The spiritual disciplines are the church’s distilled wisdom of how to become more like Jesus. Not that we can shape ourselves by our own power alone, but we can order our time and habits to put ourselves in the path of God’s established means of grace, sitting at his feet in such a way that we find ourselves changed by him.
Various forms of prayer, immersing ourselves in the scriptures, times of fasting, silence, corporate worship, confession, and many others—such spiritual disciplines are the path to the good life for anyone who attempts them. People who engage regularly in the spiritual disciplines find themselves radically available to God, a source of life to the people around them, a dynamic servant in church ministry, and able to face all the trouble and trials of this life with the attitude of Christ.
So why doesn’t everyone engage in these disciplines? Let’s face it: our patterns of life are not easy to change, and finding room for these practices is difficult. Despite the good that we know will result from them, it requires an effort of will to begin any spiritual discipline. And, even when we start small, sticking with them can be a real challenge. For many people, the spiritual disciplines show the same pattern of excitement, falloff, and abandonment as any difficult but rewarding life change.
So is there anything we can do to set ourselves up for success as we pursue these life-giving practices?
The piece missing in this picture is a true accounting of what it will cost us to implement a particular discipline. While on the surface it may seem like a mere matter of will (and it is!), many of us simply don’t understand what that means.
Every decision we make costs us something. Every challenge to change—to add something positive to the pattern of our life or to subtract something negative—takes mental energy. It’s as if we have a tank of willpower that we are carrying around; some activities fill the tank and many more activities take from it.
The funny thing about spiritual disciplines is that they both consume and produce willpower. Creating the habits that long-term success in the spiritual disciplines require costs us willpower. When we get to the end of our first week of a new habit of seeking the Lord each morning, we may feel just as tired as if we had a stressful week at work. But the practices themselves will often result in an overall surplus of willpower over time, increasing both our recovery of willpower as well as increasing the “size of our tank”.
The best way to add a spiritual discipline to your life is to anticipate the willpower cost of change and budget for it:
- Ask God for help. God is the source of life, and he is the source and end of the spiritual disciplines.Do not begin any spiritual discipline without a season of prayer prior to the attempt. Go to him for wisdom and ask him for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It makes no sense to attempt the spiritual disciplines without God’s guidance and power every step of the way. And after you begin, look for his power; very often we will find that he makes up what we are lacking in our own strength.
- Get plenty of rest. Don’t mistake sedentary activities like watching TV or surfing social media as rest—they often are not. Go to bed an hour earlier than usual or add a 20-minute cat nap to your afternoon. Spend a few minutes sitting quietly in silence, letting your mind wander peacefully. Rest replenishes willpower. God established the Sabbath because our need for rest is real.
- Attempt one life change at a time. If every change costs us willpower, it doesn’t make sense to implement more than one change at a time. God does not expect instant change; he is limitlessly patient, and often rewards the long, steady walk more than the feverish sprint. Always start small.
- Enlist the help of your community. We can “borrow” willpower from others when we hit a low point. Tell someone about your new habit and enlist their help with keeping you on track. It may take some practice to find someone whose encouragement (or challenge) style fits your personality. Their prayers and sharpening words will empower you.
- Accept God’s grace when you fail. We will make errors in judgment as we are learning. Sin hinders us. We will find ourselves giving up. God does not love the practitioners of the spiritual disciplines more than others and you gain no favor in his eyes by undertaking them. He loves you deeply even when you throw your arms up in frustration. Allow his perfect love to do its work in your life whether you succeed or fail in this attempt.
Over time, you will find that willpower grows with use. Steady effort, a little at a time, can make a huge difference a week, a month, or a year later.
What has your experience been with the way willpower and the spiritual disciplines interact? What have you found that helps you overcome the willpower challenge of implementing a new spiritual discipline?