The purpose of the Spiritual Disciplines is the total transformation of the person. They aim at replacing old destructive habits of thought with new life-giving habits. Nowhere is this purpose more clearly seen than in the Discipline of study.
-Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline
In the spirit of spiritual discipline, let me start with a confession: After getting a line-up of expensive, pampering "challenges" in my bucket at my party, I did a bit of coaching for my friends who couldn't attend. I asked them to add to my bucket, but also asked, very politely, that their challenges wouldn't cost me a lot of money or make me feel completely spoiled.
One of those friends challenged me to practice a spiritual discipline that I haven't tried much. I read that as practice a spiritual discipline I could use a lot of improvement on and felt like the field was pretty wide open (save for maybe solitude). I've tried -- and failed -- at most all the spiritual disciplines.
One of my post-job goals was to read the Bible more often, so my knee-jerk was to pick that one. I hadn't been doing so well with it. But I wondered if I might should challenge myself to a new spiritual discipline that I wasn't already actively working on.
I scanned my Celebration of Discipline book for inspiration (I have read this book several times and HIGHLY recommend it). I briefly considered submission, and even more briefly considered confession. But, in the end, I just felt like I should continue to focus on developing discipline in my reading and study and meditation of the Bible.
I have never really dug deeply, thoughtfully, consistently in the scriptures for my own edification. And for many years I have carried around shame and guilt because of it. I have made many plans. Year-long reading plans that fizzle out in a few months, or weeks. Inspired by people who read with their morning coffee, I tried to read my Bible before doing anything else. That didn't last more than a few days, and carried with it the added guilt of "not putting God first."
I have tried to read for a certain amount of time each day, and been unsuccessful. All of my attempts have failed and left me feeling embarrassed and unworthy.
And honestly, I don't even know why this has been a struggle for me. I love to read. And I love the Bible. It is well written, has an amazing plot, and is everything I find in my favorite books: True story, unpredictable twists, and good prevailing over evil even against all odds. Plus, you know, God wrote it. When I do read and study, I get a lot out of it. A lot.
So the guilt heaps on.
I had decided this time around to allow myself a little more grace. I suppose I would need to take tiny baby steps. In the beginning, I would put no constraints on my Bible time except to aim for it every day. Whether it was fifteen minutes or two hours, whether I covered one verse or one book. The goal would be to simply open the Bible and spend some time there every day. If I wanted to stop and think or pray about a scripture, I could. If I wanted to stop and study something, I could. Or if I just wanted to read and only read, I could. If I wanted to skip over something, I could. (Yeah, I cringed a little when I wrote that last line... I don't advocate intentionally ignoring sections of scripture but for the purposes of developing a habit of reading, I really needed permission not to necessarily start in Matthew or Genesis or have to trudge through Numbers just because that book was next up.)
And with those new lax guidelines, I would say my Bible time improved by about ten percent. Cue more feelings of defeat.
I'm not working. I have no kids. How can I not manage a half hour of my time reading the word of God? How pathetic am I?
So, I added: I would not beat myself up if I missed a day. I would stop focusing on what I hadn't done in days past and start focusing on what I could do with the new day I had been given.
Fast forward a bit.
I finished up a short walk on the treadmill and decided that I would read a few chapters before soaking. (I have poor muscle recovery and soaking in doctored-up water after a treadmill walk seems to help with that.) I specifically opted not to read the Bible while soaking so I would have the freedom to take notes or look things up if I wanted to.
These details are important because I feel like I haven't been thoughtful in the past with trying to carve out Bible time. I really was trying to settle in with the scriptures at the best time in the most quality way possible.
I switched to the Bible on my Kindle and began reading in Acts. Stephen's martyrdom. I was immediately drawn in and imagining what it must have looked like to see Stephen's face glowing (maybe it wasn't, but I picture it radiantly glowing) the way the scriptures say ("like an angel's").
I couldn't help but think of the Christians who are being martyred today. How even all these centuries later, people are still dying like Stephen died. I wondered how similar some of their stories might be to Stephen's. And I felt thankful for my freedom to worship and proclaim Christ openly.
During all of this a few hunger pangs nudged me, so I decided to get a snack while I finished reading. Still engrossed in the story, I walked, kindle in hand, to the kitchen. But before I could open the refrigerator the voice started:
Can you not stay focused for fifteen minutes? What is wrong with you? You are reading a story written by God about one of the first Christian martyrs and you can't have the reverence to wait for your food. You really are pathetic.
And that's when I realized: One of the reasons I've always failed at this is the quickness with which I criticize my efforts and deem them not good enough.
Standing there in the kitchen I felt like today's reading didn't count. I had failed and would have to try again later.
Defeated again, I began to think about this more. And that's when I concluded: Even quick, distracted, inconsistent study is better than no study at all. And just because my reading now is quick and distracted and inconsistent, it doesn't mean it always will be. Even as puny as it was, it prompted me to pray for Christians being persecuted today. That shouldn't be discredited.
I don't think such negativity is a proper reflection of the way God feels and I don't think I'm alone in engaging in this kind of negative self-talk.
I had planned on blogging about this particular challenge after I had completed it in some way. But for anyone else who beats themselves up over every little shortcoming, I thought it important to go ahead and share this step in my journey. I'm making it a point to stop criticizing my efforts, and I hope you all do too.
I hope later in the year I will be able to say that I have become more practiced and disciplined in my reading and study of the Word. For now, I am just going to celebrate taking a significant step toward breaking destructive habits.