Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Devotional Podcast #8: “What Are You Afraid Of?”

January 26, 2018

Have you noticed that the things that you fear today aren’t usually things that are happening today? Rather, they are things that might happen next week, next month, next year. Why is that? Yet Jesus says not to worry about anything beyond today. It seems clear to me, then, that our fear is a far bigger problem than the things that we’re afraid of.

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:34

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, January 26, and this is Devotional Podcast number 8. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I bring you a new devotional on this channel.

You’re listening to the Beach Boys and their 1963 song “In My Room.” This came from the album Surfer Girl originally. I recorded this from their 1974 compilation album, Endless Summer, which reached number one on the Billboard album charts.

Recently, I was reading a college football blog, and the readers of this blog were arguing in the comments section—as they often do—about my team, the direction of the program, the coaching staff, the institution. And one of the commenters referred by name to another commenter with whom he disagreed—I’ll call him Jason—and said, “Last year, I remember that Jason said thus-and-so, but here’s why he’s been proven wrong.”

Well, that prompted Jason to come out of the woodwork and respond. He wrote, “Thank you for letting me live rent-free in your head for the past year!”

That was a pretty good putdown. Jason was saying, in so many words, “Yes, you may think I’m wrong, but whatever I said a year ago made such an impression on you, that you’ve been thinking about it ever since—stewing over it, letting yourself be bothered by it or angered by it. Therefore, I win the argument.”

But it got me thinking about the people that I allow to “live in my head rent-free.” Who are they and why do I give them such an exalted place of honor?

And usually, the people who “live in my head” are people I’m afraid of for some reason: For me, this is almost always in the professional sphere; my career: I’m often afraid of colleagues, or supervisors, or parishioners who I perceive don’t like me—I’m afraid of how they might judge me, what they might say about me, how they might influence the opinions of others.

I’m like Sally Field at the Academy Awards so many years ago. “You like me! You really, really like me!” I just want everybody to like me!

I know this is beyond silly; this is un-Christian. My only concern should be to please my Lord—and worry about how he judges me. But instead I worry about others. There are, I know, a host of very interesting reasons going back to my childhood why I struggle with this insecurity.

My point is, these are the people who I let “live in my head.”

I wish I could say I was afraid of bad and powerful men like Kim Jong-un, but, no… he rarely crosses my mind. The objects of my fear are much smaller and much more local.

But it’s not just people—I let things I worry about live there as well.

I’m not saying everyone is like me—you probably let other kinds of people other kinds of things live in your head. But I’m sure, like me, you do so out of fear.

One of C.S. Lewis’s masterpieces is The Screwtape Letters. It’s an imagined correspondence between a demon named Screwtape, a well-seasoned tempter of humans, and his nephew Wormwood, a so-called “junior tempter.” We only get to read Screwtape’s side of the correspondence. But we infer that Wormwood is seeking advice from his uncle on how to handle Wormwood’s “patient.” You see, in the world of The Screwtape Letters, each demon is assigned a human “patient”—more like a victim—and it’s that demon’s job to lead their victim away from God, and away from salvation through Christ, and toward hell. If their human ends up in hell, well… then that demon will be judged a success.

In one of Screwtape’s letters, he talks about how Wormwood can use his patient’s fear to his advantage. In this case, his patient is worried about being called up for military service. (The novel is set in World War II Britain.) It’s uncertain whether the patient will be drafted, so he feels a mixture of anxiety and suspense. Screwtape writes the following [emphasis mine]:

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. [Remember, the “Enemy” in this case is God.] What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them [that is, the things he is afraid of] as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practise fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is far easier and is usually helped by this direct action.[1]

Do you see Lewis’s point? The devil tries to focus our minds on the things that we’re afraid of—things that are waiting for us out there, in the uncertain future, where any number of fearful, undesirable things may happen to us—or not: because the future is unknowable. What we know for sure, right now, is that we’re afraid. Therefore, what what God wants us to focus on instead at this very moment—is the fear itself. That fear should be the thing occupying our prayers.

In other words, the anxiety that we’re feeling right now, as we think of possible future outcomes, is the problem; not the possible outcomes that are making us anxious.

Or put it this way: The fear is the problem; not the thing that’s making us afraid.

This is clear from Jesus’ teaching. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” This also clear from the rest of scripture. As Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, “[D]o not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Do you see the practical wisdom here?

What is making you unhappy todayright now… at this moment? It’s probably some “worst case scenario” that you fear will come to pass not today but at some point in the future—tomorrow, next week, next month.

