There are some parts of the Bible that sound great until I realize I don’t understand them much at all. Ephesians 5:18 is a prime example. Paul writes, “And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions, but be filled by the Spirit.”
The “don’t get drunk” stuff I totally understand. Tell me not to do something, and I can usually handle it. But it’s that other part. “Be filled by the Spirit.” That’s a command of a different kind. It tells me to do something—which is great—but what exactly I’m supposed to do, I have no idea. How do I go about “being filled”? Doesn’t the Spirit fill? How can I be something the Spirit does? It sounds as though Paul is telling me to get active about being passive.
And in a way, he is.
When I began pressing into what commandments like “be filled” mean, I began to look at the spiritual disciplines from a different perspective. I grew up in the church, and the exhortations to keep a quiet time were well-worn in my mind. I knew what I was supposed to do. What I couldn’t figure out is how to get the devotional time to feel less like something on my to-do list. How is it that I might actually do it, for lack of a better word, naturally?
I firmly believe every Christian should set apart a special time each day in which to spend with God in prayer and Bible reading. But when I do my due diligence in the quiet time, I end up reading things like “Pray constantly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and “I have treasured Your word in my heart” (Psalm 119:11). These don’t sound like quiet time. If anything, they sound like a quiet life.
Isn’t this really what we want? To live out our faith in such a way that spending time with God isn’t a checklist item but somehow the quality of our every waking minute? Wouldn’t we want to feel like the so-called spiritual disciplines are ways of being, and not just things we do?
I think we are more familiar with the idea of “being filled” than we realize. We’re already engaging in active passivity all the time.
Where you spend your time shapes you
Where we live and how we live there, shapes us. The things we occupy our mind with, the things we entertain ourselves with, the things we worry over—all of this is already directing our minds and therefore informing our hearts. And I think that is the same sort of active passivity Paul appeals to in that confusing part of Ephesians 5:18.
Think, for instance, about your neighborhood, the community you live in, and the daily routines you engage in there that on one level are “to do’s” but on another have become pretty automatic. Whether we realize it or not, the values of our surrounding environments shape us. They slyly dictate how we think, how we act, how we feel. And they also affect how we follow Jesus. (Or don’t follow him.)
But Jesus reframes the concept of environment for us. He takes the same concept and applies it to the Christian’s union with him. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me” (John 15:5).
Jesus brings to mind the fact that the believer is situated in him. (See also Colossians 3:3 and Galatians 3:27.) A Christian is a person who is “in Christ.” When we actively work to remind ourselves of this, the gradual result will be a more natural—which is to say, supernatural—inclination to pray, meditate on God’s Word, fast, evangelize, and so on.
Most of us certainly make time for God when we feel we have the time. The problem is God owns all of life, and worshiping God means we must revolve around him, not he us. God shouldn’t be confined to his own compartment in our schedule. Jesus does not abide in his assigned time slot; we abide in him.
In a way, this is a passive thing. We didn’t get “in Christ” by our works. He saved us by his grace; we received him by faith. The Holy Spirit has indwelled the believer, and therefore the fruit that results from the life of one abiding in Christ is fruit of the Spirit, not of the flesh.
But this is also an active thing. We are told to “be filled.” So what do we do?
Focusing on the right work
What we are talking about here is the process of formation: allowing ourselves to be formed a certain way. Most of us have already done great at being formed by the consumer culture we’re immersed in. We have adapted quite well to the rhythms of a self-centered lifestyle. Sometimes we even adapt our religious activity to that lifestyle. But to cultivate spiritual formation means to find ways to immerse ourselves in the work of the Spirit, to re-sync ourselves to the gospel.
So this is the primary purpose of a quiet time: not to primarily focus on the things to do, but to primarily focus on the reality that the work is done. Spiritual formation will take off with much more energy and much more joy when we are centering first on the finished work of Christ in our quiet times and only secondarily on the ongoing work of obedience.
How quiet can a quiet time be if we’re spending it worrying about all the things we have to do for God? This is why I had such trouble keeping consistent devotions as a young man. I felt coerced first of all into keeping the quiet time in order to be a good Christian, and then I spent those quiet times studying more about how I ought to be a good Christian, and the whole time of quiet reflection became a huge spiritual burden. I never felt like I quite measured up.
And of course, on my own, I don’t measure up at all. But “in Christ,” I do. So when I started meditating primarily on Jesus and his work and less on myself, something counterintuitive happened: I actually wanted to spend more time with God, and I started thinking more about God and his Word, and I started living out my faith more authentically because it felt more joyous, lively, delightful, and even natural.
Striving to rest
As “be filled by the Spirit” indicates, and as Jesus’s command to abide implies, there is an intentionality and active participation on our part involved. But the difference provided by a gospel-centered approach to spiritual disciplines is in both the relief and also the energy the good news brings.
As an example, imagine if Paul had simply written in Philippians 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” To stop there provides a solid instruction, but there’s not much good news in it. But Paul didn’t end the thought there. He doesn’t just say, “Get to work.” He writes in verse 13, “For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out his good purpose.” Now that is good news!
The activity of “being filled by the Spirit” is like sailing. There are roughly 60 working parts on a sailboat. There’s plenty of work to do when sailing. You can break a sweat. You have to stay attentive. Plenty of approaches to spiritual formation stop here. They amount to teaching us how to row our own boat. Some put us in a sailboat, but have us blowing deep breaths into the sail. Consequently, many of us exhaust ourselves on the way to nowhere.
But there are two things you can’t control in sailing, and they make all the difference in the world. No amount of hard work will control the tide or bring the wind. You can hoist the sail, but only the wind can make a sailboat go.
So it is not as if there is no work to do. But there’s a reason Jesus says, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). The work we busy ourselves with is meant to remind us the work of salvation is done. And when we focus on Christ and his gospel, we will be transformed (2 Corinthians 3:18). When we intentionally and diligently focus on the finished work of Christ, we find the work of the Christian life becomes less duty and more delight.