This week my daughter and I recorded a short video on the Biblical city of Capernaum. Jesus lived there during most of his ministry. Peter’s home was uncovered there by archeologists in the middle of the 20th century. Check it out and let us know what you think. We’ll be doing future teachings together.
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John Donne, the English poet-scholar, wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” The poem goes on to explain that every man lives a life dependent on those around him. He needs others to thrive and survive from day to day.
At the face of it, this is a true statement. We need each other for various aspects of our lives. On every level of our lives, we require some connection to those around us for food, supply, support, encouragement, etc.
While researching a passage from the writings of King Solomon this week, I came across a comment on this idea that is relevant to our lives, particularly the culture we live in today. Though we all need each other to maintain the lives we live, many of our innovations have created the sense that we can isolate further and further away from the rest of the world.
Many people would much rather receive a text message than a phone call, mainly because it’s an easier and more convenient way to communicate. We have friends we can keep in touch with via social media without ever having to see or speak to them. We don’t have to shop anymore because Amazon will deliver to our houses or we can have our grocery orders brought to our cars. When we do shop, we can choose self checkout and avoid the headache of talking with the cashier. Take some time to watch families in restaurants and other public settings.
It is depressingly common to see one or more people sitting together, staring at their phones. Everything in our lives is making it easier and easier to simulate living as an island. Living in our own bubble like this lowers social pressures and expectations. It makes life easier and frees us from the headache of dealing with people. Many people embrace this new, isolated life.
Surveys have found that each successive generation is more and more inclined to choose isolation. It’s important to understand that this is not isolated to younger generations. Isolation is common throughout our culture, with the majority of Americans reporting that they have no close friends at all. Those friends they do have are not the sort of people that they talk about deep, personal issues with. There is an entire industry centered around talking to strangers that you pay to talk about your problems.
The problem with these trends is that they are contrary to our design as humans. We are social creatures. We need each other. Social isolation, though easier, is significantly less healthy. Loads of research has demonstrated that increased time spent on social media or staring at screens is associated with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and all sorts of other negative psychological traits.
While reading Solomon’s philosophical reflections, I encountered the most obvious answer to this growing social problem. 3,000 years ago, while writing about workaholism, Solomon explained that close relationships in every aspect of life improves everything. Family, friends, spouses, children, neighbors, work friends, and all the rest are what makes life good. They are a gift from God. King Solomon saw a fundamental truth, that we are losing sight of today: we need each other.
If every man is becoming an island, then what the world needs most right now is bridges. Years of talking with people as a pastor has made me confident that, while most people want to isolate to some degree, most people are also very lonely.
The solution is to do hard things. Building bridges is difficult. Going where people are and changing our life patterns to connect to the world around us is incredibly difficult. Many of us don’t know where to start. I would suggest church as an easy solution. Volunteering is also a powerful option. Attending public events, like the kind that the library offers weekly, create space for building bridge connections to others. The hardest part is admitting we need each other and taking the first steps to reach out to the islands around us.
“I struggle to remember to pray, read my Bible, or do anything else to grow spiritually. I start strong and then fall off.” Do you ever feel like keeping your spiritual efforts just melt away when life gets busy?
Maintaining daily spiritual disciplines usually starts off well, when you are motivated and excited to do it. After a few days, it wains, and eventually falls off the radar completely. It is especially frustrating when you talk to other believers who seem to know everything and have mastered their spiritual life and calling. When you compare yourself to how you perceive others it is easy to get discouraged.
Some Good News
The truth is that most of us struggle with this. The fact that you’re struggling isn’t inherently bad, because struggling involves you trying in the first place. If you didn’t care, that would be a much bigger issue and a more difficult one to deal with. Apathy is a far worse condition that struggling. I would rather be discouraged over my lack of spiritual fervor than apathetic to my spiritual condition.
The stoic philosopher, Epictetus, wrote that most men would be horrified to lose their eyesight or their hearing, but are indifferent to their souls becoming calloused to the point that they don’t care for their own spiritual condition. He describes this state as madness, because your soul is your most valuable possession. If you care for the condition of your soul, you are in a far better situation than you realize.
If you find yourself discouraged with your struggle in this area, I would suggest reading Romans 7, where Paul discusses his struggle with himself. The only hope he had in the midst of that wrestling was the knowledge that Jesus died to redeem us and that our struggle with sin is not futile.
I would argue that this is the solution to the larger issue of struggling with the state of our prayer lives or Scripture reading or anything else. As we focus on Jesus, we stay on the path toward becoming like him.
We may stumble and fail, but when we get up and continue we remain in him. Driving in that direction over the long term will result in slow growth and improvement. The real key to spiritual life and growth is constant focus on Jesus. That is it.
How can focusing on Jesus be the solution?
“Isn’t that part of the problem with not praying or studying?” When I fall off of my spiritual disciplines, it is usually because I allow my focus to wander to something else. So, how does focusing on Jesus help me when losing focus on him is the problem? This is the truth of the matter and I agree that it appears to be a bit of a catch 22.
That does not mean we ought to give up, because in giving up we are abandoning our soul’s condition. Instead, we must look for the things God has given to us to help us maintain our spiritual health.
God knows we are going to struggle with ourselves. Paul describes struggling with our flesh, or sinful nature. Part of us will pull us away from God all the time.
God knows we struggle, he gives us the Holy Spirit to prompt us and strengthen us. He also gives us folks whose job it is to help us grow spiritually.
How Jesus taught his disciples grow.
When Jesus did ministry he had a crowd of students following him, watching, listening, and asking questions. They were learning to imitate him. This is how we were meant to become like Jesus. We look at his life and imitate it.
The problem is that Jesus isn’t physically with me to help me learn. That makes it challenging, to say the least. He overcomes this by putting men and women in our lives who have advanced beyond our spiritual state. We can follow, ask questions, imitate, and grow by imitating then, while they are imitating Christ.
Most folks who struggle with their growth or the spiritual practices that promote growth don’t have anyone they are connected to in order to learn to be like Jesus. When we have this sort of relationship we will grow through sharing life with that person.
Mark’s gospel depicts this style of training over and over again. Jesus takes his disciples with him as he lives life. They watch and learn. They ask questions. They learn over the course of time by imitating as a byproduct of spending time together.
Finding a Spiritual Training Partner
The other element that I spoke about last week, that was common in the ancient world and we see in Jesus’ teaching is partnering up. Having another believer to engage with on the same level to discuss Scripture or our spiritual struggles or even to keep us accountable for our spiritual disciplines, guides us toward consistency.
It’s a little like having a gym partner. I was more consistent working out when I had a gym partner to meet up with daily. A fellow believer, with whom I can establish accountability and engage in discussion about my spiritual life, will help me to grow.
Mutual encouragement and training together is part of how we as believers were meant to grow. Generally when we struggle with our spiritual efforts, we lack these sorts of relationships as well.
Adding community that encourages us to grow spiritually, to focus on Jesus when we fall, and who we can help in return creates a better, more enjoyable and fulfilling life in Christ. It also builds a structure around us that helps us to be consistent in growth.
The biggest struggle with this sort of external spiritual support is establishing it. We must ask. That is hard, particularly in a culture where religious aspects of life are encouraged to remain internal. We don’t like externalizing our deeper struggles. This is a huge hurdle to overcome. However, it is important because these relationships are the master key to spiritual growth and consistency in our disciplines.