In this week’s blog post, we are considering the habit or discipline of perseverance. In past posts, we have considered Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, serving, stewardship as it relates to both time and finances, fasting, silence/solitude, journaling, and learning.
If you have not seen these posts yet, go ahead and click on the links to catch yourself up.
And remember that the primary motivation for these spiritual habits or disciplines is taken from Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:7, where he says, exercise or discipline yourself toward godliness. This applies to us just the same today and he makes it clear that, if we wish to be godly, it will take work, discipline, and exercise. Just as an athlete, musician, or artist must exercise disciplined practice to become more proficient at their chosen field, so a disciple must exercise disciplined practice in these activities as means’ of grace to become more proficient at being godly. That is to say, as we become more disciplined in the practice of these habits, more of God’s grace is available to us which will change us.
So what about perseverance?
There are a great many things that require perseverance in our Christ-following life. And Scripture contains many references to perseverance, remaining steadfast, and not giving up or giving in. This encouragement can be applied to a great many areas of our life but we need to consider perseverance in the matter of the habits of grace or spiritual disciplines.
There are three elements that have been mentioned briefly to this point in reference to other disciplines, but we are going to look more closely at them here. They are the role of the Holy Spirit, the role of fellowship, and the role of struggle in Christ-following.
The Role of the Holy Spirit
We need to constantly remind ourselves that despite the most diligent of attention to disciplining ourselves for the purpose of godliness, we cannot make ourselves more like Jesus.
That is what the Holy Spirit does, working through these habits or disciplines to bring us closer to Jesus and making us more like Him. Any emphasis on the disciplines of habits carries the risk of overlooking this important fact.
In The Discipline of Grace; God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges, he says:
A major temptation in the self-discipline approach to holiness, however, is to rely on a regiment of spiritual disciplines instead of on the Holy Spirit. I believe in spiritual disciplines. I seek to practice them...But those disciplines are not the source of our spiritual strength. The Lord Jesus Christ is, and it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit to apply His strength to our lives. (135)
Wherever the Holy Spirit lives, His holy presence creates a hunger for holiness. His primary task is to magnify Christ (John 16:14-15), and it is He who gives the Christ-follower a desire to be like Christ. We have no such desire in our natural state. But in the Christ-follower, the Spirit of God begins to carry out the will of God to make the child of God like the Son of God (Romans 8:29). And He who began this good work in the life of the Christ-follower will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians1:6).
So it is the Holy Spirit’s job to produce within us both the desire and the power for the habits of grace. And the reality that He does this in every believer is evident from 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (NASB). Therefore, even if your natural temperament or personality does not incline you toward orderly and disciplined habits, the supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit equips you with enough of a supernatural spirit of discipline for you to obey the command to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.
Self-control, according to Galatians 5:23, is a direct product, or fruit, of the Spirit’s control in the Christ-follower’s life. And when the Christ-follower expresses the Spirit-produced self-control by practicing the habits of grace, the result is progress in godliness.
Two things are clear: (1) the Holy Spirit will always be faithful to help each of God’s children to persevere in those things that will make us like Christ, and (2) we must not harden our hearts, but instead respond to His promptings if we would be godly.
The Role of Fellowship
That Christ-follower who only measures Christlikeness in terms of growth in his or her fellowship with God takes an incomplete measurement. Spiritual maturity must also include growth in fellowship with the people of God. John the apostle connected these two fellowships in 1 John 1:3: “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” New Testament fellowship is with both the triune God and with His people. Just as the human maturity of Jesus included growth in favour with both God and man (Luke 2:52), so will the spiritual maturity of those who seek to be like Jesus.
One of the obvious reasons why we cannot take the habits of grace into isolation is that many of the habits - public worship, united prayer, participation in the Lord’s Supper, serving others, and more - simply cannot be practised without other Christ-followers. Also, one of God’s purposes for fellowship is to complement the personal habits of grace and to stimulate our growth in godliness through them. Consider this; as studying the Bible alone is one God-given habit of grace for growing in grace, so is studying the Bible with others. The habits of grace definitely have some nonpublic applications but they were never meant to be practised apart from fellowship in the community of faith.
