Practicing Perfection

August 21st, 2013

At the end of the summer, many teenagers find themselves waking early to get to school for the first of two “two-a-day” practices. Whether it’s sports, band, cheerleading, or academic competition teams, extracurricular programs like to get a jump-start on practicing before school begins. The assumption is that young people have been lying around the pool all summer, staying out late, sleeping in, and exploring the world of laziness. Practicing before the start of the school year helps young people get into shape; learn plays, marching formations, and dance routines; and get their minds back in the game. It’s a good thing since most games and competitions get underway pretty quickly once school officially begins.

Regardless of how young people feel about getting back into the swing of things at school, practice is essential to improving at any task or skill. Even those with the most natural talent on the playing field or in the music hall must practice, practice, and practice some more to see improvement and growth. We practice our sport, instrument, or craft because we want to understand it, to keep getting better at it, and eventually to master it.

Such an approach to practice also applies to our Christian faith. Growing in faith and going deeper in discipleship takes practice and a concerted effort on our part. To be clear, God’s love cannot be earned nor salvation achieved by our practicing; both are the products of pure grace. But when we work at getting to know and love God more and inviting God into our lives, the effects of God’s transforming love become more clear. This process is called spiritual discipline.

What Is Spiritual Discipline?

The word discipline often has a bad connotation for young people, implying punishment for misbehavior or the expectations of grueling summer practices. But spiritual discipline is about focus and intentionality, or having the discipline to do the work and making the time to nurture our faith. It’s an approach to faith that says, “Lord, I want to know you more, to experience you more fully, to train my heart and mind to hear you.” Just as aimlessly running around a field or playing random notes on an instrument won’t do much to help us improve in sports or music, randomly wanting a deeper prayer life or Bible study habit won’t change us spiritually. To become the person God wants us to be, we must disrupt our routines, take on some new practices, and make time in our schedules for God.

You’ve heard the saying, practice makes perfect. When it comes to spiritual disciplines, we cannot make ourselves perfect. Perfection is what God does in us, not something we achieve if we work hard. But, as we practice our faith and become spiritually disciplined, God’s love is perfected in us and we become more and more like Christ. Having a disciplined prayer life, setting aside time each day for Bible study, and participating in acts of justice and mercy aren’t ways we master the holy life. Rather, they are ways we invite the Holy Spirit to work within us. Disciplines such as prayer, fasting, study, silence, worship, and service says, “Lord, less of my will and more of yours.” As we seek more of God in our lives, we see more of God’s work in us. We feel the transformation from the old creation to the new, and we celebrate God’s promise to finish what God started in us.

Pressing On

The apostle Paul gave us the language of “pressing on” (NRSV). In Philippians 3:12, he tells us to “pursue” perfection. We are called to reach ahead, to pursue Christ, and to run to him. Seeking God and intentionally practicing our faith trains us spiritually. Two-a-days are grueling and difficult, but they will prepare us for the season ahead. Practicing spiritual disciplines can be a chore, but when we commit time to growing in faith, God will meet us with everything we need.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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