We live in an instant gratification culture.
This may be the understatement of the year, yet if anyone disagrees countless examples could be rattled off to support the above statement. From the concept of fast food where we are to get our food and eat as quickly as possible to our constant need for smart phones in which we can call, text, chat, check e-mail, or surf the web to find any answer to any question. The best example I read recently was to watch the reaction of someone at a vending machine when the item they purchased gets stuck. A typical reaction is to shake and yell at the machine, sometimes even pounding it with a fist trying to dislodge the over priced bag of chips or candy bar because the item is needed now. The impatient look when we have to wait five minutes at the post office or our drink order at the restaurant does not arrive fast enough is a sure sign that maybe we too at times have fallen prey to the dominant culture.
There are positives and negatives to this cultural phenomenon, but concerning spirituality it has given many people a false sense of the process of spiritual formation. Because many other things in our culture are focused on happening instantaneously or at the least efficiently, it is assumed that spiritual formation will work the same way. Christians seek spiritual formation but often they want it to happen quickly. Often many are looking for the newest technique, the magic pill, the one size fits all program that will lead to growth and maturity quickly. And when that growth does not take place, or at least when growth is not visible, the danger is that frustration will set in. When this happens either the new program or technique will be abandoned in search of a better more “effective” one, or the believer will give up the pursuit all together.
But spiritual formation takes time. It is a lifelong process that is initiated by the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as no one would expect an elementary aged child to be mature enough to live on their own, why would one assume that somehow spiritual maturity happens more quickly than physical and mental maturity? It doesn’t, it takes time. And while there may be those mountain top experiences in which God is active and present in such a real and powerful way that one is changed instantly; that is not typically the way God chooses to work. More often than not God works slowly, methodically, often below the surface in ways that outwardly are not visible but inwardly are making a difference. And although one can not see instant change, when life is looked at as a whole, spiritual growth has clearly taken place over time. Clearly we are being changed from one degree of glory to another.
So if this is true, that spiritual formation takes time, what do we do? Two things.
First of all, don’t give up. Spiritual disciplines are called disciplines for a reason. They are not always pleasant and they do not always produce immediate or even measurable results. So often individuals will try a discipline (such as fasting) once or twice and think “I got nothing out of that, it obviously doesn’t work for me.” This is just a sign of our dominant culture seeping in again. True, some disciplines will be more effective than others for each individual, but resist the urge to switch to a new discipline quickly as if this new discipline will create the wanted change. Formation takes time. Keep practicing. God is working even when we can not physically see or recognize the growth.
Secondly, recognize that spiritual formation is actually helping us fight the dominant culture in our lives. As everything around us calls for instantaneous results, spiritual formation is a reminder that fast is not always better. Spiritual disciplines are actually a way for God to work in us to slow us down; to remind us that sabbath and rest and enjoying relationship with God and others is important. The slow methodical work of disciplines helps us to have more patience; being willing to wait and enjoy the moment and recognize God in the extravagant as well as the mundane.
So place yourself in a position for change. Open your sail and allow the wind of the Spirit to move you. Practice disciplines in which God has a chance to transform you. But don’t seek instant success. Instead, recognize that even when you can’t see it God is working and spiritual formation is taking place.