7 Tips for Healthy Christian Progress
I know, it can become boring after a while, trying to be a good Christian all the time. Pray more. Serve more. Be compassionate. Go to church. All that.
Sometimes it is more like you have gone into the tomb. You try to pray and “feel” something for God or about God and you cannot stir a thing. It all feels so dead and fruitless. On top of all that there is all that social pressure. You know, all the pressure from social media to take up this cause and that. You feel you barely understand the more contentious issues and people are pressuring you to take sides. All of this is a recipe for spiritual burn out. Or worse, it may lead to an abandonment of the Christian faith altogether. You thought this would be a spirit-lifting journey, and it has become spirit-crushing instead. Well, good news, today Fr. Matt will give you a few simple tips that can have a profound impact on your spiritual life.
Here’s my disclaimer, I’m not saying they are easy, but I guarantee them to help. Our spiritual life is a dance of cooperation with the Holy Spirit, so we have to do some things. But I promise that in doing them some of the burden can be lifted.
- Forgive yourself. While some people like to present the idea of Christian perfectionism — you ain't there yet! You will blow it. Often. Remember, God saved you as you were, not as an already perfect specimen of the Christian life. Get it through your head that God is not counting your failures.
“God was in Christ Jesus reconciling mankind to himself, not counting men’s sins against them.”
Know the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt tells us we have done something wrong. Shame tells us we are something bad. Shame can cripple Christian progress. Forgiving yourself and giving yourself mercy is the first step to overcoming shame. Beating yourself up will not produce progress. It will not make you more holy. Turn those bad feelings into prayer. Memorize passages of scripture that help reassure you of God’s mercy and love for you.
2. Be patient with yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day. You spent a lot of time investing in patterns of behavior, belief and belonging that may have been unhealthy, and outright harmful. You will not unlearn those in a week. Not in a year. Not in five or ten either. Give yourself permission to make incremental progress on this spiritual path. Celebrate your small victories.
Did you resist a particularly dreadful, guilt-inducing, “sinful” behavior for the first 14 hours of the day and fall at the end? Celebrate that resistance, ask God for forgiveness for falling and start again tomorrow with the assurance that God loves you. Remember, God gave himself to mankind to heal us, long before you ever came on the scene.
3. Don’t be alarmed by feelings of indifference. You will wake up some mornings and wonder where the magic has gone. You went to praise and worship on Sunday and felt super. Now you feel like you don’t want to be spiritual at all. You feel you do not want to give up your sins or pray, or even follow God. Feelings are like clouds. They cover the sun. They rain. And then they are gone. Like the weather, feelings are unstable and subject to a thousand influences from moment to moment. Don’t let them dictate what is real.
My son once told me, “Dad, I’m really struggling right now with even wanting to follow God.” I said That’s ok. Do you want to want to? He thought about it for a second and said, yes. “There you go!” I said. “You want to”. Want resides in the will as much as in the feelings. The problem is that we spend too much time thinking our feelings determine what our will is or should be. Your feelings are a very unreliable guide — regardless of what Obi-Wan says. Let reason rule the will, not the emotions.
4. Pray. Prayer is an open and honest dialogue with God knowing that He is on your side. Don’t pray what you think you should pray. Pray what you are experiencing. “God, I feel desperate!” “I am afraid.” “I am feeling lost.” “I can’t keep myself from doing…..I need help!” “God, I don't know what the truth of my feelings really is. Help me understand myself.” ←That’s a big one!
Prayer is the remedy for all things. It is a remedy for despair. It is the remedy for sin. It is the remedy for fear and confusion. When you learn how to truly pray nothing will be impossible for you. You can overcome all things.
5. Don’t give up on prayer too quickly. Once you learn how to do the above, you have to learn how to loiter with God-In His presence. Take time out to pray through all that you are experiencing and struggling with. Are you internally conflicted? Confused? Worried? Keep your conversation with God going until you sort all that out. Only after that will you be able to hear the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit giving you direction. Pray until you have God’s peace. You are not finished until you get there.
6. A complicated world demands respect. That means that you will not sort out all the challenges to your faith in one sitting or after a quick reference to Wikipedia. There are real challenges to keeping your faith in our society. You will have to dig, to look for a mature spiritual father or mother, and persevere.
Some answers will simply not be found within your particular tribe of Christianity. There is a great big world of ideas out there and no single denomination has the corner on the truth. Reach beyond your church and learn what other sources are saying. Don’t accept the first thing you hear or read. Test it against what Christians have believed and practiced throughout most of Christian History. Read old books from old saints and test the present against their voices. Don't place infallible trust in the present as if our opinions today are not colored by our own particular social sins, blind-spots and hang-ups. Our society is obsessed with sex, money, and power. What would things look like through the lens of Christians at other times?
7. Keep a deifying discipline. The Anglican Priest and scholar Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800–82), one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, used this term to speak about the path of theosis — understood as the gradual recovery of the divine image in the human person. It comprised a rule of life built on prayer, scripture, and obedience.
We should not underestimate this. The rapidly growing field of neuroplasticity tells us that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. By habitually practicing a religious “rule of life” we are wiring ourselves for the divine nature. In the book, “How God changes your Brain”, by Andrew Newburg, MD, we are told that practicing prayer for 40 minutes a day profoundly rewires the brain and creates a healthier and happier human person. Look up “rule of life” on the interwebs, pick a path and stick to it.
Are there more tips for navigating the Christian life? Of course there are. Some of the best sources exist in the writings of monastics — books like The Spiritual Combat, the Imitation of Christ, or the Interior Castle. There are many more.
If you would like help with your spiritual struggle. Feel free to reach out to me.