For the past month, I’ve been reading a book written by Dorothy Bass entitled Practicing Our Faith a way of life for a searching people. I was also thinking about a song we used to sing when I was a member of the Miles College Gospel choir in Birmingham AL. The words were simple but loaded with some very impactful words. The race isn’t given to the swift or the strong but to the one who endured to the end. <!–split–>
The Christian life is like an athletic competition, the apostle Paul once wrote. A great prize awaits those who run their race well, but the running requires great exertion. “Athletes exercise self-control in all things” in order to win their contests, even though their prize is only a laurel wreath that will soon wither. Christians ought to run their race with just as much exertion and self-control, Paul urged, for they pursue a prize that is “imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
Many of us long to grow stronger in the Christian life. But we are really ready to exert ourselves? Being spectators comes much more easily. We prize the football player’s skill and strength; we admire the dancer’s trim, toned body; we applaud the pianist’s dexterity. But when it comes time to actualize our own plans for physical exercise or for rehearsals, too often we prove half-hearted and fickle. The slogan “no pain, no gain” cuts close to the bone. We are conditioned by our modern culture to count on immediate results; we want the gain, but we shrink from the pain. If we find it difficult to respond to the demand of athletic training, then it is not surprising that we find it difficult to engage in the Christian practices so sorely needed for the development and growth of the interior or spiritual life.
Throughout Christian history, it has been clear that spirituality is not a spectator activity. Tough decisions and persistent effort are required of those who seek lives that are whole and holy. If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intended for us, and we must follow through on our commitments to pray, to be conscientious, and to be in mutually supportive relations with other faithful persons. These acts take self-discipline. We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and yes to a way of life that makes space for God.
Training For Faithful Living
“I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air,” Paul wrote, continuing the athletic image (1 Corinthians 9:26). It was the apostle’s passionate concern to nurture women and men in living worthy and holy lives in expectation of the Lord’s return. That, he knew, would require them to be deliberate and purposeful, for saying yes to life in Christ would mean saying no to that which harms. Christians who wish to inherit the kingdom of God must curb their appetites and passions, he told the young church in Galatia; they must renounce “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” (Galatians 5:19-21).
Irrespective of social status or wealth or cultural attainment, they shared a communal life centered on uncompromising faith in Jesus as Lord. They gathered to remember Jesus, and they zealously met the needs of strangers, the infirm, the imprisoned, and the poor. The way these women and men lived gave rise to a distinctive Christian way of being in the world, or Christian spirituality.
Spirituality: Choosing Life
Our spirituality is our capacity to relate to God, to other human beings, and to the natural world. Through these relationships, we give meaning to our experience and attune our hearts and minds to the deepest dimensions of reality. Thus spirituality is integral to the ways in which we live our lives. It is about the kinds of persons we are and the kinds of persons we hope to become.
Far too often, however, our attention to these deeper questions wanders, and our spirituality stagnates. We find ourselves merely drifting along. But then some painful event or demand for decision jolts us. We look up and find ourselves on a path that mocks our deepest longing, a road to joy that suddenly takes a treacherous curve. And it is no longer possible merely to drift along. At such times, we find out that only we ourselves can decide that we, by our choices and commitments, are to make of ourselves. We are compelled to acknowledge the persistent yearning, the subtle pull toward a new and different way of living. We are drawn on by questions: What is most necessary in our lives? For what are we living? What does it mean to be a human person?