Pray first about the fear that you’re experiencing right now. That fear is part of today’s trouble for which the Lord tells us to pray. You don’t yet know what tomorrow’s trouble is until you get there. But today’s trouble includes the fear that you’re experiencing. Pray about it! Your fear, as Lewis said above, is your “appointed cross” for today—not the thing that you’re afraid of.

Because, believe it or not, God doesn’t want you to be anxious… about anything… ever!

It’s not God’s will for you to worry. You’ll find out whether it’s God’s will for you to face that thing you’re afraid of when the time comes; at which point you can count on God’s giving you the grace you need to face it; but it’s definitely not God’s will for you to be afraid.

So pray that God will take away the fear. And listen to God’s Word—especially what it has to say about anxiety and fear. Start with Matthew 6:25-34.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Co., 1961), 34-5.

Devotional Podcast #1: “Pour Out Your Heart like Water”

January 10, 2018

Devotional Text: Lamentations 2:19

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 10, and today begins my new series of devotional podcasts, which I hope to bring to you two or three times each week. You’re listening to Phil Keaggy’s song, “Let Everything Else Go,” from his 1981 album, Town to Town.


During the final year of my father’s life, in 1995, when Dad was dying of terminal cancer, he experienced—praise God!—a reawakening of his Christian faith. For the first time in his life, perhaps, he was reading the Bible daily and was praying often. Or at least he was trying to pray often; he didn’t always accomplish it. He told me that because of all the medication he was on, he found it very difficult to concentrate. He said, “I begin to pray, and I lose focus. My mind wanders. What I do about that?”

I wasn’t a pastor at the time, but I reassured him with Paul’s words in Romans chapter 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

If no less a saint, I said, than the apostle Paul himself admitted that he didn’t know how to pray properly, then, well… it’s no wonder prayer can be hard… for all of us—even for those of us whose brains aren’t foggy from chemotherapy and other cancer-related drugs!

I find prayer difficult most of the time. And you probably do too.

I was listening to a sermon by a favorite pastor of mine whose church is very large and whose sermons are more intellectually demanding than my own. Unlike me, this preacher seems happily indifferent to using humor, or being “relevant,” or entertaining his audience in any way in his sermons—he just dives right into scripture week after week. So, rightly or wrongly, I perceive that his church must be more advanced in prayer and Bible study than the typical Methodist churches of which I’ve been part.

I was surprised, then, when he said that his church had recently conducted a survey on prayer in his congregation. Over half the congregation, he said, admitted that they did not pray regularly—all his theologically rich sermons on the subject notwithstanding.

The pastor said that when he read the results of the survey, he was tempted to resign on the spot.

I’m sympathetic. But prayer, as I know from painful experience, is hard. Of course, if you run in the same Christian circles that I run in, you may not know it’s hard. In my particular circles, for example, I have clergy colleagues and others who talk about praying almost all the time. They frequently post about their prayer lives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… One clergy colleague, when addressing the challenges facing by my particular denomination said that she recently prayed for hours about our denomination’s problems—in anguish, in tears… And I thought, hours? How do you do that? It would take me months or more to accumulate “hours” of prayer about problems facing the institution known as the United Methodist Church.

Besides, why pray for hours about it when you can just be angry and bitter about it—like me?

But seriously, I get discouraged when I compare any aspect of my life to the lives of friends and acquaintances on social media—my prayer life included. Everyone puts their best foot forward online; everyone presents themselves in the most favorable light possible. What did someone say? On social media, we compare our insides to everyone else’s outside. It’s not a fair comparison. So let’s not do that. Let’s not worry about how we “measure up” to others when it comes to prayer. We only have one judge to worry about, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 4:4. Let’s just worry about ourselves only, and see if we can’t become more faithful pray-ers than we are today.

And to that end, I want to share with you something that has helped me recently: Lamentations 2:19. The prophet Jeremiah is urging his fellow Jews, who have watched the Babylonians destroy their capital city, their temple, their way of life, to repent and pray to God. He says,

Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street.

I find the 19th-century British preacher Charles Spurgeon’s words on this verse very helpful here. He writes:

[W]e cannot pray too simply. Just hear how Jeremiah put it: “Pour out your heart like water before the Lord’s presence.” How does water pour out? The quickest way it can—that’s all; it never thinks much about how it runs. That is the way the Lord loves to have our prayers pour out before him.[1]

Pour out your heart like water.

