“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” -Jesus (John 15:5)
Most of my blog posts wax theoretical or emotional, but rarely practical. That won’t be today.
Before I begin, the point of what I am about to write is not to get you to do what I do, or to make you believe that I’m the most amazing Christian ever. I struggle with everything you struggle with. I have spent days, months and even years wondering if there even is a God. I’ve debated my purpose in life. I’ve wondered if anything I do, from work to ministry to my daily comings and goings matter, at all.
But I’ve worked through a lot of it. I still struggle with all of the above and then some, but I think I process things (slowly!) in fairly healthy ways. And part of that is because in my teen years, I became fully committed to Christ. Unlike most Christian high school students, I didn’t lose my faith in college. I was challenged, for sure, but it grew my faith, and God used my exposure to doubt and insecurity to help trust Him more. I worry that won’t be the case for most of my students. I worry the students I have spent the most time with, and shed the most tears over, will in the next few years evaluate life with Jesus and find it lacking — and walk away forever.
Part of my purpose as a leader is to demonstrate a healthy relationship with Jesus. And while my relationship with Jesus is by no means perfect, it is undoubtedly healthy. It is strong. It will and has endured much pain, much doubt, much hardship. And I think part of the reason for that are my personal spiritual habits. I want to share them, because they are secret and unseen, and I think if they helped me, they will help you, too. Many of these I have done for over ten years, never for glory, but because it works. Please don’t think I write this to tell you about how great I am. I am a wretch. I think God lets me stew in my sin at times to remind me all of this is about Him and not me. This post is about How Great God is, and how to keep your heart on Him. I’m indebted to many people who I’ve stolen these ideas from, none are original to me, as these habits have turned my heart closer and closer to God. So if you have a habit that has worked for you, please share it with me.
Arguing with God
First on my list of my habits is arguing with God. Yes. Really.
Angry with God? Upset that he allowed something horrible happen to you? Let Him know. Shout up to God and flip heaven the finger, if you want.
This one will probably surprise the most people, but why? Get this, if there is a God, He already knows. You’re not doing Him or yourself any favors by sugarcoating how you really feel. Sugarcoat it to everyone else, if you want, but God knows how you really feel. And it is safe to tell Him so.
Secondly, God’s really really really really really big. Is an elephant harmed by a gnat swatting at it? No. God’s not going to be inconvenienced by how you really feel.
Real relationships start with real honesty. And I have honestly been extremely angry at God. So have so many of the great characters of the Bible. Go read Jeremiah 20 sometime.
Be honest with God. Argue with Him. He may not answer your question, He may not answer you at all, but at least you’ll feel better for having gotten it off your chest.
Crying before God
I admit it. I cry. A lot. Rarely in front of people. If you want my man card, come take it, but real emotion is is far too often suppressed. I suppress it from myself, because I want to man up and suppress it and pretend it didn’t happen.
I’m not talking about crying over a stubbed toe. I’m talking about real emotion for real stuff that really matters. There’s a time and place for our hearts to be broken. You can be honest with God over all of it.
I cry over ministry a lot because I know by name, and by story, a whole bunch of kids who had horrible stuff happen to them, and consequently they have decided that God hates them. I could write like 15 names right here, but I won’t. Because it won’t matter to you because you don’t know any of them. But I know them, I know their stories, I know their pain, and I know their struggles. (at least somewhat) And their hurts, hurt me. And I let God know. And more often than not, the only “answer” is that there’s nothing I can do but keep loving, keep pushing on, and know that God loves them and mourns them too.
Praying super specifically
I never got into general prayers. You know the ones, “God I pray for all the poor people”, or, “I pray that people will have good lives.”
The thing that ignites my prayer life is praying super specifically praying for people. By name and by story. I love praying for specific people, especially my students and friends. I vary this from time to time. Some weeks I start out on Monday or Sunday and write down every name I can think of, put it on a piece of paper, and spend the whole week praying for each person by name. Sometimes I don’t have a specific prayer for them, sometimes it becomes, “I want X to know the love of Christ in His life.”
I also sometimes have written down the list of names on my arm so throughout the day I can think of and quickly pray for a bunch of different people I care about. Other times I will draw a name of a person out of a hat, and let God pick who I pray for.
