A little over a year ago, we were sitting in church singing an old hymn I hadn’t heard in a long time: “Take time to be holy, speak oft’ with thy Lord; abide in him always, and feed on his word . . . Thus led by his Spirit to fountains of love, Thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.” As I sang along, I looked down at my daughters: two blonde heads studiously bent over coloring pages that they had spread out on the floor. For the moment, they were quiet, happy, and occupied—not fighting over the same color of crayon or bolting out of the row to dance in the aisle.
I thought about how the song painted such a sweet, uncluttered picture of spiritual devotion: spend from this o’clock to that o’clock in your quiet prayer room, face lifted serenely to heaven. It sounded nice but did not in any way resemble my everyday life as a stay-at-home mom.
It’s not that I don’t like the idea of daily spiritual disciplines. I like orderliness, structure, and routine. I like writing lists and crossing them off. I like doing the same thing at the same time each day. And I want to grow in holiness. But my fond dreams of a regimented, well-ordered spiritual life don’t always match up with my kids’ priorities.
My Bible reading can’t happen in a quiet, tucked-away closet. Normally, I read at our kitchen counter or strain to listen to my audio Bible app while cleaning dishes from dinner. Rarely do I get through an entire chapter without being interrupted by a little person who needs their shoes put on, or help going potty, or comfort after falling off the couch again. Since I’ve become a mother, it has been hard not to worry I’ll be left behind, wandering in a wilderness of dishes, diapers, and Duplos, as other saints advance in holiness.
Stop trying to do better.
Gretchen Ronnevik writes of a similar struggle in her new book, Ragged: Spiritual Disciplines for the Spiritually Exhausted: “So many times, I often feel like I cannot get as close to God as I want to because I’m not disciplined enough, I’m not organized enough, or I’m simply not a morning person. I have too many kids. I have too much on my plate. I am simply ‘not enough’ to be that kind of faithful Christian.” But, she reminds readers, “life with God isn’t just for the rich, the able, and the unburdened. In fact, it’s just the opposite.”
God came to save—and sanctify—those who are needy and poor in spirit, not people who have their lives in perfect order. In a “just-do-it” world, Ronnevik introduces a welcome paradigm shift in how we think about who and what the disciplines are for. She identifies nine spiritual disciplines—rest, Bible reading, prayer, meditation, fasting, confession, generosity, lament, and discipleship—and occasionally gives her readers examples from her own experience of how to incorporate them into everyday life.
And yet, this is not a book for people who already have it all together, or who are planning to really buckle down so that they can get it all together. In her introduction, Gretchen writes, “This is for people who are ragged. . . . They’re tired, and they don’t know how to fix it, besides mumbling a guilty resolution: ‘I should probably do better.’”
Ragged does not speak in the usual vernacular of lectures, formulas, or pep talks. In fact, the catalyst for the book was not a personal “success story,” but an experience of personal disaster: a car accident that left Ronnevik—a mom of six and a busy farmer’s wife—in need of ongoing, time-consuming physical therapy, a period of radical need and dependence.
Taking care of the family’s basic needs and making it to the long parade of doctor’s appointments was impossible without help from church friends. A checklist of religious devotions to be performed through good time management and willpower was simply out of the question. Yet, as Ronnevik came to realize, God was disciplining her. He was helping her unlearn her habit of self-reliance and teaching her to depend on him. God, it turns out, can be completely relied upon to discipline those he loves, although his methods may seem unorthodox to the untrained eye.
Imperfection is not an obstacle.
Ragged takes readers through Ronnevik’s discovery that dependence on God—not do-it-yourself righteousness—is the true purpose of the spiritual disciplines. We must be trained out of our old habits of self-reliance and legalism to develop the habit of believing in God’s promise of salvation, even in the face of hardship and our own weakness. Chapter by chapter, Ronnevik demonstrates how practices like prayer, confession, Bible reading, discipleship, and sabbath rest all, in their different ways, bring us back to the same place: God’s all-sufficient grace for sinners.
The spiritual disciplines don’t depend on us having it all together: they are constant reminders that because of Christ, we don’t have to have it all together to be accepted by God. And these reminders are necessary because of how apt we are to return to our own feeble abilities to reform ourselves in attempts to be presentable to God.
Ragged pulls back the curtain to show how the Father lovingly disciplines us into righteousness and his progress is not impeded by our imperfection. God doesn’t take a break from discipline when we are less than enthusiastic about our daily quiet time, or when we pray or read our Bibles the “wrong” way. He is working even when we are not, and he tests our faith through all of our experiences to make our trust in him stronger and surer as the years go by.
As Ronnevik puts it, “Jesus made it so every trip and fall would be redeemable. He has made it so that it all works together for good—even our mess-ups.” For the weak, burdened, and spiritually lethargic Christian, this is very good news indeed
Cover image by David Clode.