If we knew that our spiritual walk with Christ was going to be hard and take a long time, would we be quick to take it on or would we avoid God?
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat Pray Love, which exploded into bestseller fame and unexpectedly catapulted her into the spotlight. In her TED Talk, she talked frankly and humbly about creative genius and the work of being a writer.
“…I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone, who is now in her 90s but has been a poet her entire life, and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from the landscape. She said it was like a thunderous train of air, and it would come barreling down at her over the landscape.
“And when she would hear it coming — because it would shake the earth under her feet — she knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words ‘run like h***.’ So she’d run…to the house, and she’d be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was she had to get to a paper and pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page.
“Other times, she wouldn’t be fast enough. She’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her, and she would miss it. She said it would continue across the landscape, looking, as she put it, for another poet.
“But this is the piece I never forgot! She said there were moments when she would almost miss it…she would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. In these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards from the last word to the first.
“When I heard that, I was like ‘That’s uncanny. That’s exactly what my creative process is like…’
“It’s not at all what my creative process is like! I’m not the pipeline. I’m like a mule, and the way I work is that I have to get up at the same time every day and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.”
Preparing Ourselves to Meet the World
Regardless of whether we would classify ourselves as a creative or not, Elizabeth Gilbert’s words ring true for many of us in our spiritual lives. Divine inspiration or words from the Lord may come thundering over the horizon for some people, but for the rest of us, it’s the gritty, hard work of getting through each day, trying to snatch a few hours of Bible reading after a long day running a paver in the full sun or in the wee morning hours before the baby wakes up.
Connecting with God often feels less poetry and more a mule sweating and grunting its way up a fly-infested hill.
Perhaps something like this is roughly what Peter had in mind when he wrote, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13, ESV).
Peter was a blue-collar tradesman, fisherman, leader of a persecuted church, prison escapee. His ideas of ‘setting our hope on the grace of Jesus’ probably didn’t come with any gentle, romantic flourishes. Living as a Christ-follower was knuckle-cracking, callus-inducing work. One rolled out of bed and got to it until they hit the hay that night. Nothing fancy.
This isn’t to say that God doesn’t connect in dynamic, dramatic ways with some people at certain junctures in their life. It’s just that between those spotlight moments is a lot of steady discipline and quiet dedication.
Gary Wilkerson wrote in a devotion, “Whatever happened to a life of total surrender to Jesus? What happened to being willing to lay down our lives for the gospel’s sake?...
“It is vital that the hearts of Christians be truly prepared to deal with hard things in life. Paul said, ‘Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless … not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people’ (2 Timothy 3:1-5)….
“Paul said of his own testimony, ‘My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Corinthians 2:4). If we aren’t living a life empowered by God, we can’t blame the Lord. It isn’t because his grace lacks power. The problem is with us.”
Connecting to the power of God’s presence and grace comes with steadily seeking him, methodical prayer and rigorous digging into his Word.
An Example Who Has Gone Before
If there was ever a leader whose life exemplified this mentality, it was John Stott.
Mark Meynell was tasked by Stott’s literary executors, after his passing in 2011, with going through and organizing this great spiritual leader’s notecards. The collection was, in his words, “mammoth” and deeply impressed upon him the relentless intellectual labor that John Stott had put into each one of his sermons and books.
Meynell noted that Stott’s studies “entailed working patiently through complex and weighty tomes as well as lighter, more populist fare. He routinely made contact, when possible, with debating opponents in order to ensure he did justice to their arguments. He’d be appalled by our tendency today to indulge in supposedly slam-dunk soundbites, tweets, or blog punditry that distorts the importance of a minor point in order to vilify an entire book despite its careful scholarship. Such practices were anathema to him.
“These cards,” he reflected, “form quite the legacy. Working through their digitized versions was akin to tracking a quarry’s footprints as he negotiated five decades’ worth of ministry challenges, controversies, and concerns. Many are no longer relevant or urgent. But that isn’t where their true value lies. For me, their true value is derived from a godly dedication to his private world every bit as tireless and generous as his public ministry.
“Nobody can be another John Stott—and nobody needs to be another John Stott. But as Tim Keller explained in his message at Stott’s U.S. memorial service, there’s so much to learn from him at precisely those points where we differ from him—whether due to temperament, context, or calling.”
The depth, breadth and vitality of Stott’s Christian walk didn’t just arrive in the mail or casually stroll up to his heart and knock. These were gracious gifts to him from the Father as he purposefully pursued God’s heart over the course of decades.
He actively sought critique from others. He studied tirelessly. He organized his research in order to provide an informed framework for his opinions. He relentlessly sought God’s mind in the working of the world and how to respond to current controversies. We would do well to do the same.
The process of growing in Christ and engaging with the world around us ought to involve steady labor as we work to become more informed and mature.