For many Americans, 2020 has been one of their most difficult if not depressing years on record. It certainly proved to be among the deadliest, in terms of doing damage to our collective health (the COVID-19 pandemic) and wallets (economic regression due to the pandemic), combined with levels of social, cultural and political upheaval unseen in this country for more than a generation.
I’m sure more than a few of us have made the new year’s resolution to never live through another year like 2020 again. The problem with such a resolution of course – as far as resolutions go, is that we are extremely limited as fallen creatures of God’s ordained creation to do much about avoiding a fallen world that is filled with evil, pain and suffering.
While we cannot and should not ignore what happened in 2020 and what is to come, we should not overlook the good that God did in it and that will occur, including the comfort and confidence of future redemption that the Word of God promises to Christians who share in loving and trusting in a sovereign God who governs all things. As Lamentations 3:37 asks, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the LORD has commanded it?”
That said and having already spilled much ink in the aftermath of a series we preached at our church on the sovereignty of God recently, we understand that God’s children are transformed by faith and tasked to follow Christ, obey him and to will to glorify him in all we think, say and do (1 Cor. 10:31).
To help us accomplish that task and calling, God has given us his ‘ordinary means of grace’, meaning ordinary not in the dull or insignificant sense of the word, but more in the sense of the ordinary disciple of Christ being able to access the Holy Spirit’s power and favor in our lives by practicing the regular, ordinary, day to day spiritual disciplines of the faith that enable his redeemed children to live more holy and Christ like lives in sanctification – even, in the midst of years like 2020.
These means of grace- empowered by God himself in and through us who are ‘in Christ, makes them rather extraordinary and therefore meaningful, in how we might apply them as news year’s resolutions that we may want to focus more on than just the usual resolutions we make and break to eat better, exercise more, be a better friend, child or spouse. If the goal is to be more godly this year than superficially ‘happier’ than last year, we need to do our part in availing ourselves to these “ordinary” means of grace.
When we talk about these timeless and biblically grounded ordinary means, we’re referring to: the word, prayer and the body.
- The Word- Bible reading or hearing God’s voice
Although the Bible read aloud and preached on Sunday is an essential part of the worship gathering, it’s not enough to sustain you throughout your week. Relying on the Sunday sermon to spiritually feed you all week is like relying on breakfast to sustain you throughout the entire day – it’s not enough.
This reality is why we talk about “eating Bible” so much in our church (Matt. 4:4). For 2021, I encourage you to resolve to pick up or remain faithful to an actionable game plan that ensures you’ll read God’s Word regularly.
Our church utilizes a very helpful two-year chronological plan which enables us to read through both the Old and New Testaments in their real historical flow throughout redemptive history. There are other fine Bible reading plans that are accessible and easy to find online, though I do not recommend a One-Year Reading plan, which I find hard to keep up with and encourages speed reading, which minimizes thoughtful digestion of your daily Bible meals.
Others may benefit more by picking a particular book of the Bible – beginning with the gospels of the New Testament perhaps, and spending several months studying it, along with reliable study Bibles and commentaries. Regardless of which plan you choose, the intentional and systematic intake of the word of God (Col. 3:16) forms the foundation of a God-glorifying and Christ-exalting lifestyle that fuels our walk with our Lord and Savior.
As one seminary professor put it, The Word of God and the Spirit of God conspire to form the engine that pulls the cars down the tracks of salvation and sanctification. We must unleash them faithfully, with all the energy God gives us, trusting he will use them to perform the miracle of remaking sinners into saints.
- Prayer – having God’s ear
If Bible reading is like food, then prayer is like water, and we all know we need water to survive (a common metaphor when speaking of the importance of the Word and prayer). I’m surprised to meet so many Christians who regularly go so many days or hours without praying.
Praying before meals and silently here and there is a good start, but a more vibrant prayer life is needed for continual spiritual growth. That life means cultivating a life of constant dialogue with God- to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5) as well as finding regular times to pray, in a private room or ‘closet’, where we can emulate the ‘A.C.T.S.’ of the apostles if you will:
Adoration (praise/adore God for his character)
Confess (agree with God about your sin in sorrow with a need to repent of it).
Thanksgiving (thank God for his blessings of grace and mercy)
Supplication (to ask, supplicate or petition God for your desires). Usually, the desires I express as per the heart of A.C.T.S. or the Lord’s or more properly disciples prayer (Matt. 6; Lu.11), are geared as much or more to God’s grace for others (e.g. family, church, friends, neighbors, country and community) as for self.
I know using a daily list in personal devotional time with God from a journal, church prayer guide and/or index cards (even an app called PrayerMate) have proven to be useful tools to facilitate prayer for many Christians.
- The Body- Church attendance
Acts 2:42 recounts church-wide devotion to God’s ordinary means: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Moreover, Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel boldly to the Gentiles—and God brought awakening:
“And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:48).
Nothing can or should replace the grace of the local fellowship found in the church, the Christian’s community of faith. It is so necessary that the writer of Hebrews under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit commanded it (Heb. 10:24-25). Unfortunately, the pandemic has challenged the church to obey that command.
While I totally understand that some of us will stay home to congregate to an extent for safety reasons, largely due to one’s preexisting health conditions or factors, many if not most Christians should make the most of their opportunities – reasonably, to avail themselves of this means of grace which is critical to the personal and corporate spiritual health of the body.
Whereas, we don’t compel church members and attenders to leave their homes under such conditions, there is little or no excuse for a follower of Christ to not attend online worship and mid-week small-group meetings, due to the Lord’s extraordinary, digital ‘means of grace’ readily available in our current Covid world.
In addition to the above means of grace, believers can grow in their discipleship by reading good Christian oriented books, whether they be classic biographies, books on theology and church history or the Christian life. Though such resources are supplemental- think of them as appetizers or desserts to your main Bible meals, I think every disciple should have some level of eagerness to grow in their knowledge of God and scheduling even relatively brief blocks of time in your day (even just 10-15 minutes) in reading or listening via audio books may prove to be an ‘extra’ means of grace to help you grow.
One of the last times I was at my gym (yet another typical new year’s resolution that has come and gone though I have stuck with bike-riding) a guy wore a shirt that read, “Better Than Yesterday.” That visual reminded me that I’ve seen and heard that phrase before and it’s a good one.
Even though I’m eager to keep my other resolutions and improve in other areas of my life, I will remember as I hope you do, that our spiritual lives matter most and that as a work in progress I want to be more like whom I am supposed to be and thus, ‘better than yesterday’ (1 Jo. 2:5-6). So, I plan on making use of those ordinary means of grace as my top resolutions for 2021.