One morning I was running late to a meeting where some people were going to scrutinize some decisions I made and I was feeling pretty nervous about this meeting. But right before I left, I put my hand in the hat and drew out a name to pray for throughout the day … and I about fell over when the name that “randomly” appeared was the person that called the meeting. I knew God was all over that, and I spent the car ride to the meeting praying for this person … and it’s awfully hard to hate someone you pray good for. God knew what He was doing as He always does.
In 2011 while I was on staff at Life.Church, I started the year out (with the entire staff) by fasting. I didn’t like how I was letting social media (especially Twitter) steal my joy, so I decided for the first 3 weeks of 2011 to abstain from Twitter and Facebook. I have done some sort of fast like that (though usually from food) for at least 3 weeks, every year since. Jesus fasted. And if Jesus thought fasting was a good idea, I’m going with Him.
Here’s why I fast. It’s not because I feel spiritually on fire every time. (I have at times, the 2015 fast made me feel like I had spiritual super powers … but the 2016 fast all I felt was hungry.) It’s a three week intensive to instill new habits of focus and devotion on God. It’s during one of these fasts (the 2014 one, I believe) where I started reading devotionals most mornings. They say it takes 3 weeks to instill a new habit, so I try to use fasting as a way to audit my habits and instill one good new one (maybe not daily) and get rid of one unhealthy habit. It’s a time to pray intensely about the year to come. I usually start a new reading plan from the Bible at this time, and a couple years ago it was through fasting that I started to read the whole Bible in one year, the first time I had since I was 12. (I think this was also the 2014 fast)
This one is hard because I think giving should be secret. And I’m not going to be specific about this other than to say, I think every one should make generosity with their money their biggest priority. And I don’t mean, give twenty bucks here and there to some homeless guy you see. I mean, be radically generous and allocate a percentage of your income to things God cares about. Pick any percent to start, 5%, 2%, 1% – or go crazy and try for 25%.
There was a time shortly out of college when I wasn’t making a whole lot, and I felt so stressed out about the future and how things were going to work out financially, that I logged in to my bank account to do some math and I felt like God told me to take one of my savings accounts and empty it. I felt so called to give it to something He cared about. I didn’t like that conversation. It had taken me something like 6 months to save that meager amount and God wanted me to … give it all away? What if I had some emergency the next week. What if something horrible happened. It’s not like I could just walk to the money store and replace it. If something happened, I’d be screwed. Didn’t God understand that?
What I didn’t understand (and still struggle with) is that God is so much bigger than everything else I could face. And God wants me to trust Him, not how much money I have in the bank, and I had to pick whether I trust God or trust money. I wrote the check the next week and then felt so free. I had thrown my lot in with God, and trusted Him for what was next.
Every now and again I fall back into the same old temptations. “My bank account will save me.” And when I fall into that trap, I know what God has expected of me, and that’s to turn it all over to Him and trust Him. And usually I look at what I’ve been giving lately and realize that it’s not challenging me anymore. My income has grown since college, and what once was challenging is now just easy, and I know I need to up my percentage until it makes me a little uncomfortable. Living with faith is a little uncomfortable, because I admit that I’m not in control, God is. But at least I’m admitting it, if I hoarded my money thinking I could control my destiny, I’d just be lying to myself.
At the start of the year, I pick out a daily devotional that I want to read throughout the year. Just something that takes about 5 minutes to read and focuses my mind and my heart on God. This year I’m reading through the Psalms with Tim Keller’s psalm devo. Next year, I’ll probably do one with CS Lewis. I read this about 3 or 4 times a week (definitely not every day) and it’s nice to refocus on God.
God gave us a compilation of what He’s like through 66 different perspectives. Why would we not take advantage of that? I’ve tried reading plans, and study Bibles, and all sorts of things like that. But what has worked for me is keeping it simple. I probably over read the New Testament, and especially the epistles but I love reading Paul’s concern for the Church, and they’re usually short and easy to digest. Sometimes I will tire of that, and decide to branch out. A few months ago I read Daniel with the help of a Bible commentary through Logos Cloud. This is another one that I target about 4-5 times a week.
