By Joe Barnard, Crosswalk.com
Nothing kills motivation like complexity. The few times I have eaten at Cheesecake Factory I have wanted to flee the table as quickly as Joseph fled from Potiphar’s wife. The reason was not because there was nothing good on the menu, but because there was too much.
Choice paralysis is a real problem, one that inhibits—not only the enjoyment of eating at a restaurant—but, more importantly, the growth of a lot of Christians.
As we listen to sermons and read blog posts, spiritual opportunities stack up like dishes beside the sink. It does not take long to feel submerged by opportunities. Instead of doing one of the ten Bible reading plans we see on Facebook, we decide to do none at all. The choice is simply too exhausting.
In truth, instead of being told everything we might do, most of us would benefit from being told the next thing to do. Removing choice, not expanding it, is often the best way to maintain spiritual motivation.
In view of this, Cross Training Ministries has devised a spiritual decathlon for the New Year, a carefully ordered set of 10 challenges, one per month, to jump-start hearts and get feet moving in the direction of spiritual maturity. For further instruction, weekly assignments, and additional coaching, you can visit https://www.xtrainingministries.com/thedecathlon.
Month 1: Memorize the Greatest Hymn Ever Written, ‘When I Survey’ by Isaac Watts
‘When I Survey’ is what people in the Deep South call fat pine. The hymn is filled with flammable sap that readily ignites. Memorize this hymn, meditate on it, and pray through it.
See if the Spirit doesn’t use these stanzas to stoke the embers of your heart into a bonfire of devotion.
Month 2: Read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English
In Pilgrim’s Progress the reader will find a road map that outlines the basic path that every Christian follows from conversion to death. Spurgeon allegedly read this book every year. In fact, he called Pilgrim’s Progress ‘the Bible in another form.’
So it is: the substance of the Bible rewritten as the story of an individual Christian. In writing the book Bunyan did a miracle of cartography. He combined the lived experience of normal Christians with the unchanging truth of God’s word—so that an itinerary of faith was published.
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Month 3: Learn How to Study the Bible by Studying Philippians
Let's be honest: everybody talks about Bible study, but few Christians feel competent to open the Word of God, take out a notebook, and to study the Bible for themselves. We defer to the 'experts' for two reasons: (1) we are too lazy to do the hard work of Bible study, and (2) we doubt whether we have, or can develop, the skills required for Bible study. This is tragic.
Just as a soldier needs to be able to handle a weapon, and a surgeon to wield a scalpel, so every Christian ought to be adept at reading and interpreting the Word of God.
Month 4: Memorize Scripture Starting with First Section of the Navigator’s Topical Memory System
I saw a sign at Starbucks a while ago that said something like the following: 'The number of people that regret having donated their time to a charity: zero.' One could say with equal frankness, ‘The number of Christians that regret having memorized Scripture: zero.'
Scripture memory is hard work and requires patience and discipline. Yet, the dividends are life-long payments of wisdom, comfort, and peace. The Navigator’s TMS is a well-worn road that has helped tens of thousands of Christians discover the joy of savoring God’s Word.
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Month 5: Realign the Trajectory of Your Life by Drafting a <em>Christian </em>Life Plan
Life planning is like a stick of dynamite. It's undeniably useful if used in the right way, but horrifically dangerous if played around with hastily. For this reason, books by life coaching gurus like Michael Hyatt and David Allen ought to include a warning label. Unless filtered through a spiritual colander they easily lead to an achievement-based, self-centered lifestyle.
But the good news is that we can discard the bathwater while keeping the baby. We can be strategic in thinking about how to invest our talents without succumbing to the myth that self-fulfillment is the Holy Grail.
Month 6: Gain Perspective on the Modern World by Reading Neil Postman’s Classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death
No Christian will be able to live responsibly before God unless he has some understanding of the specific nature of the spiritual combat around him. To fight a war against Al Qaida in Afghanistan is different from facing a jungle militia in Vietnam. Likewise, to be faithful within the religion of Birmingham is different from being faithful in Boston.
How does a Christian develop this understanding? One way is to read non-devotional books, such as Amusing Ourselves to Death, written by cultural critics with prophetic insight. There are no short-cuts to living truthfully. Christian need to think hard to be able to avoid the snares of the culture around them.
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Month 7: Establish a Simple Routine of Starting and Ending Your Day in Prayer
The first thing that John Stott, the great British theologian and church leader, used to do after waking up was to get out of his bed and to consecrate his body to the Lord. We ought to do the same.
It is far too easy to lose sight of the most important truth: that we live in the presence of God and are absolutely dependent, always, upon His grace. A simple routine can remind us of these facts.
Month 8: Learn How to Detach from Life and Enjoy Quiet Communion with God
There are two types of Christians in the modern world: those who live to tick items off their to-do list and those who amuse themselves to death. The other species who actually know how to sit still in the presence of God are so rare they are not worth mentioning.
We cannot be content with our addictions to productivity, fun, and technology. Instead, like the Psalmist, we must calm and quiet our souls by weaning them from unnecessary distractions (Psalm 131).
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Month 9: Build Spiritual Friendships by Asking/Answering Tough Questions
Joe Smith, Director of Strengthening the Church, has a saying that, if you want better answers, ask better questions. This is the key to deepening our relationships with other Christians.
If we want spiritual friendships we need to have the courage both to ask and to answer questions that are hard enough to pry open the rusty hinges of our hearts. You can find a list of useful questions here.
Month 10: Help Another Christian Get out of a Spiritual Rut
All of us are involved in the mission of disciple-making. This mission is about evangelism, yes, but also about helping believers mature in faith. Christians need brothers and sisters who will grab them by the shoulders, shake them, and say, ‘Join me on the daring quest to know and serve Jesus!’
By completing the first nine challenges you will accomplish two things: you will propel yourself down the road to godliness, but equally, you will discover a set of tools that can be used to disciple other people.
Whether reading Pilgrim’s Progress or completing The Topical Memory System, whether exploring a sense of calling or deepening spiritual friendship by asking better questions, you will be able to pick one challenge and use it to help another believer get moving in the direction of maturity in Christ.
Editor’s Note: A detailed set of instructions regarding each challenge, as well as a 40-week plan for completing the decathlon, is available at https://www.xtrainingministries.com/thedecathlon.
Joe Barnard is the Director of Cross Training Ministries and the author of The Way Forward: a Road-map of Spiritual Growth for Men in the 21st Century (Christian Focus Publications).