I’m no slouch when it comes to discipline. Granted, it’s usually on or off. I eat and party and I fast and work with equal intensity.
I graduated Summa Cum Laude (even so, I will admit I had to look up how to spell that). Then I earned an MBA with straight “A”s. I did get a “B” in seminary, but that’s only because I adamantly disagreed with a professor (an expert on Pascal) about who discovered the vacuum. I’ll cut the guy some slack; he’s very old. Hell, maybe he was there when the vacuum was discovered.
Anyway, everything I do, from being a husband (20 years, thank you very much) and father of three, to my work at Key Life, I give it all I got.
I tell you all that for two reasons.
First, I want you to know that I’m not just the silly DJ you hear on the radio. Every clown secretly wants to play Hamlet. Either way, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Second, it’s relevant to the topic of grace and discipline.
When I first became a Christian, you wouldn’t have liked me at all. I burned everyone who entered the atmosphere of my self-righteousness. You see, when I came to faith, I was determined to earn straight “A”s in Christianity like I did in every other area of my life.
To this day, my commitment to personal excellence (and the pressure that comes with that) easily drifts into judgment of all the “slackers” who don’t subject themselves to the torture I put myself through. Most recently, I’ve been particularly unimpressed with web designers.
It took a year of trying to wow God with my true quality before I popped. I got high, chilled out and decided that being a “real” Christian is impossible. It was such a relief to give up. I vowed never to try to please God again. (It was years before I realized that Christians don’t have to. It’s crazy to try and please someone who’s already quite pleased. Jesus did say, “It is finished.”)
And so it began, my experiment with grace. I told God he could have my life and make me more moral or less addicted, whatever he wanted. The ball was in his court, but I was not going to drive myself (and everyone around me) nuts with the never-ending, exhausting effort to perfect myself. That would have been suicide.
I got better in some ways, worse in others, and ended up in what I call the cul-de-sac of grace (I had to look up cul-de-sac, too). I went around and around in circles wanting to change some destructive things in my life, but I didn’t know how. I knew what trying got me before and I just couldn’t bear the weight and stink of self-righteousness. Still, even though I didn’t look very much like a Christian, the good news of the Bible assured me that God loved me, not because I was lovable, but because he is Love. That grace is truly radical! I knew God liked me no matter what… but I didn’t like myself.
That’s when I found the spiritual disciplines.
What, you may ask, does the free and unconditional love of God apart from any good works have to do with fasting and praying and service and studying the scriptures, etc.? If we’re free, why flog ourselves? Aren’t the spiritual disciplines just another way the monkey performs for divine bananas?
Richard Foster put it this way in his classic, Celebration of Discipline:
“Picture a narrow ledge with a sheer drop-off on either side. The chasm to the right is the way of moral bankruptcy through human strivings for righteousness. Historically this has been called the heresy of moralism. The chasm to the left is the way of moral bankruptcy through the absence of human strivings. This has been called the heresy of antinomianism. On the ledge there is the path, the Disciplines of the spiritual life. This path leads to the inner transformation and healing for which we seek. We must never veer off to the right or the left, but stay on the path. The path is fraught with severe difficulties, but also with incredible joys. As we travel on this path, the blessing of God will come upon us and reconstruct us into the image of His Son Jesus Christ. We must always remember that the path does not produce the change; it only puts us in the place where the change can occur. This is the way of disciplined grace.”
I read that and I had to see if Foster was full of it. For years now I’ve been experimenting with the classic spiritual disciplines and I’m happy to say that Richard is right.
As an aside, remember, I work at Key Life Network, the Mecca of radical grace. When I talk about my efforts here, eyes roll. They know I’m a self-obsessed overachiever and they figure I’ve fallen off the freedom wagon. With certain things, grace people can be so uptight. Oh well, a prophet is without honor in his own studio.
So, now I find myself deep in the desert of Lent. In the past, I’ve been quite successful with my 40-day commitments. A number of times I observed Lent by eating only raw fruits and vegetables with no alcohol or caffeine. That was my plan again this year, except for the fact that I determined wine is raw so I wouldn’t give that up. I also vowed not to smoke. (Steve Brown is very gracious when it comes to me taking his pipe tobacco, but I could tell I had been pushing the boundaries of his generosity. I was also grossing out my wife with my stank.)
I did well for a couple weeks; lost ten pounds. Then I went off the rails with beer and pizza and whiskey… and I got into Steve’s pipe tobacco while he was gone. There, I said it. I hope the grace police at Key Life are happy!
This Lent has been one of the best yet, but not for the reason you may think. Sure I enjoyed the food and drink, but the reason this Lent is one to remember is because my weakness has been put on display for me and everyone who knew about the promises I made.
I just couldn’t pull it off. I gave up. I told my wife I blew it and she said, “You suck,” and then walked away. (Don’t hold it against her. She gets grumpy when she hasn’t had any sweets for a month.)
I got a different reaction from God when I told him about my fall from works. He said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
With the Apostle Paul I replied, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
I am so very weak. My wife is right. I do suck. I broke my promises. I don’t have what it takes. But my Lenten failure has been a catalyst for me to celebrate Jesus’ success on my behalf. All those times I kept my Lenten commitments, when I got to Easter I was able to point to the “A” I got in Religion 101 as a sign of my discipline. Not this year. On Easter I’ll be pointing to the one who remains faithful when I flounder. This year I will boast in my weakness, so the power of Christ may rest upon me.
What does all that have to do with spiritual disciplines? Everything. It was my whole-hearted engagement in the discipline of fasting that put me on a collision course with the revelation of my weakness and God’s grace. How can you fail if you don’t try? And how can you know God loves you unconditionally if you don’t fail?
Remember, the spiritual disciplines aren’t about showing off, they’re just about showing up. They’re about creating the conditions for an encounter with the reality of yourself and the transforming reality of God. Listen to Richard Foster again:
“A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He puts the seed in the ground where the natural forces take over and up comes the grain. That is the way with the Spiritual Disciplines—they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where He can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace … God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we are placed where he can bless us.”
So pray, and when you just can’t pray anymore, our great High Priest will pray for you. Serve others, and when you’re spent, go to him, weary and heavy-laden, and he with give you rest. Fast, and when you just can’t live without pizza one second longer, thank the One from whom every good and perfect gift flows.
Radical discipline and radical grace go together because the spiritual disciplines are a means of grace. We don’t use our strength to try to improve ourselves or to earn God’s approval. That leads to self-righteousness. Still, we don’t cease all effort either. No, we use our strength to practice the spiritual disciplines in order that we may set the stage for an encounter with the healing presence of our God, our weakness, and his grace.
As the season of Lent began, the priest put ashes on my head and we asked God to help us “remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
As Lent draws to a close, I can see that my failure has answered that prayer.