Prayer—at least Christian prayer—is always a matter of the heart. When prayer becomes disconnected from our heart, that’s when it becomes boring and routine. It becomes a duty we have to perform. It becomes an empty ritual. It becomes drudgery—something to check off our list each day.

Has that happened to you?

If so, reengage your heart. Do what Jeremiah says: Pour your heart out like water.

Consider this: You’ve got something on your heart right now that is waiting to be poured out. What is it? Start your prayers today with that… And maybe you think, “Yes, but God doesn’t want to hear this trivial stuff—or this petty stuff—or this sinful stuff.” Are you kidding? He already knows all about everything that you’re thinking and feeling. Better than you do! Don’t censor yourself. Like Spurgeon says, “Water never thinks much about how it runs.”

So tell God what’s on your heart: What is worrying you today? What is making you feel afraid today? Who or what is angering you today? Why are you hurting? Who or what is causing the pain? What temptations are you facing? What sins are you struggling with? What’s making you feel guilty?

Whatever is in your heart, pour it out like water!

And then ask God for help.

Start there. Start with what’s on your heart! Our heavenly Father wants to hear from you. He wants you to pray today more than he wants you to do so “correctly,” by following a proper form or pattern of prayer.

Will you pour out your heart to him like water this week?

Almighty God, please make it so. Amen.

1. Charles Spurgeon, The Spurgeon Study Bible CSB (Nashville: Holman, 2017), 1073.

A defense of prayer in the wake of the Sutherland Springs massacre

November 7, 2017

I have exactly zero interest in wading into the politics of gun control and Second Amendment rights in America. This blog is not about politics. I recognize, however, that politics is at least the subtext of complaints on social media about the ineffectiveness of prayer in the wake of last Sunday’s massacre of 28 worshipers at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Many politicians, including President Trump, urged Americans to pray for victims and their families.

In response, many critics said, in so many words, “These people were already praying! They were in church, after all. Fat lot of good it did them! We don’t need more prayer. We need action“–and, of course, the nature of this action is precisely what divides people on the left and right (which, again, I’m not talking about in this post or the comments section).

Actor and comedian Michael McKean, in one typical example, tweeted the following (which he has since been deleted):

His words, “They had the prayers shot right out of them,” were perceived by many as insensitive. He later clarified:

By “hypocrisy,” he likely means politicians who fail to do anything other than pray when it comes to dealing with mass shootings in America.

Regardless, one message from tweets such as this is, “Prayer doesn’t work. God’s not going to do anything. Let’s do something constructive instead.” Even an otherwise well-written, and heartbreaking, article in the New York Times on victims of the shooting included this headline:

Do you hear the message? “Even for people who were in church praying last Sunday, prayer doesn’t work.” Read the rest of this entry »

A prayer in the face of threatening storms

September 11, 2017

I prayed the following prayer in yesterday’s worship service.

Merciful God,

As we sang in the hymn a few moments ago, “All Thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea.” Indeed, scripture teaches us that at least one reason—one reason—you have given us storms—even the hurricanes that have devastated the east coast of Texas and have now wrought destruction across the Caribbean, the Florida Keys, and, as I speak these words, Tampa—is to remind us of you and your awesome power. In fact, your Son Jesus tells us that when we witness events like this—and are either unaffected by them or escape them without harm—we ought to be reminded of the brevity of our lives and the vulnerability of our lives; we ought to remember our need to repent of our sins and be saved.[†] Because each of us one day could potentially face a disaster eternally, infinitely greater than any storm on this earth: when we face you on Judgment Day. And our only means of rescue is faith in your Son Jesus, who has made us righteous through his righteous life, his substitutionary death, and his resurrection: You promise we will be made ready for that Day because of your Son, for whom we give you thanks and praise this morning.

The weather, like all of your Creation,  glorifies you, and most of the time the same predictable physical forces that create devastating hurricanes are the same physical forces that give us mild, sunny, warm days. You have given us a world that—the vast majority of the time—sustains our lives remarkably well. And often when it fails to do so, it’s because of our human choices and our own human sin.

But we recognize that there’s another way that these storms can glorify you: through your miraculous intervention to save lives of people in harm’s way. We pray for that now: Work a miracle to save people’s lives! And let these storms glorify you as you send compassionate servants—like the good people who work for UMCOR, our United Methodist relief organization—into the lives of the storms’ victims. Enable these servants to show your love, care, and comfort. Keep them safe as they do your kingdom work.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who has rescued us from our sins.

