By the plan I mean your plan. What are you going to contribute to the process of transforming your mind into one more harmonious with Christ’s? We can all agree the Holy Spirit will oversee the foundational changes that need to take place inside of us but we must be cooperative participants in the work to be done or nothing noticeable is gonna happen. When we surrender ourselves to Christ and make the decision to follow Him the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us immediately. He then acts within our being to constantly usher the person of Jesus and the reality of the kingdom of God into our consciousness as we consult the Holy Word daily for guidance. Therefore the value of His divine work can’t be overstated. However, there’s an all-too-common mistake made today by believers who think that as long as they show up for church services and tithe regularly they’ve done all that’s requested of them. Wrong. As Dallas Willard wrote, “Reliance upon what the Spirit does to us or in us, as indispensable as it truly is, will not by itself transform character in its depths. The action of the Spirit must be accompanied by our response, which cannot be carried out by anyone other than ourselves.” In other words, when we choose to be a Christ disciple our work’s just beginning. Thus we must develop a personal action plan for seeing to it that our part gets done.
Understand that just because we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior doesn’t mean our external circumstances will change at all. The problems and difficulties that beat us down the day before will still be there post-conversion. The Bible refers to them as temptations and they won’t stop roaring down the pike due to the Holy Spirit residing inside us. What should be completely different, though, is how we perceive them. We’re taught we should actually welcome them as confirmations of God’s glorious, never-ending goodness! Is that hard to do? You bet. Yet James wrote, “My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything” (James 1:2-4). Paul said as much, too: “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:1-5). Both saints advocate we meet troubles head on and without trepidation. Obviously, possessing a fearless attitude of that magnitude requires quite a bit of discipline on our part. And, as most of us know, discipline don’t come easy. So we need a plan.
The largest stumbling block confronting us is that nowhere in the Bible are we told precisely how to do our part. There’s no formulaic ABCs to adhere to because our particular path to salvation is as unique as our personality. Now, what we’re to do and how we’re to behave as adopted children of God is made crystal clear throughout the Holy Word. The Psalms and Proverbs are especially helpful and Paul’s letter to the Colossians (because he’d never preached to them in person) offers what’s probably the finest overview regarding spiritual formation in the New Testament. Yet specific details on how I as an individual am to go about growing as a Christian aren’t available. There must be a reason. I think it’s that we’re to imitate Jesus to the best of our ability 24/7 and the only way to do that is to get to know Him as intimately as He knew His Heavenly Father. And we get to know Jesus by studying how He lived His life, how He treated others, how He structured His entire human existence around maintaining His close relationship with His Father and how later on His disciples conducted themselves as they strove to pattern every aspect of their life after their Master’s. So, really, how to put together our plan is no secret. It’s simply a matter of approaching everything we do or say as if Jesus Himself were doing or saying it. And, again, that takes discipline. And discipline requires sacrifice. Paul wrote, “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
Seems to me the only way to become a disciplined disciple is to devise a plan and stick with it. There could be a hundred things I needed to put on my own list, but a roster so lengthy could’ve proved to be too intimidating and caused me to get discouraged in no time at all. Thus, at least at the outset, it was wisest to focus on the areas of my Christianity I know I’m weakest in. Being the kind of person who often craves physical satisfaction and who also tends to become bored easily it only made sense that abstinence should be a priority in my plan. Under that heading I penciled in a need for solitude and silence. I must go where I’m left completely alone for a while, whereupon I turn off all the noisemakers (TV, radio, idle chit-chat, etc.) and allow silence to prevail. Why are these two things crucial to my spiritual growth? Simply because they were very important to my Lord Jesus Christ, that’s why. (Being an introvert since childhood and someone who doesn’t mind being alone you’d think solitude’s something I didn’t really need to work on. The problem was that the time spent by myself wasn’t spent contemplating God or His glory. Oh, no. I spent all that time pursuing selfish desires whether it was watching porn, aimlessly surfing the internet or sedating myself with drugs and alcohol. So what I needed to work on in my plan was to figure out how to maximize the beneficial aspects of solitude by using that time in a spiritually productive way.)
Willard wrote, “One of the greatest of spiritual attainments is the capacity to do nothing” and the Christian philosopher Pascal once remarked, “I’ve discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they’re unable to stay quietly in their own room.” The very folks who complain they never hear anything from God are usually the ones who refuse to sit still for more than a minute. The Father in heaven won’t make time for those who won’t make time for Him. Others gripe they can’t stop their brains from letting one thought after another rumble into and through their consciousness like boxcars on a train track. But that’s what thoughts do! What we’re to make a concentrated effort to accomplish via silence is to mentally force our “thought parade” to grind to a halt for a while. Now, I’m not advocating putting oneself into some sort of “altered state” via kundalini yoga or breathing techniques. Both have their place but nowhere in the Gospel accounts are we told Jesus assumed a certain position or chanted or anything like that when He stepped away from His disciples to indulge in a few minutes of prayer-filled serenity. On the contrary, He’d disciplined Himself to be able to find solitude and silence whenever He felt it advantageous for carrying out God’s will. You and I should do the same.
