitness center and wondered how several of the stranger-looking machines operate, or even what muscle groups they work? No matter how beneficial a particular exercise might be, we normally don’t like to change things up. That is, until said exercise becomes the next big thing “everybody’s doing.” But until then, like awkward gym machines we won’t go near, many Christians avoid any spiritual exercises other than the common standards, if for no other reason than the common is what we’re comfortable with.
But there are others, and maybe 2015 is the year to move your “quiet time” out of your comfort zone. For starters, try silence. Not inaudible praying – just being silent. Close your eyes, take deep breaths, slow everything down. Imagine God’s Spirit flooding your body like a deeply inhaled breath, sanitizing the spoiled places and purging the pessimism from your mind. Or, what about praying through a psalm? Not studying Psalm 25 in order to grasp the historical significance or interpret it according to modern life, but simply allowing it to be your prayer. Read through it every day, reflect on it in the car, whisper the words again at night. Let those ancient words fall anew upon your own life. You might be surprised how eye-opening and world-enhancing such an exercise can be.
And, if these quiet exercises only make your eyes heavy, you might consider just getting more sleep to be a worthwhile addition to your spiritual exercise regimen. Mind and body are linked (Matt. 15:18-19). That means, among other things, if you neglect the health of one, you won’t truly experience wholeness with either. In truth, spiritual disciplines do not begin with opening your Bible, just as physical exercise doesn’t begin by climbing onto the elliptical. No, you have to make time for exercise, and that is a discipline in itself. Stop sacrificing rest, and commit to saying “No” to some things in order to eliminate some of the hurry and stress in your life. Creating plenty of space for spiritual exercises is just as important as the exercises you do.
#2 – Embrace the Resurrection
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions,” Karl Marx famously wrote. “It is the opium of the people.” Echoing his sentiment, science-fiction novelist Robert A. Heinlein wrote, “History does not record anywhere a religion that has a rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help.” Even more recently, former Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, stated, “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.” Ouch!
Oh, we poor, pitiful religious people! Oh, we sorry, senseless Christians! We are not brave enough to face reality, too fearful to relinquish our irrational beliefs in the supernatural. Time and again, we stare into the sad unknown of death and loss and renew a preposterous belief in some magical continuation of life after death. What cowards we are!
Toward the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes, “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (15:17-19) For Paul, the Christian’s hope hinged on the resurrection of Jesus, whom he referred to repeatedly as “the firstborn from among the dead.” Of course, a “firstborn” denotes there are others laterborn, and Paul insists these are the ones who place their hope in Jesus. Indeed, the paramount reason the Christian Church established itself back in the first century wasn’t simply the joy of getting their sins forgiven, but because they believed Jesus had physically risen from the dead, and, in so doing, had set in motion a long-unfolding fulfillment of God’s promise of resurrection and the restoration of all creation.
Unfortunately, with the Enlightenment and the subsequent eras of modernity and postmodernity, it became harder for people to accept such an outlandish, irrational event as a bodily resurrection. People don’t rise from the dead unless they’re in a George A. Romero flick. Such philosophical insistence, combined with the abiding assumption of a Platonic existence in which body and soul (assuming there even is something like a soul at all) are separate, disparate entities, seeped into human thinking everywhere, including the Christian Church, and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it became more and more common to imagine heaven as an otherworldly haven for disembodied souls, not as a radical renewal of all things, humanity included.
As such, Christian hope has weakened, and fear of death and what, if anything, comes after has increased. More and more Christians are uncertain of what to make of the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the promise that what happened to him would also come true for us. No wonder skeptics, atheists and nihilists consider religion, particularly Christianity, to be nothing more than a crutch for the weak-minded. Did not Paul insist that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, we are to be pitied more than anyone? To people who don’t believe in resurrection, we must look pretty ridiculous!
But what would happen if Christians threw off the constraints of naturalism and Neoplatonism and returned to the actual claims of Scripture? What if you chose to make 2015 the year you embraced the resurrection not as some mysterious doctrine but as a historic and earth-shaking reality that infuses the present with meaning. Every act of kindness, every charitable effort, every declaration of your Christian faith – God can and will use it in his work of restoration, which, according to Scripture, will one day be completed when Christ appears again.
For many people, living “in light of heaven” has come to mean enduring unhappiness and hardship because they believe they will one day be removed from this corrupt world. It’s time to reclaim that phrase – to live in light of the resurrection, in which heaven and earth are ultimately joined, and our world will be restored to the beauty and peace God always intended – and allow it to motivate us to faithful service in this life. As a great American hero, Maximus Decimus Meridius, once said, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” His words are themselves an echo of the Apostle Paul, who reminds the Corinthians, “Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
#3 – Lean in to Your Church
The thing about spiritual transformation is it is more likely to happen in community than in isolation. There is something about interacting with fellow believers that truly helps to fortify a lot of the virtues that begin to emerge when we engage in spiritual exercises and embrace the coming resurrection. We need others to help us identify the fruit we are bearing, as well as the fruit that has not yet appeared. It’s not about comparing ourselves against each other, but rather understanding each other. When the New Testament speaks of concepts like salvation and sanctification, it is almost always referred to in a communal context over a merely individual one.
But this isn’t brand new information. Even amidst a growing “Jesus and me” mentality in Western culture, the majority of Christians are not so naive that they have completely written off the importance of their local church. For them, the issue isn’t recognizing that their church community is valuable, but how exactly they are supposed to interact with the people there.
This is the point where the good and faithful minister in me wants to say, “Serve.” Get plugged in and get to work, of course! Service is a discipline, and it is also the proper response of one who holds a renewed hope in God’s restoration of his creation. A church community lives or dies based on how dedicated its members are to serving one another. And yet, I’m beginning to realize that service is neither the objective nor the goal of Christians’ activity in the church. While many pastors and many church programs make service the focal point, being a servant to your fellow believers is really just a by-product of something else.
Before turning to the subject of resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul first addresses the myriad problems prevalent in that church. His solution does not stop at encouragement to serve one another. He takes it much deeper. He advocates for love. After twelve chapters of pointing out disunity, moral failures and status worship, Paul’s letter comes to a head when he writes, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” What follows is his famous poem on love, found in chapter thirteen. While the words have become a syrupy staple of weddings both Christian and secular, Paul never meant for them to be divorced from the rest of his letter. No, he meant for them to answer with finality the question, “How should I act within my church?”
Be patient and kind. Don’t act full of yourself, and don’t speak that way either. Don’t insist your ideas are best, nor celebrate when others’ ideas blow up in their faces. Be a picture of strength, faithfulness, indomitable hope and perseverance. If you’re committed to living this way, serving of others will not be something you must choose to do. It will take place naturally. As Rich Mullins once said, “If you’re a Christian, ministry is just an accident of being alive.”
This year, if you choose the way of love in your local church, you may very well find you’re not the only one who bears fruit. Once you considered yourself a solitary tree, but it turns out you were planted in an orchard all along.
So, there you have it. Three simple decisions – one of faith, one of hope, and one of love – that can have profound impacts on your life in 2015. Now two weeks into the new year, many of us are already struggling to adhere to the resolutions we made. If and when those crumble away, why not replace them with three aims that will work in you a greater change than you could have ever anticipated?