My guys’ Bible study is currently going through two books together. The first is Multiply by Francis Chen which is basically a guide book for witnessing and discipleship. The other book is The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoune. I’m pretty sure that it was either my friend Chris or me that decided we wanted to work through the spiritual disciplines, but whichever one of us it was should be punished severely!
We decided that we should each pick out a spiritual discipline and work through it individually, then in our group time we could discuss our growth and struggles, and we’d have some accountability in the process.
Now, for those who aren’t aware, “spiritual disciplines” is a term referring to a group of practices used to help Christians dig deeper and grow closer to God. There are a lot of them including solitude, silence, fasting, prayer, service…the list could be endless and different depending on a person’s religion or tradition.
Initially, I was really excited about going through these with my group of guys. I truly have a desire to have a closer walk with Christ, and I thought going through this book would be a magnificent way to aid in this endeavor; however, then I remembered something about myself.
I HATE BEING DISCIPLINED!!!
Now, I’m not prejudiced. I dislike all forms of discipline. I realize this sounds ironic because I’m pretty OCD in a lot of areas of my life, and I obviously have enough discipline to get through medical school, but frankly, I don’t like forsaking my personal comfort for any form of a greater good–spiritual or earthly.
For instance, I’m in a continual cycle of starting and stopping running. I’ll sign up for a race and train for it and build up lots of momentum and get comfortable running 10 or 12 miles…then I finish the race and don’t run again for 3 months. By this time, I’ve lost most of my strength and endurance, and then I start the whole process over again.
If my superpower wasn’t an out of control metabolism, I would be featured on TLC’s My 600 Pound Life. I have been known to eat a large pizza and two bags of chips as a snack and then chase that with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s an hour later. I can diminish a bag of fun-size candy bars into a pile of wrappers in the amount of time it takes Bethany to eat 3 of those candy bars. I eat Thin Mints by the tube, and one day for lunch I ate almost 3 pounds of pork. I should be morbidly obese, but to Bethany’s chagrin, I still fit into pants I bought when I was 16.
I have high hopes of getting up early to read or do my devotions, but my snooze button wins every time. I’ll know I have medical cases to read and research, but my desire to sit on the couch and binge watch a whole season of Chuck on Netflix always beats my sense of duty to my education. I mean, look at my blog. If I were a disciplined writer, I would be updating more than once every three months.
I know there are a lot of people far less disciplined than me, and I often try and ease my conscience by comparing myself to them, but it doesn’t negate the fact that I have a lot of growing to do.
My strong need for growth was made known to my Bible study group when I accidentally started working through the section of the book marked Revealing Your True Self. What a mistake!! The first discipline mentioned was Confession, and to practice this discipline, the author instructs the reader to split his life into 7 year periods, list out his struggles and sins during those times, and confess those to a close friend after confessing them to God.
I laughed until I realized the author was serious. Then I decided that maybe I should take baby steps into this world of discipline. I convinced myself that too much too soon could do more harm than good, so I should start with an easier discipline that didn’t involve airing my dirty laundry to the world. In my mind I’d confessed these sins to God, and he’d already forgiven me, so there was no need to expose myself to another person.
I figured that maybe Chris had found an easier discipline I could start with, so I asked him. Apparently, he made the mistake of starting with the Denying Yourself section of the book. I was going to scold him for starting at what appeared to be such an advanced section, but I was lost for words when I found out that the recommended practice for his chosen discipline was to pick out your favorite belonging then give it away as a reminder that physical belongings aren’t what matters in life.
I was about to loudly proclaim my permanent abandonment of my pursuit of discipline and burn my book, but I bought the digital version of the book and just deleting it didn’t seem to have the same dramatic flare. Plus, I was smart enough not to choose the Denying Yourself discipline, so I wasn’t the one who was supposed to get rid of a valuable object like my iPad.
