For years, I thought my faith was at its strongest in college. Back then, I made sure to study God’s Word and pray every day. Back then, I read through the entire Bible for the first time, learned inductive Scripture study, and filled notebooks with tightly scrawled prayers.
Those were the days, I thought wistfully in my late twenties while my One Year Bible gathered dust on the shelf and my prayer life became nearly nonexistent. I felt ashamed that my laziness and lack of focus had hamstrung my connection to God.
But the older I get, the more I see those college years differently. I still admire my earnest longing for God, and I love how wholeheartedly I tried to grow. But remembering those long hours of study and prayer makes me shiver.
Because if I’m honest with myself, I hated the spiritual practices I spent so much time pursuing. My devotional life felt like a joyless slog. By the time I was a senior, I dreaded prayer, dreaded the Bible—and some of that aversion, even twenty years later, has not completely gone away.
Let me be clear: spiritual disciplines are good. But our ways of approaching them can twist what might connect us to God into weapons we use against ourselves. Just as we can harm ourselves by unhealthy relationships with good gifts like food or sex, we can harm ourselves by unhealthiness in our spiritual lives as well. So how do we recognize when we’re doing that? And what can we do differently?
I’d offer three clues to help us find our way.
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Clue 1: You Dislike Your Spiritual Practices
You’d think you’d know if you dislike something, but in faith, it can be hard to tell. I was told so many times that reading my Bible or praying would always help my faith that I found it really hard to admit when that wasn’t true. When reading the Bible filled me with doubt and despair, I assumed I had simply read the Bible wrong. I never stopped to ask myself why I disliked devotionals.
It took a therapist gently insisting that I take a break from daily Bible reading for me to finally close the Good Book for a period of time and step back
Spiritual practices like Bible reading are powerful tools, and using them to shame ourselves can cause real harm. If you feel persistent dread, constantly procrastinate about your spiritual practices, or feel worse after completing them then you did beforehand, something is wrong—and it’s not you.
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Antidote 1: Pay Attention to Honesty and Joy
My pastor shocked me one Sunday when he suggested that we notice which devotional practices we actually liked. “Do those first,” he said in his sermon, giving us a varied list of possibilities. “Make spending time with God enjoyable.”
I blinked in disbelief. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought about how I chose my spiritual practices. Now I realized that if I disliked something, I assumed it counted more.
But did God really want me to dislike my spiritual life?
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"...concentrate on enjoying God."
It has transformed everything to concentrate on enjoying God. Rather than studying Scripture by myself, I do it in groups. Instead of reading long passages of the Bible, I create artwork while meditating on single verses. Instead of making long lists of prayer requests, I sit in silence and ask God to fill my mind.
Now my devotional life is a joyful refuge that calms me, quietens my heart, and helps me look towards God moment to moment.
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Clue 2: You Ignore Your Circumstances
If I found devotions hard in college, it was nothing compared to when I had kids a few years later. When my daughters were born, I faced a choice: showering or quiet times.
I chose showers, but I sure felt guilty about it. That sense of failure did not help the post-partum depression I was struggling with.
If you’re shouldering heavy burdens—a big move, a new job, caring for an ailing spouse, parent, or a newborn child—prioritizing devotionals without considering your circumstances is a sure-fire way overtax yourself. Burnout is a real danger when we’re going through stress and change.
God sees your struggle. It matters to him. And it’s okay to let your devotional life reflect that.
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Antidote 2: Notice God in Your Everyday
I once thought caregivers should shoehorn quiet times between bathing, feeding, or tucking their charges in to sleep—but in the last few years, I’ve realized that needlessly limits God. We don’t need to separate our caregiving from our devotional life.
For instance, according to the Women’s Bible Commentary, women in Ancient Israel did just that. Mealtimes and cleaning routines were serious ways to worship, since keeping kosher was at the center of God’s law.
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"Caregiving is an essential spiritual discipline as well."
Caregiving is an essential spiritual discipline as well. In her book Long Days of Small Things, Catherine McNeil celebrates the spiritual practices built into caring for babies. She says, “The spiritual life is not only for those with the freedom to sit quietly and meditate, but also for those of us who are called away to continue giving deeply of ourselves.” Throughout her book, she suggests spiritual practices that are integrally wound into mothering—inviting readers to meditate while rocking babies, breastfeeding, and even changing diapers. In McNeil’s hands, we see Jesus’s incarnation as a celebration of the often-invisible work of parents.
If we have eyes to see how God helps us care for our loved ones, we will be steeped in Jesus’s presence in every moment.
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Clue 3: You Feel Afraid
Every so often, I look at my spiritual practices and feel panic.
“I’m not doing enough,” I think. “I don’t take faith seriously. I’m selfish and lazy.”
I once thought these thoughts were the conviction of the Holy Spirit. If I took my spiritual life seriously, of course I would worry. I thought these thoughts were normal, healthy, and even holy.
But the older I get, the less I think this fear comes from God.
If you feel your devotional life never measures up, that it’s the only way you can keep connected to Christ, then you are, by definition, deeply afraid. What if you could rest in Jesus without constant anxiety about whether you were measuring up?
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Antidote 3: Trust God with Your Spiritual Life
Paul, writing to Timothy to encourage him in his ministry, reminded his charge that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7). Yes, the Christian faith requires active engagement, but as a speck of yeast works its way through dough, or a tiny mustard seed sprouts into a tall plant, change is in God’s hands, not ours.
If you had reminded me of this a decade ago, I would have nodded, then said, “yes, but…”
There is no “but.” We don’t compliment God by assuming our hard work makes us Christlike. Our participation is necessary, yes, but not our power.
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"God honors our broken attempts to reach out..."
What if we could actually rest in Jesus? What if we could send up prayers like tiny balloons with the word “help” on them and have that be more than enough to connect to God?
I used to think fretting about my spiritual life was essential. Now, though I know it underlines how desperate I am for Jesus, I also see how worry sidelines God. The Almighty asks for the barest minimum of me and promises to do the rest. Yet I, in my anxiety, will not hold still long enough for God to carry me.
Let me be clear: God honors our broken attempts to reach out; Jesus holds our hands even when we’re blind to his presence. All the while, the Spirit sings us a lullaby of wholeness that could strip away our fears and help us drink deeply from the spring of life.
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How Would You Seek God if You Were Not Afraid?
What if seeking God were about finding deep joy instead of doing faith pushups? What if the quiet stillness you found in a brief prayer felt like the truest thing about your day? What if you didn’t have to remember to spend enough time with God but instead felt as if Jesus curled around your ankles like a friendly cat, as Anne Lamott described?
After God created the whole world, the Almighty rested. We worship a Spirit of wholeness, of stillness, quiet, and deep comfort, not a taskmaster who demands our earnest spiritual productivity. When we see spiritual disciplines as invitations instead of homework, we more truly understand God’s deep love for us. As Isaiah wrote, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15).
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
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Originally published Thursday, 20 September 2018.