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Week 5, Day 4: How We Participate

LOOK & LISTEN: Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, “When You Believe”

If everything happens by and through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, does that mean we have no part to play, that nothing we do matters? By no means! We’ve been learning about the balance between God’s initiative and our involvement, between God’s sovereign will and our free will, between God’s story and our role in it, between God’s defining mission and the invitation for us to participate with him. Perhaps a better analogy would be a beautiful dance or a duet (like the one you just watched) — both partners need to be active and involved and attentive to one another in order for it to be all that it can be.

We know what God is about: redeeming all of creation through his son Jesus and renewing all things by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in and through each of us. We know what we are called to: to learn to be like Jesus — growing more and more in love and grace, living more and more in the presence of God, and allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us more and more into who God created us to be — and to invite others to do the same. But how do we get there? This is what James Bryan Smith writes:

Jesus understood how people change. That is why he taught in stories. He used narrative to explain his understanding of God and the world: “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” “A man had two sons …” If we adopt Jesus’ narratives about God, we will know God properly and right actions will follow. And the opposite is true. We change not by mustering up willpower but by changing the way we think, which will also involve changing our actions and our social environment. We change indirectly. We do what we can in order to enable us to do what we can’t do directly. We change by the process of indirection.

Smith explains that there are four elements in transformation: (1) changing the stories in our minds, (2) engaging new practices, (3) being in reflection and dialogue with others who are on the same path, (4) all under the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Christians over the centuries have engaged in these practices, what Smith calls “soul-training exercises.” Also known as “spiritual disciplines,” they are simply holy habits, practices that work and build up our spiritual muscles. Think about a musician who practices for hours in order to have the ability to perform — and to improvise. Dallas Willard uses the analogy of a baseball player:

A baseball player who expects to excel in the game without adequate exercise of his body is no more ridiculous than the Christian who hopes to be able to act in the manner of Christ when put to the test without the appropriate exercise in godly living. … The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy. … We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality.

Historically, disciplines have included things like prayer, fasting, worshiping, studying the Scriptures, and spending time in silence and solitude. You may be doing some already — and you may have noticed that we have been experimenting with some over the last few weeks.

Heart surgeon Dr. William C. DeVries once said, “The reason you practice so much is so that you will do things automatically the same way every time.” We want to so build up our habits of love and grace and faith and hope that our Christ-likeness becomes more than just an occasional characteristic when we choose to practice it, but our very character, our instinctive response. The disciplines help us unlearn the instincts the world has taught us — seeking vengeance when we’ve been wronged, lashing out when we’re irritated, speaking a hurtful word, drowning our sorrows in substances — and to take on, more and more, the character of Christ.

The goal of the disciplines, it must be noted, is not to become really, really good at them. The point of engaging in these practices is not simply so that we might be an expert in prayer or fasting or any of the other disciplines. If this becomes the main thing, we’ve missed the point. The point is to be becoming more like Jesus, to be becoming closer to God, to be becoming more open to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The truly disciplined person is the one who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done — that is, whatever it takes to live as we were made to live, demonstrating the character of God. By our participation with the Spirit of God, this is possible.

It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being:


A Soul

And a Moment.

And the three are always here.

- Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Always”


  • Head: What practices do you currently engage in to exercise your physical body? What about your intellectual muscles or your relational muscles? What do you do now to exercise your spiritual muscles?

  • Heart: How do you feel about James Bryan Smith’s four factors of transformation? Think of a time in your life when you tried to see change happen — whether it actually came about or not. Were any of those factors present? Which of the four factors comes easily to you? Which is more challenging?

  • Hands: Try to do twenty push-ups. Note how you feel afterwards — this will probably be some indication of the state of your physical fitness. How does this make you think about the state of your spiritual fitness?


Ask God what he would have you do in the process of transformation. Take time to listen and note down the ideas that come to mind.

The point of spiritual disciplines

is not to become really good

at them. It is to become

more like Jesus.

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