Bible Study With Others
This is one that I’ve done in the past and has been inactive for the last couple years, but has always been helpful for me so I’ll put it on this list. I love reading the Bible with others because they always bring in a different perspective that I’ve never even heard before. Sometimes we use a commentary or study book to guide us, sometimes we just wing it. In this category, my girlfriend and I will go through a book together and just trade emails over what spoke to us over each chapter. I usually suck at this because it’s hard to know what to say after some chapters, but we will usually do this once or twice a week full bore. (with some weeks of nothing – it happens.)
Daily Reminders about God and Me
I got this from Craig Groeschel’s leadership podcast a couple weeks ago. I wrote down a list of things I want to remember every day. Some of it is stuff that I want to change my inner monologue. Some of it is just a reminder of how good God is. But I made a list of stuff to read through and repeat to myself every day. I’ll share a couple from my list:
- Jesus is first in my life. I exist to serve Him with my whole heart my whole day.
- I am growing closer to Jesus every day. I will love and cherish him more and more. And because of him, I will be a better man, a stronger leader, a better example and a greater servant.
- I have been gifted, equipped and called by God to lead students far from God back to Him.
- God loves me, God called me out and set me apart. Nothing will ever separate me from the love of Christ who loved me and gave himself for me.
- Today the world will be better because I lived and because I loved Jesus.
This could easily turn either into terrible religiosity or turn into a rah-rah session about me. That’s not the point. The point is to be a daily reminder that God is number one in my life. That God made me, that God loves me, and that God is using me. Without a daily reminder of these things (in whatever form they take), I’m liable to think that it’s all about or all for me. I need to constantly remind myself that God is God and I am not, and this has been a helpful piece of that.
They say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Boy has that proven to be true. It’s through leading others that I’ve realized how shallow my faith really is, and how little I truly know about God and God’s work in the world. And as I’ve helped other people wrestle through their struggles, their struggles of faith has helped me find my faith.
Not everyone has been called to lead or to teach others. Teachers and leaders like me will be judged more strictly because we can cause other people to lose their way. But if you have been called, lead diligently and with perseverance. It will grow your faith and your relationship with God. Especially leading students. They ask great questions.
Grab Bag of Other Stuff
There’s a bunch of other stuff I do as part of my personal spiritual development. I’m putting it down here not because they’re less important—each is vital—but because I don’t think they take a ton of explanation.
- Talking about faith with great friends. These conversations always challenge me, always encourage me, always give me a new perspective. They always lead me closer to God.
- Weekly worship gatherings. Don’t neglect to worship God with other people. Yeah, there probably aren’t any good churches by you, and there’s probably a reason you haven’t been to church since 1992. But you still need to gather with other Christians and worship God. That’s all heaven is: a whole bunch of people worshipping God. Practice now.
- Sermon podcasts throughout the week. This is supplemental to attending Church every week. But I love hearing from other pastors and how God uses other churches to teach me new truths about himself. I particularly love North Point’s podcast, and Life.Church’s.
- Journaling. I try to journal every day. What I did and how I felt. Where is my heart? What things are bothering me? I want a record of where God has taken me, and the good things He has done in my heart. Looking back over the last few years in my journal has been amazing.
What Not To Do
And finally, a word on what not to do.
First of all, these are some of my habits. I’m not writing this so that you would copy everything I do. You should not. Where God is taking you, and how God made you is different than me. You may need some other habits and none of these. I just wanted to write something down about how I think about habits and how I use habits to focus my life on Christ. If I don’t periodically evaluate my habits, it’s entirely possible some new ones will sneak in that I don’t want, and didn’t plan.
Secondly, none of this is religion for me. By that I mean, if I miss journalling one of my days, I don’t beat myself up over it. Habits are habits. I misplaced my devotional about 3 weeks ago and haven’t done any devos for the last three weeks. When I find it (or a replacement), I’ll pick up wherever we progressed to. I won’t “catch up” on what I missed, or beat myself up over missing it.
Thirdly, these habits are for me, not for God. God is complete. He doesn’t need me, even my daily habits, to complete Him. That wouldn’t be a God worth following, if He needed something from me. God doesn’t need me to read the Bible every day to follow Him, but I know reading the Bible every day will help me follow Him better so I try to do it as often as possible. But if I miss a day, or even a few days or a month, it’s ok. It was for my benefit, not God’s. He’s not mad at me. I just pick it back up and get right back to following and putting God at the center of my life.