Sometimes I try to be the God of my own life. It’s not intentional. Actually—my intentions are really good. I’m driven by a desire to do better, to be better, to love the Lord more perfectly. Unfortunately, it’s in this pursuit that I tend to lose sight of the goal: Jesus.
My thinking goes a little like this:
- If I sign myself up for a long list of prayer or devotional commitments, I can grow in relationship with Him.
- If I impose fasts on myself—if I remove distractions—I can make room for Him.
- If I volunteer more—if I eliminate all the time I have saved for myself in my schedule—I will be a better servant.
- If I read more Christian blogs, do more spiritual reading, and learn more about theology, I can know Him better.
Do you see where the problem lies in this train of thought? There’s a whole lot of I. If I do this, than I can get this result. In my heart, I know the intentions are good. It hurts me when I know I’ve hurt the One who loves me more than life, so I want to do whatever I can to prevent that. If I could, I would flip a switch that would make it so that I’d never screw up again. I would flip a switch so that I was able to love God for the rest of my life unto eternity. I would go to Mass every morning, I would forever cast off dating, I’d shut off my Facebook account, feed the homeless and never sleep if I thought that would do the trick. But, ironically, none of that would do a bit of good. That’s because my focus has become self-repair instead of relationship with Christ.
Now, obviously, I’m not suggesting we cast off devotionals, community service, or various forms of worship. That’s all very necessary, and it will both flow from and deepen the faith we already have.
Becoming a better person and getting to know God is always something worth striving for. It’s what we’re called to, in fact. But what we’re not called to—what we’re not created for—is a life of doing things for ourselves.
How could this be? How do we start with the goal of growing in relationship with the Lord and wind up neglecting it?
I think this phenomenon is best understood through a comparison to marriage. I recently read an article about some relationship trouble this really heartfelt Christian man was having with his wife. At some point, his wife had come to him with hurt feelings because she didn’t feel like her husband had been respecting her in their relationship. It all started because the husband had been taking care of the couple’s financials all by himself. He figured that he had been doing her a favor by doing all their budgeting. He thought he was doing her a service by keeping her from having to deal with all the bills and annual tax reporting minutiae. However, he never communicated this to her, and, by not including her in the process, he had made her feel like a child.
The same thing comes up in one of my favorite movies: Guess Who, starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher. In the movie, Ashton Kutcher’s character winds up quitting his job the same day he’s supposed to meet his fiancée’s parents for the first time. That’ll cause some tension, obviously, but what’s worse is that he doesn’t tell his fiancée about it. The news finally breaks at the film’s climax, and this prompts Zoe Saldaña’s character, his fiancée, to question their engagement. While he tells her he just didn’t want to worry her, she questions her ability to trust the communication in their relationship. Ultimately, she wants to be treated as an equal partner. She wants to make decisions—to do things—together.
Ultimately, that’s what God wants too. He doesn’t want us to keep things from Him. He doesn’t want us to get it done by ourselves. He doesn’t want us to act like everything’s perfect. What He wants is to walk with us. What He wants is a relationship with us.
I thought I could accomplish this through self-regulation, but I couldn’t.
Recently, I noticed that I had become so distracted by girls and obsessing over not being in a relationship that I was neglecting my relationship with God. It simply wasn’t His time yet, and I needed to readjust my focus. Thus, I decided to go on a dating fast. Unfortunately, this didn’t help my relationship with the Lord so much as it allowed me to slap some blinders on and “check the box” that said I had removed something that had become a distraction in my life.
Not dating isn’t bad. However—when it’s a discipline you’ve imposed on yourself, it can be. When you decide to remedy your problems all by yourself and pretend like girls don’t exist for years on end, you’re not doing your spiritual life any favors. That’s because: you’re suddenly not dating, not because you’re waiting on the Lord, but because you’ve decided you’re not allowed to pay any attention to the people God might be putting in your life until further notice. You’re not obligated to wait upon His will for your relationships. You’re operating on your timetable—not His. In lieu of listening to God and actually taking cues from Him, you get to tune Him out, do your own thing, and feel good about yourself.