Hebrews 3:13 also warns us, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today”, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” When we withdraw from the spiritual protection God provides for us within the fellowship, we are more easily deceived by sin. Without the tempering influence of Christ-followers with different gifts, insights, and experiences, those who withdraw from the exhortations or other Christ-followers miss out on the grace that God intends for them to receive only through the local church life.
An old Puritan recommended that we associate with sanctified persons. They may, by their counsel, prayers and holy example, be a means to make you holy.
The Role of Struggle
Living the life of a Christ-follower is not easy. Even though trust and rest are core values of the Christian life, so are discipline and struggle. There are lots of forces that fight against the spiritual progress of those still on this side of heaven. Now, the way of Christ is not always an inner struggle or every moment a battle, but neither is it without lifelong opposition. That’s just the reality.
And the struggle is natural, given the warfare that is going on for your very soul. We see in the verse that anchors this blog series that practising the habits of grace will be accompanied by struggle. Referring to the godliness mentioned in 1 Timothy 4:7-8, Paul wrote in verse 10, “For to this end we toil and strive.” The words toil and strive tell us that becoming like Christ involves something different than ‘let go and let God’, as some have taught. The word translated toil means to work until you grow weary. We get our English word agonize from the term translated here as strive. It literally means to struggle. Growth in godliness does not come by the work of the Holy Spirit alone, nor by our work alone, but by our responding to the grace the Holy Spirit initiates and sustains.
This is the clear teaching of the New Testament. It warns us of the world, flesh, and the devil and how they constantly wage war against us. The Bible says that because of this triplet of opposition we will experience a struggle to overcome sin as long as we live in this body.
While we live in the world, it will put its unending pressure on us. Jesus reminded us that the world hated Him and it will hate us if we discipline ourselves to follow Him (John 15:18-19). John also exhorted us, “Do not love the world” (1 John 2:15). Then he goes on to warn about the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life as part of the world. There is no experience that can provide a lasting from all these worldly temptations except the experience of leaving this world.
The flesh also pressures us against godliness. The reality of Galatians 5:17 is that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Sometimes it is no problem at all to obey God. There are moments when one of your greatest joys is to get into the Word of God and occasionally you might experience times of prayer that you wish would never end. But many times it is a struggle to engage in any of the habits of grace at all.
So the Spirit will prompt you toward Christlikeness and the practice of the habits of grace and your flesh will rise up in defiance because these are opposed to each other. But even though disciplining yourself is often difficult and involves struggle, self-discipline is not self-punishment. It is instead an attempt to do what, prompted by the Spirit, you actually want to do. Rather than thinking of this as self-punishment, it is more scriptural to see it as one way of “sowing to the Spirit” as Galatians 6:8 encourages.
In addition to the world and the flesh, you also have a personal enemy committed to your failure in the habits of grace - the devil. The apostle Peter reminded us. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). If it were possible to permanently avoid all spiritual struggle, Peter would have told us instead of exhorting us to be alert. Paul would have told us instead of telling us to put on the armour of God. It’s because we are in a battle, a conflict, a struggle that they tell us to watch out and put on the armour. There is no vacation from the struggle. Until we see our Saviour face to face. Then we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2).
The Holy Spirit, true fellowship, and the recognition of the ongoing struggle in the Christian life will help you persevere in the practice of the habits of grace. And apart from such perseverance, the habits of grace are incomplete and ineffective. 2 Peter 1:6 makes a hard connection between self-control (discipline) and godliness, and that connection is perseverance. Without perseverance between the two, the relationship between the self-controlled practice of the habits of grace and godliness is like a battery full of power but poorly connected to a lightbulb. The light flickers inconsistently and without the full benefit of the power in the battery. But with a persevering connection between the two, the light shines brightly. In the same way, the light of the life of Christ will shine more steadily through you the more you persevere in the practice of the habits of grace. Such perseverance will make us the salt and light that we should be (Matthew 5:13-16).
Have you thought about the importance of the Holy Spirit, the fellowship, and your struggle as essential to your growth in godliness? Which of these has been most helpful to you? Which has been neglected? How will you go about utilizing all three in the future?