If you’re like me, it often takes until spring begins to even start thinking about taking new steps in your routine or transitioning into healthier habits. The lax lifestyle of Christmas vacation gives way into the blahs of winter, and so my New Year’s resolutions usually don’t even get thought about until Easter rolls around, at which point I feel guilty that I let so much time in the year slip by.
And because I’m slightly OCD (or something), I always feel like it’s best to start something new at an official starting point. This is why I’ll only start diets on Mondays. Once I’ve missed those starting points, then, my self-justifying logic kicks in, and I figure it won’t hurt to wait until the next starting point—whether that’s next week or next year—to finally make it a point to start.
Maybe you’re in the same boat when it comes to your spiritual life. Maybe you have been wanting to start fresh with your relationship with God, but you keep putting it off for whatever reason. Might I suggest your apprehension may have less to do with the right timing and more with the right approach?
If time and time again you have struggled to start or maintain your devotional life, and you’re interested in what might be done to begin anew with a routine that is sustainable, here are three subtle but important shifts in your time with God that can 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 I think I too often read “weary and burdened” more as assignments than as prerequisites. I assume the way to get closer to God is to study and pray so much he can’t help but be impressed by my efforts.
Do you bite off more than you can chew like I do? I have somewhat of an all-or-nothing personality, so there was a time when if I was going to finally get “serious” about Bible study, I was going to commit to reading for hours a day. I would begin stringent Bible reading plans with the best hopes, but find myself burned out before too long, and not really retaining much of what I had been studying. Many times the act of trying to cover lots of ground in the Bible became a substitute for meditating on what I found there.
I have good news for you! 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. Some who approach the Bible that way fail to be conquered themselves by the Bible, which is the real aim of study. Don’t feel like you have to pray for hours and hours on end. Give God the firstfruits 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 will eventually spend with him.
Maybe instead of an hour “quiet time” each day at five o’clock in the morning, you start with 15 or 30 minutes after you’ve had breakfast. Maybe instead of trying to start your Bible reading plan in Genesis, which would put you in the denser Leviticus right when you’re most tempted to give up, you alternate Old and New Testament books.
2. Shift Your Expectations
Shifting how much load you’re trying to carry in your relationship with God is closely related to this very important shift, that of our expectations. Do you ever enter prayer or Bible study feeling like it all hinges on you? On your time, on your performance, on what you say or do? I have done that many times, and what usually ends up happening is that I place all the expectations for fruit in my spiritual life upon myself and don’t expect much from God. In fact, I end up being tempted to cynicism about prayer and God’s word. Maybe there’s something there, but I don’t expect God to do too much with it; most of the work hinges on me.
We need to shift our expectations. Take the pressure off yourself and put it on God. He can handle it!
Here are two of the many incredible things God says about his Word:
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, 17 so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
If these claims are true, we can expect great things from the Bible. If prayer really is 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 to him as meek, messed-up children relying on the grace of an all-powerful Dad. When you pray and study your Bible, expect less from yourself and expect more from God.
3. Shift Your Focus
The place we most stall out in our spiritual life is the place we stop being in awe of the gospel. When we lose sight of what God has already done for us in Christ is when 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 is a crucial shift, because the difference between gospel-driven discipleship and works-focused discipleship can lead to burnout, brokenness, and bitterness. Good works, whether study or prayer or fasting or serving others, are always more joyful when they come from a heart that cherishes knowing good works don’t earn God’s favor. 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. (Because He Loves Me, p.158)
As you pray, spend much time adoring God. As you study the various parts of the Bible, ask yourself “What does this show that God has done?” more than you ask “What does this say to do?”
I wish you well as you endeavor to grow closer to God who desires to be close to you. I think with these three shifts in your approach, you may find your time with Jesus sweeter, enduring, and fruitful.