Do you ever wonder if anyone really started attending a church because the sign outside said it was “prayer-conditioned” and whether that person was upset when it was discovered to be a toasty 83 degrees inside? Or, if it is true that God answers “knee-mail” then what was He up to before the advent and proliferation of the internet? Maybe I am a church sign-hater because I am jealous that I did not come up with the banner that on one side asks, “What would Jesus brew?” and on the other invites all to join because there would be “Free Starbucks coffee” inside.
It seems like there have been quite a few church signs in the last couple of years playing off of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, promising maximum renovation of church, family and soul. It would be great if spiritual growth was like a redesign show, where a group of peppy designers and carpenters could renovate our hearts on the quick and cheap. We could leave for a day or two, and our spiritual power team would completely overhaul our hearts, gazing beatifically into the cameras as they explain each step of the process to the audience. Imagine the unveiling at the end of our half-hour program: “Look at how we brightened up this heart with just a quick weekend conference! With only three quiet times, we took this soul from drab to fab! We even added interest with a prayer labyrinth.”
While it is certainly not beyond God’s ability to change any one of us completely in an instant (the whole Saul/Paul deal comes to mind), this does not seem to be the typical path to lasting spiritual transformation. Rather, the transformation of heart and character is slow, painfully slow at times. This is difficult for the fidgety among us, anxiously hitting the refresh button on our browsers if it takes more than four seconds to load that page. We want results, and we want them yesterday, and when we do not get them post-haste it can lead to frustration, bitterness and, eventually, apathy.
So much of church life plays into this instant gratification mindset. After all, who would buy a book that promised your best life, um, eventually? There is nothing particularly sexy about self-denial or cross-bearing. No, the thrill is in revolutionizing outside the box, shifting paradigms and being super-blessed, all while yawping barbarically as we seize the emerging day.
Now, I believe Jesus when He said He came to bring fullness to life (John 10:10). I believe in investing our lives in the things that will last forever. I believe in making every moment count. But it is troubling when Christian life is neatly summarized as something akin to a Slim Jim commercial—you know, non-stop, extreme shredding of quarter-pipes and the like. The rush we get from sprinting about like the proverbial hare is as undeniable as the crash that always seems to follow.
The answer is not to throw up our hands and become a bale of turtles, plodding aimlessly through life. Paul, our aforementioned extreme makeover recipient, gives us an alternative in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (TNIV).
The training is intense (even extreme, if you will) but not for its own sake. Paul is calling God’s people to pour their lives into this training, because the end result is worth it. Stretching, running laps, sit-ups, push-ups——nothing too glamorous about training, just as much of life is not particularly thrilling. Sure, we have our mountaintop “Hey, world!” experiences as well as our mired-in-the-mud moments but, by and large, most of our lives is spent somewhere in between.
If we are not careful, we can get lost in this in between-ness. It is natural to praise God in our exuberance and to cry out to Him in our desperation, but we tend not to be so great in the mundane and everyday. Perhaps this is where Paul’s analogy is helpful to us.
Spiritual discipline, the training of which Paul speaks, keeps us from getting lost. Spiritual disciplines remind us that we can seek God in the ordinary moments of any day and enable us to become bold lovers of God. The results might not be obvious or immediate, but they are worth pursuing. May we become people whose lives cannot be edited tidily into a thirty-minute montage or summarized cleverly on a church placard, but who live in the fullness of everyday life in Christ.