I tried out for basketball in the fifth and sixth grades. I didn’t make the cut either year, but Coach Bottorff always encouraged me. “You learned some fundamentals in here,” he said. “You keep practicing them and maybe you can play next year.”
I didn’t really want to play basketball. My mom made me try out because she thought it would make my dad happy. So of course I didn’t practice my layups or do my Maravich drills. No wonder I never made it onto the team. Playing basketball took commitment to fundamentals that would build my skills, and I certainly didn’t have that commitment.
When I came to Christ, I wanted do whatever it was Christians did, but I had no idea what those things were. I had commitment, but no coach to teach me the fundamentals. I went along like this for several years. I could tell I wasn’t growing. It frustrated me, and I wondered, “Is this all there is? This isn’t any better than my life without Christ.”
Fortunately, I didn’t give up before I encountered a few key people, spiritual coaches if you will, who showed me some fundamentals. Here’s the guts of what I learned.
James 4:7 says, “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” I think it’s interesting how submitting to God is mentioned in the same breath as resisting the devil. I think that it tells us that submitting to God is a way to accomplish resisting the devil. Not that we shouldn’t resist in other ways. I don’t know about you, but I was able to put away some of my sins by my own will power. I resisted them through force of will. My will power was not enough, however, to overcome some of my other sins, and I kept doing them. Those kinds of sins are what lead us, in our dark moments, to doubt our salvation. Those sins, I think this verse tells us, we must submit to God and let him take away.
James reinforces this point in verse 8. He says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Notice how drawing near to God is mentioned in the same breath as cleansing your hands and purifying your hearts. Again, where we can cleanse our hands and purify our hearts through force of our own will, we should do it. But we all have sins where will fails, and there only drawing near to God will make us clean. But this verse adds a thought not present in verse 7. It says that as we draw near to God, God will draw near to us. Could it be that God’s drawing near to us is what makes our sins diminish and disappear?
In verse 9, James says, “Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.” This is a verse of repentance. Interesting how James speaks of repentance in the next breath after talking about submitting to God and drawing near to him. I think James is drawing a relationship between repentance and turning to God.
Repentance is just turning away from sin. Sin is just actions that miss the mark, fall short of God’s standards, and, most importantly to this discussion, show that we have turned away from God and are going in the wrong direction. So repentance is just turning back toward God. You know, submitting to him. Drawing near to him. God loves it when we do that, and draws near to us in return.
Finally, James says in verse 10, “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” Repentance is an act of humility; it involves admitting failure and trying to change ways. I think James is saying that submitting and drawing near are acts of humility, too, because he talks about them in the same context as repentance. So what is the result of this humility? God exalts you. The Greek word hupsoo (hup SO o), translated as exalt here, means to raise to dignity, honor, and happiness. This, then, is the result of submitting to God and drawing near to him: He lifts you up and gives you dignity, honor, and happiness.
Can you imagine it? The more you turn to God, the more he gives you his grace and makes you holy. This is a gift from God, but you have to go to him to get it. And it is not a once-and-for-all gift. You have to keep turning to God, because you need his grace every day!
Lamentations 3:22-24 says, “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.'” Every day we can turn again to God to seek his grace, to be close to him, to feel and see him acting in our lives.
How do you build a relationship with anyone? A best friend? A spouse?
You do it through discipline. I’m not using this word in the sense of punishment or of military precision, but rather in the sense of training yourself to do something or of making something a habit.
I used to have lunch with my oldest friend about once every other week. We stayed up on what was going on in each others’ lives, shared a few laughs, that sort of thing. We felt close because of it. But he moved away two years ago, back to the town we both grew up in, and now I see him only when I’m there visiting family. I don’t know what’s going on in his life very well anymore, and he doesn’t know what’s going on in mine. If I call him, he is happy to hear from me, and we will catch up, but we haven’t built a habit of calling each other. We lost the discipline of contact, and so we drift.
The Bible mentions many disciplines that God’s followers have practiced. Richard Foster explains them in his book, Celebration of Discipline: Meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, service, worship, confession, and celebration. These are all ways of drawing near to God. Practiced in the ordinariness of life, they can provide the closeness to God that transforms us.
So get Foster’s book and try these disciplines. Stick with the ones that work best for you. I find fasting to be difficult and unrewarding, but I feel like I grow steadily closer to God as I practice study, meditation, prayer, and solitude. When I let these disciplines fall away, I feel my closeness with God fall away, too. It’s because these are things I have to keep doing, habits I have to maintain – fundamentals, like those infernal Maravich drills for a kid who wants to play basketball.