I am beginning a series of studies in my church home group about spiritual discipline, working with Richard Foster’s classic book, Celebration of Discipline. To begin the series, I have written a short reflection on what spiritual discipline has meant to me over the past couple of years since a challenging short-term mission stint in Malaysia. Here it is for others to read, in the hope that it might prove helpful to some.
When I first returned from Malaysia, six months earlier than expected, I did not realise at first that things were far from right in me. It was around my twenty-sixth birthday, most of which I spent in tears, that I began to realise something was broken within me. Even then, it was still some months before I knew the full extent of this: it took nights and nights of sleeplessness, feeling empty and surrounded by emptiness, feeling that God was nowhere to be found; it took months of my Bible-reading slowly fading from being a joy to a chore to a burden to a joke; all of this would have to unravel before I really understood that I was in serious danger. Finally, six months after coming home, I found myself lying awake and wondering: Who am I? And, Where is God? And the absence of any answer to either question made me terrified that my faith was slowly, surely dying.
I was determined to keep reading the Bible and to continue going to church, but both of these became increasingly difficult. I had not yet found a solid home church since returning to Australia, and the church I had begun to visit often left me feeling worse rather than better. My faith, I felt sure, was a sham. Yet it was all I had. So I clung on to church and to the Bible like you cling onto oxygen when you are gasping for breath.
Some nights, the only way I could get to sleep was to read the Bible. I spent nearly a month on Psalm 23 – not because I was studying it closely but because I was too broken to do anything other than crawl through the simplest and most comforting of passages in the Bible. So I would read a verse a night, sometimes reading the same verse over and over again until it somehow solidified in my brain.
Slowly, very slowly, I began to read more, beginning with the Psalms and the Gospels, spending over a year reading these alone. Sometimes it was a joy, sometimes it was agony. But I always did it, not because I was a spiritual giant, but because God had let me be so broken that I knew I could not live without Him, even when my faith in Him felt smaller than a mustard seed.
Sometimes I think of my spiritual disciplines the way I think of a rehabilitation clinic. I imagine the Bible being like my physiotherapist, taking an arm or leg that has been badly injured and slowly, gently stretching it, sometimes stretching it at only the most minute of angles yet causing almost agonising pain. Or sometimes it is like those nights when I wake, having fallen asleep on a hand or an arm and lost circulation in it. Taking up the numb, paralysed limb, I slowly prise open my hand or move it gradually, gently, until eventually I can feel and move it again. Sometimes that is what the Bible does, or what prayer does, or what it does to meet with God’s people. Sometimes I only want to cry or run away. But I remain.
For me, this is what spiritual discipline means: remaining in God, when you least want to. I used to think that, by exercising spiritual discipline, I needed to always feel like I was flourishing and growing in clear, visible ways. I am slowly realising that this is not how it works at all. Often the deepest, longest-lasting growth is the hardest to see. Often it is visible only to others, and sometimes only years after the fact. That is not our concern. What we must do is remain in God, “confident of this, that he who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”; the rest is up to Him.