There’s no proper path between the porch and the van, just a dotted line of flat stepping-stones through the grass. These are adorable three seasons out of four but slippery (and invisible) just now, buried in snow. Most of us would probably get wet to the knees on every journey from the house, except for one thing: we’ve trod that route so often that there is now a flattened place in the snow. We weren’t traversing that way daily to make the path; we had to get in the van. But now the path is there to help.
In the same way, when I do my duty, I am helped to go on doing it. Why is it easier to obey once we begin? Is it that we are made creatures of habit–and this is turned to good account when the habits we build into our lives are faithful ones? Is it that we somehow actualize or demonstrate our faith by acts of obedience, however small, and God (the one who rewards those who seek him) then comes to our aid?
Early in my walk with Jesus I heard someone say to “pray on your knees when you don’t feel like praying”. It seemed unnecessary to me, and a bit silly. Until I tried it–and realized that praying on my knees meant taking some time, getting alone somewhere, and awkwardly creaking down on the ground. Having done all that, I felt like I couldn’t just fire up a half-conscious, poorly-formed request or two before descending into distraction again. I then had to put in the further effort to focus my mind on the Lord and formulate thoughts about and to him. And so I could really pray. Putting myself in the right posture was the hard part.
We are such complex creatures, aren’t we? A mix of body and mind and heart and soul. It is hard to delineate the boundaries of each, but somehow discipline of one may strengthen and direct the others. I love how the “greatest commandment”, according to Jesus, just speaks simply to all of them: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Luke 10:27). Sometimes loving God is a conscious mental decision before it is a heartfelt effusion. As Eugene Peterson writes, “We live in an ‘age of sensation.’ We think that if we don’t feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship” (from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (1980), pink font mine). Now I think worship is the expression of a feeling for God but his point is that sometimes our hearts follow our actions, and this I have found to be true.
We are also helped in our duty because we know our obedience blesses us later. As C. S. Lewis says, “When we carry out our ‘religious duties’ we are like people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last water comes, it may find them ready” (from Reflections on the Psalms (1958)). Channels in the desert, ruts in the snow, paths for the feet. . . there is something safe, something oddly freeing, in knowing that (God helping us) we can and will choose to do our duty regardless of which way our emotions surge and swell. Yet one more thing I notice, if I “go through the motions” of faithfulness (regardless of where my heart’s at) I am becoming more and more emotionally invested in the good works God has called me to–whether I’m trying to or not. And when fruit appears my joy is all the greater. It’s a way to bank more of today’s time and energy into tomorrow’s account.
For Alex, who walks beside me on the path. This post is deeply indebted to our conversations–“thank you” could never be enough for the many ways you encourage my soul.