Our Long Obedience

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I recently lost five pounds.

That shouldn’t be reason for too much celebration; there’s still plenty of me that needs to go. But for someone who hasn’t had luck losing weight, peeling off five pounds in two weeks was cause for a fist-pump.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. In fact, I’ve tried hard. I downloaded an app that would train me to run a 5K in just eight weeks. I went on a 10-day cleanse. I bought one of those extreme fitness videos that promised I’d look like Captain America in under two months. I woke up at 5 a.m. to exercise and spent $250 on vegetables and organic foods.

For awhile, I loved it. I logged my running progress and bragged to my friends that I’d be running marathons in no time. I rolled my eyes at the lines for Taco Bell while I headed back to my office with my salad. I loved waking up in the morning, working out until I was drenched in sweat, and then bragging to my wife about how she’d soon be sleeping with a superhero.

But if you’ve ever tried these radical life changes, you know what happened. When getting up at 5 a.m. got old, I let my alarm go a bit longer. When the aches and pains got rough, the exercise DVDs went into storage. After awhile, I heard the siren song call out, Yo quiero Taco Bell, and tossed the salad into the trash.

What finally helped me make progress? Logging my calories. Understanding what food made me feel bad and cutting back and cutting out. Forcing myself to get up and exercise, even if I only had time for a 20-minute walk. Being okay with the fact that some weeks my weight plateaued or only decreased by a half-pound. Progress came not from radical adjustments or life-altering makeovers; it came from the daily work of making small changes and sacrifices and pushing ahead, knowing that change would come slowly in the day-to-day task of turning the Titanic around (‘Titanic,’ of course, being the nickname for my belly).

Most people who have seen any sort of weight loss agree: While radical diet and exercise programs might promise quick and astonishing results, true and lasting transformation comes from lifestyle changes that are often minute, boring and unsexy. The change over time is more likely to stick as you incorporates these shifts into a routine. Unfortunately, we don’t like doing this because it feels mundane; it’s not something we can Instagram.

I often take the same approach to spirituality.

As my faith is challenged and daily life buffets my soul, I often seek to keep my heart from becoming hardened by seeking epiphany. I want God to give my soul some big revelation or insight, to “drop a truth bomb” that radically alters my life. I want the finger of God to point me down the path to a big, world-changing mission and I want to suddenly grasp deep truths that make my heart leap and my doubts drop away. So I look for deep truths that bubble up to the surface of my heart. I want God to speak in signs and wonders, so I look for miracles that confirm his presence and ask him to send a mission that can only be accomplished through some radical life change that’s also usually accompanied by a flurry of emotions, butterflies in the stomach and chills up my spine.

You know, the kind of stuff that could also be the flu.

I’ve learned not to trust spiritual epiphanies blindly. Not that I want to completely discount every emotional experience tied to faith, but I’m wary. Many who’ve gone forward during altar calls or campfire invitations can attest to the way spiritual highs disappear like a gust of wind. If I’m feeling full of faith and confidence today, then what happens tomorrow, when I’m filled with doubt and frustration? And those wise words that seem so full of truth and grace when they come to me? Too often they seem silly and shallow hours later, poked full of holes when held up to scripture.

It’s not that I think God can’t and doesn’t sometimes use emotions and epiphanies in the lives of believers. But from what I read in the Bible, the way of spiritual growth and sanctification comes through scripture and prayer, and the empowering of the Holy Spirit not to do miraculous works but just to get through the regular day-to-day muddle. We might think that Christians grow through mountain-top experiences, but what I read in Scripture and see in life is that growth more often than not comes as we trudge our way through the valleys.

We dream that spiritual growth will happen as we speak deep meaning to large crowds, work miracles and change the world. In reality, growth happens when we say yes to a task we don’t want to do. It happens as we do the daily work of taking out the trash, making lunches and cleaning diapers. It happens not in remote villages but in ugly offices, messy homes and strained relationships. Our epiphanies from God more often sound like praying to a wall and the word spoken to us from Scripture is more likely to tell us to repent of our sins and keep pushing on instead of telling us we’re doing awesome and God’s going to give us our best life now. As Tish Harrison Warren says, “The crucible of our formation is in the monotony of our daily routines.” 

It’s this daily, sometimes frustrating, push forward, our “long obedience in the same direction,” that produces lasting, spiritual growth, contentment and fulfilling. It’s not always exciting and it’s rarely sexy. But it’s the only path that leads us closer to God.

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