My older brother, Terry, inspires me. At sixty-five he’s still competing in marathons and triathlons. This weekend he cycled 116 miles up to Pittsburgh so he could run a race on Saturday. I putzed around the house reading, playing music, and chatting with friends. Could I have cycled alongside my brother? Not in a million years, even if I tried really hard. “Trying” couldn’t carry my flabby frame more than a few miles before I’d collapse in defeat. But would I be capable of it if I trained and prepared? Of course! If I paid the price my brother has paid, then I could probably do the same sorts of things he does.
When it comes to living a life of discipleship, trying just doesn’t feed the bulldogs. Regardless of how hard I try to be like Jesus, I inevitably find myself sidelined on the trail, panting for breath and begging for mercy.
No, discipleship is more than trying. It is a life of strict training towards the goal of becoming like Jesus. For years I thought of spiritual disciplines as exercises in gaining God’s approval, like the little gold stars I used to earn from my teachers. But grace taught me there’s no point in trying to earn points with a God who isn’t keeping score. Since we’re unconditionally loved and saved by grace, our days of trying to impress God are firmly behind us. But spiritual disciplines do have a place in the life of a disciple: They train me to connect more deeply with grace, and they help me to grow into the loving, selfless, and spiritually attentive person Jesus wants me to become.
Just as there are hundreds of ways to train for a marathon, there are unlimited disciplines to help us towards spiritual maturity: Intentionally looking for Jesus in the face of strangers, actively listening to others, or to God, regularly devoting my driving time to prayer, or setting aside time every day to thank God for His blessings. In fact, whatever our weaknesses, God can show us disciplines to help along the way.
As disciples we must ask ourselves, “Am I training, or merely trying to become like Jesus?”