Spiritual discipline

Making the most of what life brings you is a practice and a skill. It is a mental discipline. It consists in first remembering that you always have a choice about what thoughts you entertain. It is also a matter of understanding that your thoughts matter—that they do make a difference. And even beyond that, there’s a place of unshakeable faith, where you have no reason to ever think that you are a victim, or are hopeless or alone or unloved by God. Such thoughts no longer make sense to you. Choosing to think them would be like choosing to put your hand in scalding water, inviting senseless and unnecessary pain.

How does one reach this place of “blessed assurance” that nothing and no one can ever separate you from the love of God? There is no formula. And yet there is. Spiritual disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting, reading scriptures, etc.) represent another of life’s paradoxes. We cannot by our sheer effort attain this “salvation,” yet our efforts in pursuing it will not be wasted. They are for us a matter of cultivating our receptiveness and intensifying our desire. The gift of God’s grace, however, is always a gift.

“We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) We tend to read this verse as if it’s a command: “You ought to love, because you owe it to God, who first loved you.” Then we get self-conscious and say, “Well, that would be loving for the wrong reasons—just because we get something out of it.” But here too we’re stuck in thinking it’s about what we ought to do. When you experience the love of God, there’s no thought of, “Should I then love?” No! You’re swept off your feet and carried by love. That you then love is simply a consequence of being loved. You don’t experience it as “you loving”; you just experience it as love. Love begets love. This is a simple statement of fact, not a command.

The relationship of love is like a circle: God sustains us, which leads to us loving God, which leads to God revealing more love to us, which leads to us wanting even more, and so on. It’s like an upward spiral worth catching and being caught by. It’s like I’m a child trying to board an already-turning merry-go-round. At some point I finally realize that I’m already on the merry-go-round and it’s bigger than I ever had imagined. I’ve been trying to find God and all of a sudden God finds me! At least that’s what it feels like. The truth is that God never lost me. The lost sheep in Jesus’ parable was never really lost; it just thought it was. Yet the Shepherd pursued it, because that’s what love does. The sheep then finally knew that it was loved.

By all means, practice spiritual disciplines. But don’t do it to attain the gift; do it to cultivate your awareness that the gift is already given. Don’t do it to earn God’s love; do it to realize you are already loved. Don’t do it to find God; do it to wake yourself up to the presence of God—God who is already with you and within you.