Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Demosthenes lived in the 4th Century BC, a few hundred years before Jesus was born. Living in Athens, he was considered one of the greatest speakers of his generation. The great Cicero of Rome once said he was a "perfect orator, lacking nothing." A student of Plato, his speeches served to preserve his city's freedom from outside political forces and promote the beauty of his Athenian culture.
Why bring up a guy like that? Well, he wasn't always able to speak well. In fact, he was almost totally inarticulate because he had a major speech impediment that made it impossible for others to understand him. This is where it gets weird. Demosthenes decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to becoming a speechwriter and speaker. So he built an underground study and got to work. He shaved half of his head (which was shameful) so that he wouldn't be tempted to go out in public and lose his focus. He placed pebbles in his mouth for hours at a time in order to practice his speaking until he spoke with absolute clarity, freedom, and grace. And he stood in the ocean surf building his vocal strength by speaking above the crashing waves.
Weird, yes. But his efforts brought transformation.
We have a tense relationship between grace and effort in Christian discipleship. We tend to swing the pendulum in one direction or the other. Either we talk of all of life being grace and no effort needed, or we act like our very salvation is completely up to us, rather than a gift from God.
The reality is both. Our value, our salvation, and our standing before God is a complete gift of grace. But if we are going to actually follow Jesus in the world, it takes intentional training. We don't just naturally learn to forgive, withhold judgment, and practice generosity. We must train ourselves and ask Jesus to train us.
If I want to become less judgmental, I've got to start learning the stories of the people around me. If I want to experience the freedom of contentment and generosity, I've got to start practicing parting with my possessions. If I want to speak words of life, I've got to start holding my tongue in those snarky little comments that I'm particularly good at.
At LifePath right now, we're encountering a new "spiritual discipline" each week. And honestly, it feels like work. We're asking each other to give intentional effort during the week to learning new practices and postures. But that's because on the other side, we will see Jesus more clearly, and our lives will reflect him more closely.
It takes effort to grow in the skills of love and connection. But on the other side of the effort, there is such a gift.
Dallas Willard says, "Every discipline has its consequence, and that consequence is freedom."
That, to me, sums up why we "press on" in our discipleship. It's not because grace isn't sufficient. It's because new levels of freedom are waiting for us if we do the work.
Demosthenes went through the discipline of the stones and the waves to experience the freedom of the tongue. I'm sure it felt silly at the time. But when he emerged to speak, he was free in a new way.
So it is with us as we intentionally follow Jesus. Our goal really isn't perfection. It's reflection. Reflecting the character and life of Jesus in the most genuine way possible in our lives.
So when you choose to pause in prayer, or when you fast from a meal, or when you practice not having the last word, or tangibly serving someone else when you don't feel like it.... It may feel silly or meaningless. It may feel like you have to overcome your natural inclinations. But on the other side of your labor, there is freedom. So I invite you to embrace a season of fresh discipline, while never forgetting that God's grace is completely sufficient for you. You'll find freedom. And it's even ok if you fail.
Jesus, help me not avoid the work that will lead to growth, freedom, and love in you.