After a few months of getting distracted by life and letting my book collect figurative dust in the recesses of my Kindle library, Chris and I finally started discussing the book again at our weekly Bible study a couple weeks ago. The call to confession had taken root in the back of my mind, and I realized that it was time for me take a leap of faith and be willing to expose myself to a friend.
Confession is a weird thing. I think that most protestants like me take it for granted. I actually really like the concept of confession in the traditions where parishioners confess their sins to a priest. Now, I realize that through the resurrection, Jesus is our High Priest, and we no longer need to go through a human to get to him (Hebrews 4:14-16); however, I think there is a beauty and a freedom that comes from confessing our sin out loud to another person and hearing the words, “You are forgiven.” I realize this probably sounds heretical coming from a guy raised by a Baptist preacher, but it’s true!
When reading more about the act of confession, I realized that one of the sins I needed to confess was pride. I already confessed my sin to God, but confessing my sins to another person means exposing myself, and confessing sins through the span of my life means digging up painful memories that I’ve buried deep down in dark corners of my soul. Confessing to a real person sitting on the couch in front of me means that while I am dusting off old boxes of pain and brushing spiderwebs away from shelves of sorrow and remembering combinations to locks on chests I’d planned on never opening again, I’m looking into eyes that are blinking and a chest that is breathing and hands that I hear lifting a glass of water when I look away trying to pretend I’m talking to myself.
I’ve gone to counseling before, but this is way different than counseling because I was paying that person to hear me and empathize with me. I do stupid things all the time, so I have to confess things to Bethany, but our marriage vows provide a safety net onto which I can fall. I even think that confessing to a priest or pastor behind a curtain (especially the one at the church across town from my home church which is where I would go to confess if I were Catholic) is different because he hears people’s sins all day, and he’s getting paid to listen to you.
Confessing all my dirty secrets to a friend, however, is taking the risk of someone I care about looking at me, shaking his head, and saying “Nope. Sorry. You’re way too screwed up for me to have in my life.” Or even worse, he hears my sins, reiterates that God has forgiven everything, then slowly over the next few weeks starts ignoring my calls and texts and canceling next week’s Bible study and just having “a lot on my plate right now.” The subtle yet overt rejection is a reminder that my sins are too bad and that even God must struggle loving me knowing what I am and how much I’ve wrecked the life he gave me.
But, really, all of this doubt and fear is my pride. While I am taking a risk by exposing myself, and I am opening up the chance for rejection, truthfully, my fear is that this friend will now see the real me–not the facade that I’ve been polishing and tweaking for the past ten years.
These were all the neurotic thoughts simultaneously flying around my brain as I sat across from Chris and painstakingly went through my list of sins. At the end, I looked at him, and he said with a bright smile on his face, “Brother, you are forgiven!”
I mentally began packing up my boxes and deciding on a new combination for my lockbox of secrets when I realized that I didn’t have to clean up. It’s like having those friends who just let themselves into your house without knocking, and it doesn’t really matter if your house is a mess or you’re in your underwear because they know the real you, so most pretense and modesty is lost on them anyway.
The sense of freedom that comes with that sort of transparency is outrageous!
As I drove home after Bible study, I asked myself the question, “What now?” My spiritual disciplines book is great, but it doesn’t really mention what to do after confessing. While I pondered my next steps, I recalled Jesus’ words to the woman who was caught having an affair and thrown at His feet for judgement in John 8. After dismissing her accusers, Jesus lifts her up from the dirt, looks deeply in her eyes and says, “Go, and sin no more.”
And there it is. First we confess. Next we’re forgiven. Then we walk forward into life wrapped up in the freedom of God’s grace realizing that we are no longer under the power of that sin.
Spiritual disciplines are hard–really hard! But if being disciplined were a characteristic naturally built into all humans, then we wouldn’t actually be human. It’s through building discipline in practices like healthy eating and exercising that we develop stronger bodies and it’s through practices like confession and dying to ourselves that we develop stronger souls. And its these stronger souls that are then able to continue to pursue a stronger relationship with Christ, which is truly what matters most.