We want to be mature Christians, we want to grow in our relationship with God, and we try hard to get to a place where we respond to life's ups and downs with the grace and love of Christ. But trying hard is never quite enough, and we need God's help to change us.
This is something that Nathan Foster, son of Richard Foster, author of the spiritual classic The Celebration of Discipline, was reminded of when he undertook a project to implement the 12 disciplines in his father's book in his life and document his journey.
Speaking at Spring Harvest in Minehead, Foster said that spiritual disciplines are great, but they are best done as a response to God's love for us.
"Spiritual exercises... are best done as an active and intentional response to God's love," Foster said. "These are not obligations, these are not 'have tos'... not 12 more things to fail at. We are invited to do them as an active response to God's love."
The trouble is, he said, that we are often not very good at hearing that God loves us. Being told that 'God loves you' has become a cliché. And we might know it very well in our heads, without really knowing it in our hearts.
So instead of responding and engaging in spiritual disciplines out of love, the pressure to succeed clouds our thinking and we end up with false narratives about God driving our spiritual life.
We can end up seeing God as a form of divine boss – coming round to check up on us, or as the judge who's keeping a list of when we mess up. Or as a cosmic Santa – if we behave and do everything right, maybe he'll give us what we want.
"Maybe worst of all," said Foster, "is when we begin to see God as this cold, distant, absent parent."
So Foster rephrased: "God likes you. God's not mad. God smiles when you come around. God is proud of you. I wonder if you could hold that truth? And I do believe it is a truth – that he's proud... I'm not the best father, but on a good day I look at them and see this incredible pride... I watch them as they sleep. They are doing nothing but I feel such pride because they're mine."
This is where the Christian life starts, he said. From here we can move on to spiritual exercises that help us to develop a deeper relationship with God. We need to take Christ's yoke – meaning that we are called to train alongside him, and we need the Spirit's help to make us more like Christ.
"If we're honest with ourselves, if I'm honest with myself, I want to be loving, and generous, I don't want to be jealous, or angry. I want to be moral. But I don't have the capacity within me for these things... I can fake it for a while but in the end, I can't love, it's a work of the Spirit. God needs to do something within me."
But, said Foster: "There are things I can do to help that. What I want to propose is not that you try any harder, but that you train."