I like to make lists.
I like grocery lists, reading lists, to-do lists, and Christmas lists. I like to make lists of goals for the New Year. I like to accomplish things and cross them off my list with the thick and final swoosh of an ink pen.
Yes, I am first born in my family’s sibling line-up, how did you guess? And yes, I do have a Type-A personality. But such an approach does not bode well for my spiritual life.
For many years I made the same types of lists for my spiritual growth: read the Bible in a year, memorize a certain amount of scripture, read Mere Christianity, pray more.
And every year, I generally failed. Well, I did read the Bible in a year once. But typically I’d start out praying consistently for a week before forgetting. I’d memorize scripture for about a month before losing momentum.
Nothing is wrong with these types of goals in and of themselves. Actually, they can be conduits of knowing God better, but not always and not necessarily. Sometimes it depends on why I’m doing them. Am I reading the Bible to know God more, or to just fly through four chapters a day to check it off my list with a flourish?
It’s taken a while for me to realize sometimes I need to stop striving and start abiding.
“Abide in me, and I in you,” says John 15:4-5. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Abiding sounds rather mystical, doesn’t it? To my Type-A ears it doesn’t sound like I’m accomplishing much. In fact, the word “abide” simply means to remain, to dwell, to stay, or to reside. Yet this passage makes it clear no productivity, or fruit — as we Christians like to say — will come about unless I abide.
At it’s most simplistic, abiding is another way of being sanctified, which is a big fancy word for “to make holy.” As we abide in Christ we become more like him. We Christians sometimes think sanctification mainly happens during negative and trying circumstances. We give this impression when we say, “Oh, this big huge trial I’m going through is sanctifying me!” Or, “my kids throw such tantrums sometimes it sure is sanctifying!”
But really, being sanctified — or becoming holy — is just becoming like Christ. It happens not only during bad circumstances but also in the mundane moments of everyday while we abide in him. It’s not something I can accomplish by making a list of spiritual goals.
“Sanctification is ‘Christ in you,'” writes Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest. “It is His wonderful life that is imparted to me in sanctification, and imparted by faith as a sovereign gift of God’s grace…. Sanctification is not drawing from Jesus the power to be holy; it is drawing from Jesus the holiness that was manifest in Him, and He manifests it in me. Sanctification is an impartation, not an imitation” (emphasis mine).
To see this thing called sanctification — or holiness — as an imparted gift of grace, it changes my striving to abiding.
I no longer feel it’s something to put on a list to cross off. I no longer view my spiritual life as something to accomplish, or productivity to be quantified. I no longer view Christ as a Savior simply to be copied so that I can feel good about myself.
C. S. Lewis speaks to this when he writes in Mere Christianity, “When Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean simply something mental or moral. When they speak of being ‘in Christ’ or of Christ being ‘in them,’ this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts — that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body.”
Ironically, sometimes to keep abiding, spiritual disciplines like prayer, memorization, or reading the Bible with a reading plan are helpful. They can be a practical way to feed myself more of Jesus.
But I do it now because I’m hungry for more of the Christ-life in me. I do it because I want to read or experience more of Christ’s love. I do it to abide.
Not to have something to cross of my list.