Amen.

Luke 13:1-15

Do you want to be holy? Don’t neglect the life of the mind!

September 7, 2017

I did not arrange these books for this blog post. They were on a table in my office, in this order, completely randomly.

Facebook informed me that it’s been exactly five years today since my first trip to Kenya. I went there to teach theology and doctrine, church history, and polity to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I love theology and doctrine, as readers of my blog know. I think about this stuff a lot; it’s important to me. Obviously, I get passionate writing about it, talking about it, arguing about it. I’m also sensitive to the charge—often put forward by United Methodist colleagues—that theology and doctrine are of far lesser importance than (to use a buzzword) “spiritual formation,” or spiritual disciplines, or the pursuit of holiness.

Several years ago, I blogged about a popular United Methodist pastor who “crossed the Tiber” and converted to Roman Catholicism. He did so in part, he said, because he met a group of nuns whose lives exuded a kind of holiness that he had never seen before. He wanted what they had, and he attributed this quality of life to their Catholicism.

Not that plenty of Protestants don’t cross the Tiber every week for any number of reasons (and they pass plenty of Catholics swimming the other way as they do so), but given the Methodist emphasis on holiness, sanctification, and personal experience—sometimes at the expense, at least unwittingly, of a more intellectual emphasis on theology and doctrine—it’s natural that a United Methodist would be susceptible to this kind conversion.

Not me! I “live in my head,” as one professor at Candler affectionately pointed out. No matter how appealing the spirituality of some Catholics, I can’t get past at least a half-dozen serious theological objections. For me, nothing less than the gospel is at stake.

But these are intellectual objections, of course. And in our Methodist tradition, when heart and mind compete with one another, we tend to side with the heart. (Isn’t this one reason our denomination is in crisis about our doctrines associated with marriage and sexuality?)

Regardless, the apostle Paul believed that for the sake of holiness, heart and mind must be in harmony. They need one another.

We saw this in last night’s Bible study in Galatians—in chapter 4, verses 17 to 20. The Galatians are in serious spiritual danger. Although they had gratefully received the gospel and were converted when Paul first preached to them a year or two earlier, Paul says he is “in the anguish of childbirth” all over again. From his perspective, nothing less than their salvation is at stake. It’s as if they need to be “born again” again, Paul says. Christ needs to be “formed in them” again. Whether they are, at that moment, still saved or not, they have at least “backslidden” enough to place their souls in jeopardy. (As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I believe in the possibility of losing one’s salvation.)

Is their problem related to sin and immorality? Are they acting like hypocrites? Are they failing to love God and neighbor sufficiently?

No. Their problem is that their theology is wrong.

They’re flirting with a seductive idea put forward by false teachers that they need to add just a few small “requirements” to the gospel in order to be saved. Paul has warned them that if they embrace a “gospel plus” anything else, they have lost the gospel entirely.

For the purpose of this blog post, however, the nature of their theological problem is less important than one principle that this problem illustrates: getting one’s theology right is, in Paul’s mind, an essential gospel issue. 

Last night, I challenged the class to consider how much value they place on the life of the mind versus the life of the spirit. They must go together! Paul implies that we should be as committed to theology and doctrine, to Bible study, and to scripture memorization as we are, for instance, to prayer, to worship, and to Christian service.

Are we? If not, why not?

Tom Wright on the priority of prayer (especially for pastors)

September 8, 2016

NT_WrightI’m preaching on Acts 6:1-7 this Sunday. I selected the scripture originally because I thought it something important to say about Christian service. And of course it does. But I’m more convicted at the moment about what it says about prayer. This bit of commentary from N.T. Wright got to me:

The fact that they mention prayer in the same breath [as teaching and preaching the word of God] in verse 4 is highly significant. Of course, all Christians are called to pray, to make time for it, to soak everything that they do in it. But the apostles cite it as a reason why they can’t get involved in the organization of daily distribution to those in need. That implies, not that those who do the distribution can do without prayer, but that the apostles must give themselves to far, far more prayer. Here, along with the challenge to a ministry of teaching and preaching, is a quiet but explosive hint to all leaders in today’s and tomorrow’s church.[†]

N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 100-1.

A prayer for our nation in the wake of Dallas

July 12, 2016

Our church held a prayer service last Sunday at 10:00, in between worship services, for our nation in the wake of Dallas, and the shootings last week of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We invited members of law enforcement to join us.

