Spiritual Practices – Faith, Anxiety, and Laziness
The lives of many Christians are plagued by spiritual anxiety or spiritual laziness. A living faith in the presence of the living Jesus is the answer.
Some people told Paul that his teaching about justification through faith alone would tempt people towards spiritual laziness. They thought that the Christian life required anxiety in order for it to be genuine. Others agreed with these critics, but saw the temptation towards spiritual laziness to be a feature, not a bug. They used the doctrine of justification through faith alone to encourage a life of sin, which they considered to be more enjoyable than holiness, and, because of faith, free of negative consequences. Both groups remain with us today.
Paul saw things differently. He understood that he was justified through faith alone only because he was united to Jesus Christ through that same faith. Jesus loved Paul and embraced him. He embraced Paul’s punishment on the cross, and allowed Paul to embrace him in his resurrection life. This living, loving relationship gave Paul a confidence that inspired neither laziness nor sin, but a devoted, disciplined, and vigorous life empowered by God:
I worked harder than any of [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Neither anxiety nor spiritual laziness can be squared with a living faith in the living God who loves us, gave his Son for us, and dwells within us through his Spirit.
Anxiety despises the love and presence of God by demanding some guarantee of salvation other than the cross of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit. Anxious people work in order to gain leverage over God, instead of working because they trust in his love and presence, and seek to love and fellowship with him in return.
The anxious see their relationship to God as one of a slave to a master – a master who is distant, hard to please, and cruel. They may be able to suppress this anxiety instead of being paralyzed by it. If so, they will manifest a spirit of self-righteousness that copes with the fear of judgment by judging others. Since everyone is aware of God on some level, this applies to non-Christian moralists and legalistic Christians alike.
What about spiritual laziness? It despises the love and presence of God by pursuing a life of idolatry and selfishness. In the face of a God who freely gives life to all, who gives his Son to redeem his enemies, and who gives his Spirit to dwell with those he has graciously forgiven, the spiritually lazy harden their hearts. Instead of cultivating a burning desire to enjoy and emulate the God who lavishes them with love, they seek joy and comfort apart from him.
The way to escape anxiety and spiritual laziness does not involve finding some middle ground – just enough anxiety to make us work, coupled with just enough laziness to retain our confidence. It involves faith in Christ’s presence. Paul shows us the way in Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
How might your life be different if you lived more by faith in Jesus’ presence with you? Would you spend more time reading and meditating on the Gospels, seeing the love and mercy that Jesus showed sinners, and putting yourself in their place? Would you order your day around times of prayer, alone and with others, trusting that you have fellowship with God through the Spirit? Would you choose to fast from time to time, using your physical hunger to discover a greater spiritual hunger, and to learn in more depth how only Jesus can satisfy all of your longings? Would you serve people with more joy and less grumbling, empowered from within by Christ who gave himself for you? Would you forgive others quickly, listen to them attentively, share your wealth and time with them generously, because you trusted that Jesus had and was continuing to do the same things for you? Would you pray for people you know to hear about Jesus and believe in him? Would you speak to them about Jesus if you had the chance?
We do these things only to the extent that we believe Jesus loves us and lives within us. If your practice of these disciplines is irregular, or if they seem irrelevant or burdensome, then memorize that verse (Galatians 2:20). Recite it at each time of prayer, each period of Bible reading, each service of worship, each stressful meeting at work, and each moment of gladness and rest.
God works miracles when his people hear his promises with faith (Galatians 3:5).
He promises to come to you (John 14:18).
He promises never to leave or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5).
Have faith in him, seek fellowship with him, and follow him – because you can trust him!