Another priority in my plan was to start engaging in enlightening study and worship activities. By that I mean I needed to make it my obsession to accumulate and learn as much knowledge about Jesus Christ as possible. Face it; the majority of people are, to some extent, obsessed with something or somebody. For some it’s a football team. For some it’s politics. For some it’s a branch of science. But a Christ disciple should ultimately be fascinated foremost with Jesus and what He taught us over everything else. It’s a matter of continually directing our thoughts down constructive roads. Paul’s advice still holds lots of water: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Christians should keep in mind it’s implied many times in the Scriptures that the more of ourselves we give to God the more He gives to us. Jesus Himself said of the sheep in the flock He tenderly shepherds, “…I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10). I realize that few verses have been as misconstrued as that one but the bottom line is God will provide for His children. My plan included reading my Bible every day, attending Bible classes at church, listening to gifted preachers on TV and reading the books of great Christian writers whom God is using to inspire and educate those like me who “yearn to learn.” What I discovered was that I still had ample time to enjoy the things and people I’d always enjoyed before. God doesn’t limit our horizon when we make Him #1 (as one would guess), He expands it exponentially. Amazing. It’s miraculous to behold.
As far as worship goes, I found by devoting more of my energy towards studying and absorbing the priceless treasures that awaited me in God’s Word the easier and more effortlessly wholehearted praise for God came gushing out. For most of my life I’d never been one to openly demonstrate any kind of emotion (for fear of being made fun of) so for me to sing hymns and shout out a few “amens” in Sunday morning church services or during Celebrate Recovery meetings is not something I ever expected. Yet the majestic greatness of God that’s been revealed to me over and over again during these last eight years of my “new life” draws worship out of me spontaneously, without my even giving it a thought beforehand. I’m a huge fan of author Fredrick Buechner and the keen sense of humor he often presents with his tongue firmly imbedded in his cheek. Regarding the subject of worship he wrote, “Phrases like Worship Service or Service of Worship are tautologies. To worship god means to serve Him. Basically there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for Him that He needs to have done – run errands for Him, carry messages for Him, fight on His side, feed His lambs, and so on. The other way is to do things for Him that you need to do – sing songs for Him, create beautiful things for Him, give things up for Him, tell Him what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in Him and make a fool of yourself for Him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love. A Quaker meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening – unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.”
Clearing out some space in my life for God-centered solitude, silence, study and worship made a significant difference in my growth and maturity as a Christ-follower. But those things would still be dormant if I hadn’t put them in my plan. No doubt you’ll put other areas of deficiency ahead of the ones I listed for myself. That’s okay. The main thing is that you’re going to work with the Holy Spirit living inside you, not sit back and wait for Him to do it all. (Doing it that way could take an eternity.) As Willard wrote, “The important insight to guide us at this point is that to build our house upon the rock, putting off the old person and putting on the new, we must have a definite plan for doing so.” In my own experience, after years of trudging through countless up and down cycles trying to stay faithful to my disciplines, at some point I realized my plan had turned into my pattern. My starting every day with a cup of coffee and an open Bible began to pay off in that God’s Word influenced every thought and act that followed. My involvement with my church family and the Celebrate Recovery ministry was finally affecting my attitude towards others. The works I read by great Christian writers helped me understand Scriptural concepts I was having a hard time wrapping my head around. Mainly, there was a lot more room for Christ in my life and a lot less room for me and my self-gratifying habits. I know for certain I’m not the frustrated, unhappy man I was eight years ago. The difference is Jesus.
Christian disciplines can only be achieved by willfully obeying what Paul urged us all to do concerning what he termed “presenting your bodies as living sacrifices” in the opening verses of Romans 12. We must go “all in”, as it were. William Law wrote, “If you’ll stop and ask yourself why you’re not as [holy] as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you it’s neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it… This doctrine does not suppose we have no need of divine grace, or that it’s in our own power to make ourselves perfect. It only supposes that through the [lack] of a sincere intention of pleasing God in all our actions, we fall into such irregularities of life, as by the ordinary means of grace, we should have power to avoid.” Jerry Bridges got real when he wrote: “God wants us to train ourselves in the right direction… to make the right choices. This is where the going gets tough. We’ll agree with the teaching of Scripture about some particular sin and even [commit] to put it out of our lives. But then the temptation to indulge that sin comes again and we’re unwilling to say no… to make those tough choices. We’d like to be rid of that sin, and even pray to God to take it away, but are we willing to say no to it?” That’s the question, is it not? Yep, we need a plan.