I have been sick for two weeks. It’s just a common cold, but it won’t seem to go away. During that time, my typical faith “activities,” such as prayer and Bible study, have fallen by the wayside. Even though it’s due to my current preoccupation with extra sleep and blowing my nose (rather than any kind of faith crisis), I’m amazed at how fast I can get spiritually “out of shape.” I realized it this morning in the shower.
Thought process: Hmmm. I haven’t prayed in several days. I need to pray. OK. Here we go. Dear God… (pause) (longer pause…thinking what to say…) Hi.
…Then I actually laughed out loud because I just said “hi” to God.
I could only offer a meek “hi” because I was feeling sheepish and disconnected after having not prayed for so long. It’s like picking up the phone to call a friend you haven’t been in touch with for a while; those initial moments are usually awkward.
We should see our spiritual life as being in need of regular exercise, just as our physical bodies are. But how do we get into and stay in spiritual shape? What does that actually look like? Here is my guide to toning the four spiritual “muscle groups”: Prayer, Bible Study, Church and Serving.
The Barrier: When you haven’t prayed in a long time, or haven’t been praying regularly, guilt is often the major barrier to starting again. No other spiritual muscle group makes you face God directly in admitting that you’ve been “away.” If you’re like me, this can actually cause you to go even longer without praying because you don’t want to face God. The second barrier is that we often aren’t sure what to say or where to start when we’ve been disconnected for a while. World peace? My neighbor’s surgery? General praise and thanks? Forgiveness for a nagging sin? The blank prayer slate can be intimidating.
The Work Out Plan:
1. Remind yourself that God is actually waiting to hear from you again! There is no need to feel sheepish.
2. You’ve heard it a million times before: set a time to pray daily. Ideally, choose a time that is part of your routine so you can’t forget. I used to try waking up early, but I would never do it because I didn’t have to. I now pray every morning in the shower and am much more consistent because showering is part of my daily routine.
3. Write down 5 things you want to pray about before you start. It helps get you back in the mindset of prayer and eliminates the fear of not knowing what to say.
4. When you pray, start by asking God for forgiveness for your “absence.” Acknowledging your distance sets aside your guilt barrier and opens you to free communication.
5. Prayer is a spiritual exercise we should all do daily. The Bible tells us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)!
The Barrier: Not having a game plan. Let’s face it: the Bible is a giant book. Even if you are an avid reader, the volume and complexity of the Bible can be overwhelming.
The Work Out Plan:
1. Pick a reading plan. For example:
- Do a “read the Bible in a year” plan. One of these plans will tell you exactly what to read each day. You can start any time. (Here is one example.)
- Create your own methodical plan. For me, reading the Bible in a year requires too much per day. I get behind, then I get frustrated, then I give up. I’ve had to acknowledge that it’s better for me to read a little Bible daily than a lot of Bible only on occasion. Consistency is key for spiritual impact. I now adhere to my own very simple plan: one chapter per day. I’m currently working my way through the New Testament.
- Select one book to study. When I’m out of Bible study shape, I often dive back in by reading one of the shortest books in the New Testament – James or Galatians, for example. Reading an entire book in one sitting is a great starting point.
- Pick a theme. There are many Bible studies written around themes rather than books. If, for example, you want to study what the Bible says about prayer, you can purchase a Bible study that takes you through key passages on that topic. You can easily search for these on Amazon.com.
2. Read at least four days per week. Studies have shown that the “magic” number of Bible reading days per week that will impact your faith life is four (statistically speaking). I love quantifiable guidelines, so I have been working on four days per week of Bible Study “exercise” this year.
3. Find an accountability partner. I have a friend who has agreed to read one chapter per day with me through the New Testament. We email each other on Sunday nights to confirm we are on schedule and outline three key points of interest from the reading.
The Barrier: If you don’t regularly attend church, there are many possible barriers to returning: Not knowing what church to go to, not feeling comfortable with the church you’ve been going to, not believing it’s important to go in the first place, and simple laziness (amongst other things).
The Work Out Plan:
Given the widely varying barriers, you’ll have to tailor your own work out plan. However, the first step is to identify why you aren’t currently attending church. If you can’t immediately identify the reason, try asking yourself this question: “If I were to plan to go to church this Sunday, what are the first three thoughts that would come to mind?”
If you need to better understand why church is important, make your work out plan about reading perspectives on this. If you need to find a new church, make your plan with those steps. If you are just being lazy, make a plan for feeling more refreshed on Sunday mornings!
The Barrier: A body at rest tends to stay at rest. It’s often difficult to find the motivation and time to serve others when our own lives feel so overwhelmingly busy.
The Work Out Plan:
1. Don’t wait for the “right” opportunity to come along. If you wait until you feel confident in your personal calling, have taken care of all your loose ends, have adequate time in your schedule and feel spiritually prepared, the “right” opportunity will never exist. Read that again and again until you believe it.
2. Find just one thing you can do in the next 30 days. If you are actively attending a church, there are almost certainly serving opportunities you can get involved with in that time. Otherwise, select a local organization you are interested in and contact them for opportunities.
EXTRA TONING: EXTERNAL READING
Reading books (aside from the Bible) on key faith topics of interest has been extremely important for my personal faith development. According to my iPad, I’ve read 19 faith-related books in the last 6 months. I’ve listed them below as an example. If you look at my list, you can see I have a special interest in history and Genesis. (I’ve bolded books I would recommend strongly.)
- On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Kenneth Kitchen)
- Ancient Near Eastern Thought (John Walton)
- Lost World of Genesis 1 (John Walton)
- NIV Genesis Commentary (John Walton)
- The Evolution of Adam (Peter Enns)
- Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (James Hoffmeier)
- A Refutation of Moral Relativism (Peter Kreeft)
- Erasing Hell (Francis Chan)
- Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (Francis Chan)
- Four Views on Hell (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)
- Generous Justice (Timothy Keller)
- Half the Sky (Nicholas Kristof)
- Crazy Love (Francis Chan)
- Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (NT Wright)
- Tattoos on the Heart (Gregory Boyle)
- Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Quick Christian Guide (Ross Anderson)
- Finding God in Unexpected Places (Philip Yancey)
- Real Marriage (Mark Driscoll)
- Already Gone (Ken Ham)
Have you experienced being out of spiritual shape? What do you do to get back in shape and stay there?