This is a modified version of a discussion forum in the online class I'm currently taking, Christian Spiritual Formation. I like to think I've learned a little in the last couple months, but here are some of the thoughts I've come to recently.
The initial question was this: "What relationship exists among human effort, human responsibility, divine sovereignty and grace?" And here was my response, as well as some afterthoughts in response to statements made by my peers.
As far as I can tell, I might be the youngest person in this class. As such, I may also be the least disciplined, having had the least amount of time to develop discipline. But as I reach the conclusion of the first year of my marriage, I find more and more reason to be disciplined: disciplined to do the dishes; to fold the laundry; to find a new job; to do my homework; to kiss my wife goodnight every night.
But how much does my discipline have to do with my spirituality? My initial reaction is to say, “Well, a lot!” But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that my focus is “me.” Do I have a responsibility to be disciplined? Perhaps. Does God have an obligation to reign in the life of the believer, to pour rain on the just and the unjust? I suspect only the obligation God places upon himself.
When I consider the possible relationship “among human effort, human responsibility, divine sovereignty and grace,” I immediately go to read Titus. Growing up, the only thing I remember ever hearing from Titus was the leadership quality list in ch. 1 for the election of elders (on the rare occasion that my native congregation elected them). What I had never heard, however, was what followed soon afterward. It was not until my junior year of my undergraduate study when I heard in particular Titus 2.11-14:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our greatGod and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
A few points in this text were highlighted: God’s grace trains us, teaches us to say, “no.” We are not left to learn to do so on our own. Redemption and purification are not immediate, but a process. I don’t remember anything from my time before college when I was told that my relationship with God was not entirely up to me. I was given a highly self-centered, self-governed, individualistic vision of spirituality, and this minuscule passage blew that away. But as I sat in a lecture in the middle of an on-campus youth ministry conference, I was told something different: “You don’t have to do this alone. You needn’t carry this all upon yourself. It’s okay to be fragile and weak, for what else are you apart from God? But God will make you strong, and he’s working on it. God is working on you, and he’s not done yet.”
Human effort and responsibility have their place, but only if that place is found in the folds of “the grace of God [that] appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” The “self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” only happen when grace is our teacher, and we sit at the feet of the Lord. This thing called spiritual discipline is as much God’s responsibility as it is ours, which may be one of the most comforting things I have ever heard.
It seems to be a recurring theme throughout biblical literature that God is the main player. For suffering, Job, Paul, even Jesus look to God. If the Bible is not, as I grew up thinking, a how-to-get-saved manual, but a story about God, then why not apply the same concept to spiritual discipline? It is far too easy to make this about myself, much like marriage. Just because I'm good at Greek and somehow scraped an A in Hebrew doesn't mean I'm disciplined, but that I did something I enjoyed (for the most part, anyway). I can recognize that marriage takes discipline just as a five-year-old can tell that a comic book takes skill to draw. He knows it's cool and awesome looking, but can also discern that it is something he cannot do (at least, not yet anyway). You can try to become as good as that artist, but imagine it's more about the artist than yourself. It's not even about the comic book, and that's something I think we miss a lot too! I don't think I can overemphasize how important God is to the process of spiritual discipline; without the artist whom we ought to emulate, what's the point in learning to draw?