If you're like me, it often takes the start of spring to motivate me toward new routines or healthier habits. The lax lifestyle of Christmas vacation gives way to the blahs of winter, and then Easter rolls around (at which point I realize I've not even thought about my New Year's resolutions).
And because I'm slightly OCD, I like to begin something new at an official starting point. For instance, I'll start diets only on Mondays. Once I've missed that starting point, my self-justifying logic kicks in, convincing me to wait until the next starting point — whether that's next week or next year — to try again.
If you've struggled to start or maintain your devotional life, consider these three subtle but important shifts to make a huge difference in your relationship with God.
1. Shift your load.
My relationship with God most often becomes tenuous when I think I have to carry more than I do. I know Matthew 11:28 by heart — "Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" — but too often I read "weary and burdened" more as assignments than prerequisites. I assume the way to get closer to God is to study and pray so much that He can't help but be impressed by my efforts.
Many of us are guilty of biting off more than we can chew. For me, getting "serious" about Bible study meant committing to several hours of Scripture reading per day. I would begin these reading plans with high hopes, but soon found myself burned out and blanking on my studying. Often, my attempts at covering lots of ground in the Bible became a substitute for meditating on what I found there.
Good news! Every verse of Scripture is inspired and infallible. And God does wonders with mustard seeds. Don't feel like you have to conquer the Bible. Instead, let the Bible conquer you, which is the real aim of study. Don't feel like you have to pray for hours on end. Give God the first fruits of your time and energy — and feel the freedom to start in smaller doses of text and prayer — and be faithful in that. A smaller load lends itself to more sustainability, and the longer you sustain your time with God, the longer you'll eventually spend with Him.
Maybe instead of a one-hour "quiet time" at 5 a.m. each day, you can start with 15 or 30 minutes after breakfast. Or maybe instead of trying to start your Scripture reading plan in Genesis (which would put you in the thick of Leviticus right when you're most tempted to give up), you might alternate between Old and New Testament books.
2. Shift your expectations.
Shifting the load you're carrying in your relationship with God is closely related to shifting your expectations. Do you ever pray or study and feel like it all hinges on you — on your time, on your performance, on what you say or do? If so, you're placing all the expectations for fruit upon yourself rather than on God. Shift your expectations. Take the pressure off yourself and lay it before God. He can handle it!
"For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as to divide soul, spirit, joints, and marrow; it is a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
"All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
When we accept these claims, we can expect great things from the Bible. If prayer is essentially talking to the God of the universe, who loves us and wants to hear from us, maybe it's time we felt the freedom to come before Him as meek, messed-up children relying on His grace. As you pray and study your Bible, expect less from yourself and more from God.
3. Shift your focus.
When we stop being in awe of the gospel, our spiritual lives come to a standstill, making us lose sight of what God has already done for us through Christ. We begin to think there are hoops for us to jump through to please God. But Jesus has already jumped through the hoops for us.
This perspective is crucial, because works-focused discipleship can lead to burnout, brokenness, and bitterness. Good works — whether Bible study or prayer or fasting or serving others — are always more joyful when they come from a heart that knows good works don't earn God's favor.
In her book, Because He Loves Me, Elyse Fitzpatrick writes, "We've got to understand ourselves in the light of our new identity, seeing ourselves as we truly are: sinful and flawed, loved and welcomed. Only these gospel realities have enough power to engender faith, kill idolatry, produce character change, and motivate faithful obedience."
When you pray, spend time adoring God. As you study various parts of the Bible, ask, "What do these passages show God has done?" instead of, "What does this say to do?"
Make a genuine effort to grow closer to God. He desires to be close to you. As you implement these three shifts in your approach, you'll find your time with Jesus sweeter, enduring, and fruitful.
This article appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Collegiate magazine.
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