A man is, by his nature, whatever he is. He is fearful or doubtful or worrisome or angry or empty. That is by the nature of his flesh. Thankfully, of course, God has given us a new nature. But is there really a way for a fearful man to become a faithful one? For a doubtful man to become a believing one? Is there a way for a man to become more naturally his spiritual nature than his fleshly one?
There are probably a lot of ways for this to happen, but I consider myself a fairly average individual when it comes to matters of this sort and so I'm going to say that this, in general, is how it works for me. I will use the example of prayer, but the pattern is true for nearly any spiritual discipline one hopes to acquire. It goes something like this:
Life presses in and does its best to knock me down. True to any human living in the flesh, I do my best to push back according to "truth" or some other jargon-y nonsense I've picked up listening to the culture tell me what a Christian is supposed to be. Just believing that God is doing something is enough, right? Professing trust in Him and pushing further into the mess is faithful, right? Convincing myself that this trial is from God and that being upset by it or about it is a sign of faithfulness clearly sets me above the pack, right? So I press forward for far too long, driving myself straight into the storm and thinking this is faithfulness.
At some point, this stops working. I can't go any further. Much after the point when I should have stopped to pray in the first place, I stop to pray. I collapse, really, exhausted and distressed. Not even at the foot of the Cross. No. Even that would be too much. I just fall where I am and hope God can hear me and confess my unfaithfulness in asking for help at all (because I have still convinced myself that I should be strong enough to handle whatever God throws my way). And then, having prayed some mumbled prayer, I fall into a period of darkness.
For the next several weeks, months, whatever, I pray on what I would consider a fairly routine basis, confessing that I should have prayed sooner. Still confessing, as well, that I believe I have failed God. Asking Him to forgive me and to make me stronger for these sorts of battles. I beat myself up - both for having not prayed and also for praying now. I don't really know which way to turn. And then at some point, it hits me: this was not my storm. I start to feel a little better, no longer feeling like I have failed God, but now I don't know whether to pray in the storm or not. How am I to know, when the winds are raging, which storm is mine and which is not? It's all very confusing.
The more this happens, the more quickly I come to a place of prayer. Never right away. No, such would be too easy. But the next time, maybe it only takes 4/5 of the time it took the first. And then 4/5 of that. And then 4/5 of that. I come more easily to prayer, and I even find a way to reach that point somewhere before exhaustion. Somewhere before I fall where I stand, I start to find my way to the foot of the Cross. If a bleeding woman can push her way through the crowds...if a paralytic can be lowered through the ceiling...if a short man can climb a tree, the least this worn-out woman can do is crawl toward the Cross.
That's really what it is. I start to grow weary and I take what's left of my strength and start crawling toward Calvary. I use what's left in me to get to a place that makes sense, the only place that makes sense. I start coming to Jesus instead of crying out for Him to come to me all the time. And prayer, whatever it is, it starts to make more sense.
Over time, and I'm not really sure how it happens, what has been my last resort becomes my first refuge. In times of trial and in times of triumph, the most natural thing this woman does is to pray. I find that I'm struck mid-prayer by the fact that I am praying at all without having consciously thought of doing so. Without having come to the Cross, I have still come to Jesus. Without exhaustion, without working my way first, without running out of ideas, I have run to Him. All of a sudden, from a fallen flesh, I find that I am a woman who prays.
Who woulda thunk?
This is the general pattern for the disciplines, at least in my life. Maybe you can relate? Reading the Bible is the same way. It starts with good intention, maybe, and then it's hard to fit into the schedule. Then you read when you feel so guilty about not reading for so long that you can't stand it any more. You read late in the day because you missed it in the morning. Then you're reading on your lunch break. Then you're reading on your morning break. Then you're reading over your morning cup of coffee. And all of a sudden, you're a Bible reader.
Or church-going. Maybe you go one Sunday a month. Then it's two Sundays a month. Then three. Then four. And maybe you're walking in 30 minutes late every week. Then 25 minutes late. Then 15 minutes late. Then you're on time. All of a sudden, you're going to Bible class. And then you're in a small group. And all of a sudden, you're a part of God's community.
Most of us get really hard on ourselves when we "fail" at these kinds of things, but the truth about the spiritual disciplines? I think they all start forming in a place of failure. So if you haven't prayed today, don't worry; there's still time. If you missed your morning Bible study...again...it's ok; there's a whole day in front of you, and a tomorrow, too. If you haven't been to church in awhile and 10:30 seems a little early, walk on in this week at 11:20. God's people will still be happy to see you.
One step at a time, you'll get there. Before you know it, your spiritual nature will be just as natural as your fallen one used to be.