The same can be said about making your own decisions about how you spend your time. Earlier this year, I thought I had to be Superman. I was convicted by the need I saw around me and felt that it would be selfish for me to use free time for myself. If I had an evening open, I felt the need to fill it with a shift at the local homeless shelter or yet another campus ministry meeting. However, I came to find that my spiritual life was becoming more and more strained the busier I got. Stacking activity upon activity—ministry upon ministry—does not bring you closer to the Lord if there’s no time left in your schedule to rest in adoration of Him.
Even our prayer and devotional routines can be detrimental depending on the attitude with which we approach them. Mass, novenas, rosaries, Bible studies, worship nights—these are all great things and most of us could probably afford to do them more! However, they pose a danger if we use them the wrong way.
For instance, many people set rules for themselves that do not allow them to experience the Lord’s will for our lives when He said, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” but rather tie a millstone around their necks. This could mean coming to the conclusion that you have to go to Mass every single morning at 6am—that there is never an excuse for missing it—or it could mean that you stare at a timer to make sure that you spend a certain amount of time in prayer before you fall asleep every night. The problem here is that so many of us allow these “extra” prayer routines to become normative, to become binding. Then we beat ourselves up when we miss a day. We attribute our trials that day to the fact that we weren’t able to live up to the obligation we enjoined upon ourselves—as if God were in the business of punishing us for the fact that sometimes life gets busy. You can’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. That’s the work of Satan—not the One who gives us Life.
Another example of prayer gone wrong is when it becomes a performative utterance we simply complete in order to protect us from falling or ever having to come humbly to the throne of mercy—from actually having to encounter Jesus. Along these lines, I’ve heard of all sorts of superstitious formulae for guarding against impurity. However, if these prayers lose their meaning to us and become mere tools we use to get something (i.e. a life free of spiritual trial) instead of the fundamental line of communication between God and man, we’ve missed the point.
If we become slaves to a certain prayer regiment because we think that will maintain our blamelessness, or that our completion of it entitles us to purity, we run the risk of making an idol out of the form of prayer. What’s more—we’re then faced with the temptation of, once again, becoming our own gods, because we’ve forgotten that He alone is the One that clothes us in all righteousness and purity. He alone is our reason for praying. We pray not to avoid ever having to feel guilty, but because we are moved with love for Him. We are driven by a deeply rooted desire to know our Creator and be known by Him.
Don’t get me wrong: discipline in prayer is a GOOD thing! However, prayer does nothing if we our hearts aren’t moved. Without a conversion of heart, our worship lacks meaning. That is why our primary goal should not be to complete some list of prayers. Our goal should not be to merely avoid the things that would remind us of our need for Him. It should not be to go to every single worship night the ministries on campus offer in a week. Our primary goal has to be a life of dependence on the Lord. We’re bound to fall either way. We’re human. What’s most important is that we know the One who loves us anyway.
What’s most important is relationship. We need to come back to Him everyday. As tempting as it can be to just wanna flip the switch and solve all the problems—and as good as the heart can be behind not wanting to screw up or hurt the Lord—that’s not what we were created for. We were created imperfect for a reason. There is a reason perfection lies in God alone. It is because we were created for a relationship. We were created to know Love.
If we extend our marriage analogy further, relationships never end when you say, “I do.” It’s not enough to stand up and say, “I love you,” when you’re head over heels and all your single friends are looking on with envy. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Marriage is a commitment, which requires a couple to stand up (or bend low) and say, “I do,” day in and day out: even when all the party guests have gone home, the wedding dress is faded, and all the pictures are covered in dust.
Feelings wear off, but true love doesn’t settle for going through the motions. It has to rekindle the fire. It has to ignite the flame. It has to come close and listen to its Beloved’s heart. True love must be pursued.
God’s not something we can check off our to-do lists. We won’t come to know Him by taking our lives into our own hands or trying to be perfect all by ourselves. We know Him when we’re authentic. We know Him when we make the journey from our heart to His every day until our very last. We know Him when we invite Him in, when we listen, and when we allow Him to be the leader of our daily lives.
Every day I find myself making my worship a task to complete so I can feel good about myself. It’s as if I’ve forgotten why I’ve made a practice of it in the first place. So every day I undertake the even harder task of not just going through the motions but uniting my life with the life of Christ. Every day we’re faced with the task of fanning the flame of love.
This is when we know Him. This is when we experience radiant joy, lasting peace, and true Love. If this is the opportunity I have in Christ, I have to ask myself: why would I ever want to be my own God again?