Creating a little structure for your spiritual life

Well, another year ends and a new one begins. We often view this time of year as the perfect opportunity to not only reflect on the past 12 months, but to look forward with hope — and, of course, make promises for positive changes in our lives.

New Year’s resolutions. Some of us write them down or post them to social media. We have all sorts of plans for weight loss, financial gain, and improved spiritual paths.

When it comes to our planned spiritual growth, we often say stuff like, we’re going to …

– pray for an hour each day
– read the entire Bible in a year
– attend church more regularly
– give offerings more consistently

… the list goes on and on, of course.

But then we also hear that we shouldn’t get stuck in a rut; we shouldn’t view prayer and church and Bible time as a chore; we shouldn’t do something just out of habit, or attempt to put God in a box.

So what gives?

When I was a kid, structure meant safety for me. And the best form of that construct was in a school environment. That was the only place I felt safe when I was young, because despite going to more than a dozen different schools across the country, I could generally forecast the basic steps that would allow me to gain confidence quickly and define some type of success.

I was drawn to school because of its predictable nature. While growing up in a variety of environments, I knew that no matter what happened, I would go to a school somewhere; and that school would have procedures, rules, and expectations outlined. Success would be defined and the steps to get there would be clearly broadcast. My progress at school would be demonstrated in the form of a grade, and my worth could be attached to something that others understood.

That safety net carried me through college, and eventually even back into schools as a teacher.

I spent much of my early life relying on structure … then was taught that it was somehow wrong, especially when applied in a spiritual context. I spent the next several years fighting to try to sift through all the conflicting views: What’s wrong with structure? Is it somehow inherently against God?

Structure is a God-thing

Well, the opening scene in the bible begins with structure. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen 1:1-2).  And then, step by step, God turns that chaos into an ordered universe.

God created the earth and everything in it to follow structure, from the atomic level to the cosmic. Gravity doesn’t just sometimes kick in or reverse itself. I’ve never heard of the sun rising in the south and setting in the east, or star constellations suddenly jumping around to another location in space.

My point is that God does operate within structure. So that’s GOOD, right?

Well yes, … but not always. We humans have a tendency to take a good thing created by God and turn it into something else. We’ll often take a tool or principle and make it into a “god” of its own, a rule, or fixed behavior that can actually have the opposite effect on our relationships with God and other people.

That is why it is so important to develop our own individual habits of prayer, worship and study. Those habits help us build spiritual muscle-memory and training that takes over when we are overwhelmed during our battles.

For example, in my own life, the organization of academia became more than a way to build relationships and learn to function in society. It became more than just a way to gain knowledge. I hid behind my studies to avoid human interaction with all its messy trust requirements. I didn’t have to build relationships since I would more than likely move soon. And that meant I was never in one place long enough to need any depth of character for fostering long-term human connections.

Structure became a defense mechanism that propelled me in many ways. But like most strategies, it eventually backfired as my needs changed.

Jesus’s example shows a better application of the concept.

When he walked the earth, Jesus modeled the right way to access habits within a structure in our spiritual lives. The Gospels outline various points at which he set aside times of prayer.

And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there (Matthew 14:23).

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed (Mark 1:35).

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God (Luke 6:1).

You get the idea.

Jesus used structured time and solitude to communicate and listen to Father God. He didn’t use that tool to just avoid people.

And because of that habit He developed, He heard distinctly the will of the Father, even when it went against what the Son hoped could happen. Like that famous scene in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).

So, structure and discipline, habits, are not necessarily a bad thing in our spiritual walks.

Yes, sometimes it will feel like a rut. But even in those periods, the habit and consistent structure can provide a reliable leaning post during tough times.

In fact, creating consistent, healthy habits can overcome emotional ups and downs. If you instinctively reach for your phone the moment you wake up in the morning, you have a habit. By the same token, if you feel inclined to lace up your running shoes and hit the streets as soon as you get home, you’ve acquired a habit. That’s because the behavioral patterns we repeat most often are literally etched into our neural pathways. And no matter how me may feel when we roll out of bed, we’re likely to follow that habit. In that sense, structure helps us be less a victim to our fickle emotions.

Structure is not a lock-box

While God endowed structure to us, He is not bound by it, and neither should we be. That’s part of what makes it so remarkable when God chooses to defy elements of structure in order to accomplish His goals. We call it a “miracle” or “supernatural” – because it steps outside normal structural rules.

Like in Exodus 14, when God parts the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross safely. Or during that trek, when He also sent manna to earth directly from heaven.

Or in Joshua 10, when God causes the sun to stand still during a battle.

In the Gospels, Jesus heals the blind, the lame, the sick, and the dead – all defying natural structure. The disciples then continued these deviations into the Book of Acts.

We call those events miracles – and they were all good things.

Perhaps it would help us, then, to view the concept of structure as a way to build good habits – but not as some fixed checklist to run our lives, with God listed as No. 1, like some of us have been taught in Sunday School. (Anyone remember “JOY: Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last”? Yeah, maybe not always as a cardinal rule.)

Along these lines, don’t rely on other people (even people behind pulpits) to define your path. Life is not a multiple-choice test, and pastors don’t have the answer keys. Spend your own time building your own relationships, with God and with other people. Find a structure or routine that works for you, where you are, on your journey — and then be willing to flex it as the Holy Spirit reveals and as you grow.

Structure doesn’t have to be a bad word; but it shouldn’t become fixed in stone as a replacement for the dynamic ebb and flow of your life, either.

Structure creates intentional space

Structure can help you seek God by creating the intentional space for you to calm your own chaos and just … focus.

King David writes in Psalm 25, “Show me your ways, LORD, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”

The Lord’s paths and truth are not taught in a single lecture. They are not defined by a list of do’s and don’ts to be memorized. David spent time – consistent, dedicated time – in prayer. This was his “structure” — not simply to submit a list of requests, but to build his own hope. He studied – as we should – not to gain specific knowledge or win a memorization contest, but to get close to the Creator who is more vast than all universes but also more real and present sometimes than other people in our lives.

Create your own

That is why it is so important to develop our own individual habits of prayer, worship and study. Those habits help us build spiritual muscle-memory and training that takes over when we are overwhelmed during our battles.

Building that spiritual stamina takes practice. Like any athlete or performer, we must rehearse and hone our craft. And that takes time and effort. But connecting with God on a regular basis also becomes a passion. The key is to be intentional, then build consistency.

Consistency doesn’t mean a boring routine, either. Writer Carol Smith offers some suggestions: Don’t be afraid to change your habits. What time of day offers you the best chance to have a clear mind and the ability to focus? Are you still using the same devotional guide even though its message doesn’t meet you where you are? Have you been doing the same thing for years because someone said it was the best way? Decide what works (or doesn’t) for you. Explore a new strategy, and don’t give up if it seems hard at first.

So as we enter a new year and practice the wonderful traditions that help us renew our hope and begin again with a clean slate, let’s not be afraid of structure. Take a step toward consistency in your walk with God. Don’t try to be a martyr; just do … something … to build your time and relationship with the Creator who loves you so passionately.

This year can be a year of new spiritual growth and depth. And “structure” – intention, consistency and healthy habit-building – can play a significant role in our success as long as we don’t let it turn into rigid rules. Structure is healthy when it is flexible and bends to the natural flow of our lives.

So let this year be the year you take steps towards your spiritual goals. Create your own structure, suited to your own lifestyle, your own schedule, to improve your own relationships with God and your friends.  What do you have to lose?

photo credit: Darrell A, cc.

JENNY ARCHER is a volunteer associate pastor, and flawed human. When not road-tripping in her pickup, she and her wife live in Oklahoma City.