Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings… Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching. ”
-Hebrews 10:25-26 (NIV)
I hate to admit it, but there you have it. Left to my own devices, I tend to eat like I’m 12. I like burgers and steaks, beef, beef, beef, rah, rah, rah. I like pizza. (Chicago pizza, which, for the non-Chicagoans who will read this, is that sad, flimsy stuff you call pizza on PEDs.) I like to drink Cokes. And the only green foods I really like are lime Jello, green Kool-Aid, and broccoli (with cheese on it, please).
There, I’ve confessed. Feel free to judge.
Unfortunately, I’m at least, say, 20 years beyond 12 (!), and I can’t really eat like I’m 12 anymore. Not all the time, anyway. My weight’s a little up. So’s my blood pressure. I know I need to eat better, and I’m working on that. Laura makes it easier — she cooks good food that’s good for us most nights. But, here’s the thing — it’s hard. It’s hard to change your habits.
It takes, say it with me, now — discipline.
We know that. We know there’s no shortcut to being healthy. You have to eat better, and you have to exercise. Never mind the fad diets that come and go, the “supplements” that say they’ll burn fat faster, the devices they’ll sell you on TV to carve your abs or strengthen your core or whatever. If you want to look and feel healthier, it takes discipline. Eat better. Exercise more.
If you want to be a novelist, you can’t just sit around hoping one day a novel will appear on your hard drive. You have to write, steadily, for a long time. If you want to be a world-class athlete, you have to work hard, practice, repeat the skills you’ll need over and over until your muscles can perform them without asking your brain how. If you want to excel academically, you have to go to class, study, write papers, for quite a few years. If you want to be at the top of your field, whatever it is, you have to develop and practice the skills required, regularly, over the long haul. It takes discipline.
That term “spiritual discipline” doesn’t resonate these days, what with the common belief that spirituality is an ephemeral experience to be received, not pursued. And even the church has come to believe that, more or less. So our church life consists of a lot of waiting around for something to happen, something spiritual, uplifting, transcendent. We want the music to give us that experience, or the preacher, or the liturgy, depending on our perspective. We come to church, when we come, expecting to be encouraged, uplifted, expecting the preacher to give us 5 Easy Steps to whatever we’re wanting today. And a lot of times we don’t bother to come. It’s just not a priority to be there.
The writer of Hebrews uses a lot of ink to set up Jesus as God’s ultimate revelation of himself. Through Jesus, we can come into God’s presence. Through Jesus, we’ve already come to “the city of the Living God.” It’s exalted language about what God is doing for us in his Son. And yet, the writer doesn’t expect that God’s gifts in Christ can just be passively received. He believes discipline is necessary. He believes that taking hold of and living the life that God shares with us in Jesus requires practicing the skills required regularly, over the long haul, skills like prayer, service, love, repentance, worship, and so on. No one is a natural at those skills. They demand practice. And that’s why “meeting together” is important. The lab where the disciplines of God’s kingdom are practiced best is the church. Or, if you will, it’s the gym where we stretch and build those muscles that Jesus has awakened. And that’s why one of the disciplines of a follower of Jesus is gathering with the church.
Simply put, you should not expect that you will be spiritually healthy if you consistently ignore the discipline of getting together with the church, no more than you should expect to be physically healthy if every morning you wake up, eat some Little Debbies, and go back to sleep until noon. Discipline isn’t always fun. It’s hard, sometimes. And so will life with the church be. Sometimes it won’t be fun, and sometimes you won’t think you’re getting much out of it, and sometimes you’ll be watching the clock until it’s over. But if you don’t invest yourself in the life of the church, you won’t grow spiritually. It really is that simple.
I said invest yourself. Sitting on a weight bench sipping a milkshake doesn’t mean you’re working out, and sitting on a pew sipping a latte doesn’t mean you’re invested in the life of the church. Get to know your brothers and sisters at church. Pray with them, and develop the habit of praying for them. Laugh together, and cry together, and worship together, and serve together.
Here’s something that ought to be obvious, but too often apparently isn’t: the church doesn’t exist to “uplift” me, or “challenge” me, or “affirm” me, or serve me, or straighten me out. Those things can and should happen in the church, but they only will to the extent that I will invest myself in the life of the church. That means being there, first. And then it means being involved in the life being lived there, the life of God’s kingdom.
Didn’t know that’s what was going on at church? Well, maybe that’s because you haven’t been around much lately. Or maybe it’s because you’re hanging on the margins like a junior high kid at a dance.
So let’s not give up meeting together. Yes, it matters if you choose not to come to church. It matters if you prioritize everything but being together with God’s people. Have the discipline to be there when the church gathers, and have the discipline to throw yourself into its life.
I know, time is a precious commodity. None of us have enough of it. But you’ll find the time to do the things you consider important. If being with the church isn’t important enough to be a priority for you, you might ask yourself why not. And then you might want to rethink your priorities.