During the service, I offered the following prayer:

Almighty God, avenger of innocent lives cut down in senseless acts of violence; our righteous judge who condemns evil; the lover of our world who sent his Son into it to defeat evil, suffering, and death—and to save us from the wages of our own sin: We pray for the families and loved ones of Alton Sterling… and Philando Castile… We pray for the families and loved ones of Dallas police officers Brent Thompson… Lorne Ahrens… Patrick Zamarripa… Michael J. Smith… and Michael Krol… We pray for the protection of men and women in uniform throughout our country whom we ask to do the most difficult job of all: to lay down their very lives, if necessary, in order to protect and defend innocent lives. We are immensely grateful to you for the gift of their service. We grieve that five of them were asked to give the last full measure of their devotion to us last Thursday night in Dallas.

In their sacrifice we see, as through a dim mirror, the sacrifice of your Son Jesus for us, on the cross. In their sacrifice, we see Christ-like love lived out. Their example inspires us. Their deaths horrify us.

We pray that if there are others right now in our country who are contemplating murder—whose souls are so warped that they imagine that taking innocent life somehow avenges innocent life—that you would please stop them from inflicting harm!

In spite of the constant dangers that public safety personnel face as they go about their good work, we pray that you would continue to call people to this work. Give them courage. Give them strength. Give them wisdom. Protect them. Enable them to perform their duties with sound judgment.

Enable all of us Americans to work as peacemakers in this world—to work for a more just and peaceful world—so that the work of police, law enforcement, and public safety personal will become safer.

Melt our hearts with your love and the love of your Son Jesus. Root out within our own hearts everything that stands in opposition to the way of Christ our Lord. Empower us to follow our Lord’s courageous example of love at all times and in all places.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever. Amen.

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 15: Light Shining in Darkness

December 14, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: John 1:1-5, 14

A prayer for the season:

Almighty God, our light shining in the darkness: we give you our thanks and praise that the light of your love came into the world in the person of your Son Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Through your Son you created everything that is, seen and unseen; through your Son you gave us life; and through your Son you gave eternal life to all who would believe in him. This is good news. Indeed, this is “good news of great joy,” the best news of all.

For those of us who have grown so familiar with this news that it begins to sound like old news, stir within our hearts a renewed sense of wonder. Astonish us with the gift of your love. Kindle hearts that have grown cold. Help us to feel within our innermost being these “good tidings of great joy,” that unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

Humble us, like those shepherds abiding in the field. We have nothing to offer you; we possess nothing that you need; we have no gift to give you that pays you back for the gift that you give us. We are poor beggars standing in need of your mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And yet, you brought your good news to us; you invited us to celebrate your coming; you made a way for us to become your children.

Receive now the gift of our gratitude. Enable us to share this news with others through word and deed, that the whole world may experience this good news for themselves and be transformed by it. We pray this in the name of the one whose coming we celebrate, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

My prayer for Paris from yesterday’s services

November 16, 2015

prayforparis

I prayed the following prayer during the services at my church. I also spoke at length about the attacks in my sermon, which I’ll post shortly.

Almighty God, our refuge and strength, our very present help in time of need: Our hearts are troubled once again by the brazen evil and violence of fanatical men, eager to die in their conspiracy to kill unarmed civilians—mothers, fathers, and children, the young and the old, the rich and the poor—people who share one thing in common: they did nothing whatsoever to provoke or harm the killers who aimed to harm them. We are heartbroken, indignant, filled with righteous anger at this affront to the decency of civilized people. We implore you, God, to ensure that everyone involved in this plot will be found and punished, according to the just authority that you ordained governments to have. Guide the French government, guide and protect its police, its intelligence personnel, and its military forces as they do their good and urgent work to protect innocent French people from further harm. Enable all nations of good will, including the United States, to join them in this just cause and redouble their efforts to eliminate the threat of terrorism wherever it exists.

We pray that justice will be done, even as we remember that vengeance belongs to you, and it is yours to repay. Remind us that you alone will ensure that justice is fully and finally done.

We pray for the families of all the victims: comfort them, strengthen them, give them the peace that surpasses all understanding. We pray for Muslims of good faith who also want peace and abhor the evil that’s been done in their name. Keep them safe. We pray that Muslims around the world will find the love and mercy of your Son Jesus. And we pray for our enemies: We know your grace has the power to soften the hardest heart. Please make it so. Enable them to repent and throw themselves at your mercy, O God.

