If you are a “New Year’s resolution” kind of a person, the following scenario is probably quite familiar to you: you commit to losing those extra pounds, exercising more; you resolve to be kinder to your spouse, to have more patience with your children. You “will yourself” to do more, be more. And typically, it ends up with the same result: disappointment. You feel guilty for not living up to the expectations you placed on yourself.
So…you quit. You give up and stop trying. You feel defeated.
Quite often, the same cycle applies to our spiritual growth. We whisper mental promises to ourselves like, ‘This is the year I will read the entire Bible, I will finally journal, I will memorize Scripture.’ Then we stare in utter disbelief at our last journal entry date, coming face-to-face, once again, with our imperfections. We guilt ourselves into believing a healthy soul is almost unattainable and surrender to the idea that the “new me” (physical or spiritual) is fleeting and elusive.
If you find yourself in this state of spiritual defeat, surrender instead to the following three practices, which will serve as a healthy “diet” for your soul. Just as our bodies need appropriate food and rest to function optimally, so our souls require the infusion of and centering upon truth to be at peace.
Step 1: Remember
To obtain a healthier soul, we must remember that “willing ourselves” to do more, to be more, is based on the false premise that, through our own might, we can achieve our desired spiritual outcomes.
Scripture reminds us of what is true:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:5-6, NIV)
Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps. (Jeremiah 10:23, NIV)
Despite the good intentions we may have to control our spiritual health, as long as we are operating in our flesh (apart from God), we cannot attain true growth. A daily surrender of our will to Christ’s is the first step to a healthier soul. We must stop acting out of our human striving and recognize that it is only in receiving a daily dose of God’s grace that we are able to abide more deeply with Christ. When we operate from a posture of receiving this grace, our soul can no longer be dependent upon our own effort or merit for growth. Abiding in Christ is the only true source of life that our soul requires to bear fruit.
For it is by free grace (God’s unmerited favor) that you are saved (delivered from judgment and made partakers of Christ’s salvation) through [your] faith. And this [salvation] is not of yourselves [of your own doing, it came not through your own striving], but it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8, AMP)
Step 2: Renew
Guilt and shame are two obstacles that commonly squelch healthy souls. Often, we are our own worst critics; we punish ourselves when our daily spiritual practices of solitude and prayer are thwarted. Worse yet, we often find ourselves distracted in the midst of prayer – our thoughts taking us on constant tangents, lacking a clear focus. The guilt of our imperfection begins to fester in our souls like an open wound because we shame ourselves into believing that the routine itself is what draws us closer to God.
According to author Jack Zavada, “Many Christians know their sins are forgiven but still find it hard to feel free of guilt. Intellectually, they understand that Jesus Christ died on the cross for their salvation, but emotionally they still feel imprisoned by shame. The Bible is clear on this point: Jesus bore all the blame, shame, and guilt for humanity’s sins. God the Father sacrificed his Son to set believers free from punishment for their sins.”
As Christ followers, then, when we find ourselves bearing the weight of our sin, our souls can find refuge:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)
But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
If God does not evaluate us according to our sinful nature, then why should we? Pastor Kenneth Tanner (Church of the Holy Redeemer, Rochester Hills, MI) enforces this point when he says, “Living in response to the Cross, rather than in reaction to it, takes the focus off “how” we are living (sin consciousness) and puts it on living the life of Christ as a continuation of “His” life in the world, literally “as His body.”
Through Christ, we are renewed! His mercies are new every morning, and we can leave our guilt and shame behind.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Step 3: Remain
Spiritual health always starts with Jesus, the central focus of a maturing faith. When Christians find themselves spiritually lethargic, it’s usually a result of losing their focus on him. To re-ignite our spiritual fervor we need to clear the hurdles that are slowing us down, fix our eyes on Jesus, and persevere when we feel defeated.
James 1:2-4 reminds us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Perseverance is defined as the commitment to remain under some kind of pressure, rather than trying to escape it. It’s a steadfastness in doing something, despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
Therefore, when we find ourselves discouraged in our Christian walk, responding with persistent faith is what produces proven character and spiritual fruit.
…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfected of faith. (Hebrews 12:1, NIV)
I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. (Psalm 16:8, NIV)
As Christians who are holy in Christ but still growing, we will need a little boost on this journey towards healthier souls. If we remember to surrender to God’s will; live each day as new creations, renewed every morning by God’s mercies; and fix our eyes on Christ with a steady perseverance to remain, we will bear spiritual fruit and grow.