We’ve come to the end of a series on the stories we live by and the habits that can help us keep the Scriptural Story at the forefront. I hope these reflections have given you some direction in regards to spiritual disciplines that can aid you in spiritual growth.
We began this series by considering one of the biggest challenges facing the church in the West today: we can easily adopt two or three spiritual practices as mere add-ons to the story we see ourselves in. But what if religious activities and spiritual disciplines look like Christian faithfulness, when in reality the primary story we see ourselves in—the narrative that gives the most meaning and significance to our lives—is the same as our unbelieving neighbors?
What is the primary story we see ourselves in? That is one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves.
What should be the story that gives shape and significance to the life of a Christian? The Scriptural Story. There are two aspects of the big Story that both deserve our attention, one public and one personal.
The public side of the Story is the cosmic, universal truth of the gospel: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived a perfect life in our place, died on the cross for our sins, rose again to launch God’s new creation, and has now been exalted as Lord of the world. The public side of the Story—the universal truth of the gospel—should be at the heart of the church’s liturgy and practice. We announce what has happened and where the world is headed.
The personal side of the Scriptural Story shows up in how the gospel alters our life story. When we trust in Christ, the new story begins, a narrative in which we are gradually being remade into the image of Jesus. It is a story of becoming like Christ. This is the personal side of the gospel—that Christ died for you and me personally, and that God has promised to make us more and more like our Savior.
This means that “setbacks” and “steps forward” must be viewed in light of our ultimate purpose on earth: to reflect the glory and goodness of the God who created us and the Savior who redeemed us. The personal side of the Scriptural Story for the individual Christian is a journey toward greater holiness. It is a story of being conformed into the image of Christ through the power of the Spirit.
Unfortunately, it’s possible to confess the truth of the Scriptural Story while our attitudes and actions show we are driven by the narrative drama of a different story. What can counter this spiritual complacency and the lesser stories we live by? One answer is suffering.
The effect of suffering is to blow up lesser stories. Suffering brings us face to face with our finitude. Suffering exposes trivialities. During a season of suffering, we are more likely to see past the lesser stories that have demanded so much attention, to look again to the Scriptural Story of the world, and then reconfigure and reimagine our lives accordingly.
But what if we are not in a season of suffering? What can we do to reimagine our life story in a way that emphasizes growth in Christlikeness?
One solution is the amputation approach. Once you see how lesser stories connect to your idolatrous temptations, you take radical measures to counter them, primarily through “amputation.” That may sound awful, but if you’re chained to an idol, “amputation” may be the best way to break free. There is a radical element to Jesus’s call, no matter how much we try to domesticate it or “re-story” it according to our preferred narratives.
But maybe you feel the pull of these lesser stories, but do not think you are yet captive to them. What other approaches are available?
When you listen to pastors, read discipleship books, or talk to believers about the common practices that should be true of Christians, you hear these three come up again and again: prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance.
The more we engage in the three general habits for all Christians, the more likely we will overcome some of the lesser stories that vie for our attention. But what about the cases throughout church history in which people who, on all accounts, were considered devout in their general habits but missed the ways in which true Christian faithfulness would have been demonstrated in their time? Is there another approach?
Understanding “subversive habits” starts with the recognition that we are habitual people. Every day, we engage in habits and practices that either increase or decrease the position of the Scriptural Story in our hearts. Here is the question we must ask: What practices or habits would have the effect of lifting up the Scriptural Story while also demoting lesser stories?
Subversive habits are specific to the sanctification process for each person. The goal is to stimulate our imagination so we can choose counter-formative practices that will help us resist being conformed to the world.
But how do you know what habits to adopt for yourself or to recommend to others? In order to chart a path, you must become aware of what lesser stories you find most compelling.
The next step is to take a look at the world around you. What is happening in the world that will reinforce the lesser story in your life?
We are not individuals on our own, taking stock of our life stories. The world is shaping and molding us all the time. For this reason, we must not only identify the primary story by which we live, but also the cultural pressures that make that story so easily adoptable.
Biographies of admirable Christians through the ages often include information about the practices and disciplines they engaged in—habits that seem unusual, or at least uniquely shaped to the particular needs of a person’s sanctification.
We need today to incorporate into general spiritual disciplines a counter-formative element, something deliberately intended to subvert the lesser stories we are tempted to live by.
Subversive habits are not a silver bullet to spiritual growth. But they can aid our sanctification. We do well to consider what regular practices will best help us resist conformity with the world, keep the Scriptural Story at the forefront, and chip away at the lesser stories that would capture our imaginations.