Give us, who are far from this latest terror attack, the assurance of knowing that our lives are in your hand: that whether we live or die, nothing separates us from your great love; that our time is short and our mission urgent to spread the message of the good news of your Son Jesus.

Make Hampton United Methodist successful in this task.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus. Amen.

“When will I ever learn?” On over-spiritualizing our spiritual lives

September 9, 2015

Dwight rescues Jim from temptation.

Dwight ends up rescuing Jim from temptation.

One of my favorite episodes of my favorite television show, The Office, is called “After Hours,” from Season 8. In the episode, Jim and several employees from the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton office are in Tallahassee for a two-week business trip. One of these employees, Cathy, invites herself into Jim’s hotel room, telling him that her room’s thermostat is broken and can she hang out in his room while maintenance repairs it?

Reluctantly, Jim—made visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of being alone in a hotel room with a beautiful young woman—agrees. At first, he sits on the floor while Cathy lounges on the bed.

Throughout the episode, Jim tries to discern whether or not Cathy is coming on to him. When he decides that she is, he contrives a reason for Dwight to intrude on them, thereby rescuing him from temptation.

At one point, the lecherous Stanley, who is known to be cheating on his wife, enters Jim’s room, eyes Cathy on the bed, smiles knowingly, and says, “Careful, Jim. It gets easier and easier.”

Frightening words, and true: Any behavior, good or bad, becomes easier as it’s repeated, in part because of physical changes in our brain chemistry. New neural  pathways are carved out that facilitate the behavior, the way a riverbed facilitates the flow of water. Once these pathways are created, through habit, changing the flow becomes far more difficult. (I blogged about this a while back in relation to internet pornography.)

In After You Believe, N.T. Wright’s book on Christian sanctification—which is the formation of our character through our collaborative work with the Holy Spirit—Wright makes the same point:

Most people in today’s Western world, I suspect, think of their minds as more or less neutral machines that can be turned this way and that. When I drive down the road to London, and then when I drive up the road to Edinburgh, nothing changes in the structure  of the car. But supposing the car had a kind of internal memory, recording the journeys I’d made, so that when I set off in the general direction of London—a trip I make often—the car might click into “we’re going to London” mode and nudge me to take the London-bound road, even if in fact I had been intending this time to go to Birmingham? I would then have to make a more conscious choice to refuse the pathway the car had chosen and to compel it to do the things it hadn’t expected.

In the same way, supposing a decision to cheat on my tax return leaves an electronic pathway in the brain which makes it easier to cheat on other things—or people—as well? Or supposing the decision to restrain my irritation with a boring neighbor on the train, and to cultivate instead a calm patience, leaves a pathway which makes it easier to be patient when someone subsequently behaves in a  truly offensive manner?… [I]t seems as though the idea of developing “moral muscles” by analogy with people going to the gym to develop physical ones, may be closer than we imagined.[1]

In Wright’s book on the Psalms, which I read in preparation for my new sermon series, he refers back to this idea in After You Believe. In Psalm 23, for instance, when David speaks of God’s “restoring” his soul, we shouldn’t think of this restoration as merely a spiritual process; it’s also physical. Our soul, which exists independently of the body, is still shaped by the hard work of physical discipline.

Therefore, the more we read and meditate on the Psalms and the rest of scripture—the more we pray, the more we worship, the more we make time for devotional reading, etc., the easier it becomes to trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding; the easier it is to see that our cup overflows; the easier it is to find that, in God, we have everything we need.

Not surprisingly, the times in my life as a Christian when I’ve felt furthest from God are those times when I’ve most neglected the practices of the Christian life. I now see that I blamed God for this: I was waiting for him to make the first move—to strengthen my faith, to give me some new epiphany, to give me some new spiritual experience—after which I’d start “living it out” more faithfully. What a fool I was! I had it exactly backwards.

Wright continues:

If learning virtue is like learning a language it is also like acquiring a taste, or practicing a musical instrument. None of these “comes naturally” to begin with. When you work at them, though they begin to feel more and more “natural,” until that aspect of your “character” is formed so that, at last, you attain the hard-won freedom of fluency in the language, happy familiarity with the taste, competence on the on the instrument.[2]

The bottom line is this: God sanctifies us in part through physical changes in our body, which occur slowly and with practice, as we commit ourselves to the hard work of disciplined Christian living. The secret to “learning to live in God” is really no big secret: we learn it, in large part, on our knees.

1. N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 39.

2. Ibid., 42.