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Depending on when you read this, you could be filled with the hopeful glimmer of a shiny list of New Year’s resolutions or thoroughly bummed by your easily dented self-control. Either way you’re bumping up against the paradox that sits at the heart of spiritual growth.

How does faith get formed and our lives take on the shape of Jesus? Is spiritual growth simply grunt work on our part or maybe a “Shazam!” moment of spiritual transformation that happens to us, or is it something else?

If you’re joining the Christian Reformed Church’s focus on faith formation this year (see, you’re likely realizing that grace and effort are not incompatible. This mystery of spiritual growth is summed up well by Augustine: “Without God, we cannot; without us, he will not.”

I can hear the gears in your mind already whirling: Aren’t disciplines simply spiritualized New Year’s resolutions? Am I not doomed to an overcast of guilt worse than a February winter if I bring God into it?

Let’s deal first with the foreboding sense of the word discipline. It sounds so boot-camp, with all too many connotations of some sergeant-barking, spirit-spanking commands.

We’re better off talking about spiritual disciplines as practices. Why does a piano student practice? It’s a labor of love so that one day she can perform soul-stirring music. She’ll never accomplish that by reading books or watching videos. She’s got to master the skills, catch the rhythms. The practice frees her to enjoy and enter the music more deeply so that one day her disciplined virtuosity seems effortless.

Similarly, spiritual disciplines are practices by which we pursue the God who has found us, catching the rhythm of the Christian life. We train ourselves to be godly (1 Tim. 4:7) because knowing God and living the gospel don’t come naturally. We practice so that on a good day our life resonates with grace and resembles that of Jesus himself.

The spiritual practices are the long-held way for disciples to grow in grace. When Jesus taught, he assumed them: “When you give . . . When you pray . . . When you fast” (Matt. 6).

Misunderstanding Grace

The spiritual practices are the way Christians live out the paradox of spiritual growth. Some believe we get saved by grace but then figure spiritual growth is up to us. It’s the New Year’s resolution version, the will-of-steel program. Others believe we are saved by grace and then we do or add nothing—the La-Z-Boy version. Dallas Willard nails it: “We are not only saved by grace, we are paralyzed by it.” We mistakenly believe grace is opposed to effort because we do not earn our salvation.

Spiritual practices, however, are the regular habits by which Christians intentionally participate in and enjoy grace. They are activities we do that open ourselves to God and allow God to do what we cannot, practices that reorient us to what Christ has done.

For example, in the deluge of information in our 24-hour wired world, the practices of meditation and silence reorient us to the life-giving voice of the Good Shepherd. The practice of fasting—abstaining from food, sex, or something else we crave—chastens our gluttonous consumer appetites, reminding us that our real hunger is satisfied in Christ’s love. The discipline of celebration—intentionally feasting, rejoicing, and laughing—opens us to the joy of the gospel as the hallmark of following Jesus.

Are you getting a sense for the grace-full nature of these practices? They are not law. We don’t have to practice them all or at all. There’s even a seasonal nature to them.

A Time for . . .

Take a parent of young children, bent over with diaper bags, weariness, and guilt from a sparse spiritual life. Different spiritual practices can help shape even this busy season of life. A father of toddlers can experience the discipline of silence in a 15-minute break, intentionally enjoying the rest of God along with a cup of coffee. A mother can practice meditation during a midnight feeding as she prayerfully imagines herself held in God’s embrace while she cradles her own child.

Spiritual practices are also meant to be tailored to each individual’s heart. Say your friend experiences God deeply in periods of silence and solitude. You might feel shallow for not demonstrating the same level of devotion, but perhaps you simply don’t need to. Thomas à Kempis writes, “All cannot use the same kind of spiritual exercises, but one suits this person, and another that. Different devotions are suited also to the seasons, some being best for the festivals, and others for ordinary days. We find some helpful in temptations, others in peace and quietness. Some things we like to consider when we are sad, and others when we are full of joy in the Lord.”

My shifty soul requires the discipline of confession. Since I’d far prefer to show you a Photoshopped edition of my true self, I need to regularly tell my wife or trusted friends the non-photogenic truth of who I am, yet, in so doing, experience their acceptance and words of grace.

Giants Need Not Apply

While it’s easy to believe these disciplines are only for spiritual giants, in fact they are ways ordinary people regularly practice the gospel. Practicing the spiritual disciplines is not a sign of my heroic spiritual maturity; I claim them as a badge of my deep need for God and current spiritual poverty.

If you or I loved God and our neighbors in a moment-by-moment way, I’d say forget the disciplines. But the truth is, we don’t. These practices allow us to demonstrate our spiritual need and experience God’s grace at the same moment.

In our New Year’s resolutions, we attempt to change into something we’re not yet, which mostly leaves us deflated. The spiritual disciplines are a more hopeful start to the New Year, growing us into what the gospel says is already true of ourselves. So this January, embrace the paradox of spiritual growth by trying out a spiritual practice or two, exerting yourself to grow in grace.

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