Am I Spiritually Stiff-Necked or Spiritually Confused?

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As a teenager I was asked to paint the outside of a house. I was given all of the tools required. I had scrapers, sandpaper, caulk, brushes, and paint. However, I remember lying on the floor like a paraplegic, wishing that I could dig a hole and hide. In that moment of incapacitation what was wrong with me? Was the problem that I was stubborn, rebellious, and unwilling? I don’t remember feeling that way. Was the problem that I was lazy, self-indulgent, and unable to breathe outside of air-conditioning? No. The problem was fretful ignorance: I didn’t know where to begin or what to do. I had never painted the exterior of a house before. No one offered me any instruction. What looked like resistance was in fact a petrifying awareness of incompetence.

I am convinced that a lot of guys are in a spiritual condition comparable to me when I was standing like a statue in front of a house, holding a paintbrush and a can of paint, but not knowing what to do next. Through sermons and conferences men are commissioned with the enormous task of becoming spiritual leaders. The qualifications for this task are spelled out: lead in the home, develop a robust devotional life, diligently study the Word, mentor young believers, disciple children and grandchildren, evangelize friends, and so on. To ensure their success, men are handed a Bible, given a few books on practical Christianity, and then told to sign up for the next men’s conference, a year later. The end result of this? Exactly what we ought to expect: guys feel immobilized, confused about where to begin, a deep urge to hide behind lawnmowers or flee to golf courses rather than face the Leviathan of their religious duties.  

We must appreciate the degree of clarity that is required in order to maintain the delicate flame of human motivation. It is not enough to define a target such as ‘be a spiritual leader’ or ‘become a man of God’. Neither is it sufficient to break this ultimate goal into subordinate objectives such as ‘study the Scriptures’, ‘commit to prayer’, ‘develop into a servant leader’, etc. Such headings make great sermon points, but practically, direction is of little use apart from instruction. What men need spiritually is the same exact thing that every worker requires when given a new task. First, they need a plan. Objectives must be broken down into steps. Second, they need support. To achieve confidence that steps can be followed successfully, a man needs to pass through the circle of learning: you watch me, I watch you, now you do it alone. Only having passed through this circle can a teenager boy stand up straight and paint a house with confidence. The same is true of Christian men who have a deep longing to love their wives, to pray vigilantly, or to win their neighbors for Christ.  They need concrete, personal instruction if they are to succeed.

Yet, there is another way that a lack of clarity can frustrate spiritual development. Just as people need to know what to do and how to do it, they also need to know why a task is important. The following rule is undeniable: meaningless action feels unimportant. As a child I spent several years being classically taught piano. My teacher drilled me in scales, chords, and incrementally more difficult pieces of music. Now I must be honest. There are many reasons why I am not a proficient pianist today. (I could have practiced Beethoven more and basketball less.) But one reason among others is that my teacher never explained to me why various exercises were important. She never taught me basic theory or presented me with a compelling vision of the joy of graduating into musicianship. I was like Daniel in the Karate Kid, endlessly waxing cars and painting fences except that Mr. Miyagi never explained to me how the mindless exercises connected with a meaningful goal. Is it any wonder, then, that I eventually lost interest and gave up?

I believe a lot of guys have a similar experience spiritually. Through churches and Bible studies they are told a long list of disciplines that godly men are supposed to be doing daily, weekly – basically all of the time. But in many cases these tasks are disconnected from final goals. When this happens spiritual disciplines feel like a hamster wheel. They are like the famous boulder of Sisyphus that had to be pushed up a hill each day only to roll back down so that the task could be repeated the next day. This mindset kills motivation.

As an alternative, imagine if men clearly understood the ultimate goals of each spiritual discipline. This knowledge would not be fairy dust, magically transforming Bible study into an Xbox game or prayer into sport. It would not take the hard work out of discipline. Nonetheless, there is every indication that a lot of Christian men are willing to work hard if they value a final goal. Countless men diligently focus while enrolled in a degree program or while starting up a business. Men are willing to wake up early to sweat in a gym or to give up their weekends to renovate a home. Why is this? The answer is because all of these activities have a definite goal that is valuable and worthy of effort, be it earning an MBA, increasing a salary, achieving better health, or building a more comfortable home. Christian men would benefit from the same clarity regarding spiritual activities. They need to know not only what they are supposed to be doing, but why they ought to be doing it. This understanding must be made as concrete as possible. Part of the reason putting an addition on a home is so exciting is that the end product is foreseeable. Men need the same spiritually. They need to be able to imagine the cumulative results of dedicating time in prayer, study, and fellowship. Without this, the Christian life is a treadmill that never stops and never reaches a destination.

Still, there is a third way that confusion, or a lack of clarity, hinders spiritual development. This is best illustrated through the tale of two gyms.

In my hometown there are two basic models of gym. The first can be called the ‘Planet Fitness’ model. The strategy of this model is consumeristic, to prioritize and maximize choice. Thus, following this model, a gym sets out to provide members with as much space, classes, and equipment as possible so that they can forge an individual route to fitness. From my informal observation, this model appears to work for about 10% of members – those in particular who research fitness at home, who have abnormal levels of self-discipline, and who in general name and accomplish their goals in life. The other 90% are not as successful. For them, the vast selection is not a source of inspiration but of what economists call choice paralysis. They are left with the oppressive uncertainty of formulating a plan. The endless possibilities do not mean that every workout is new and exciting. On the contrary, the lack of clear direction means that good intentions are wasted on ineffective routines. From casual observation we might quickly assume that the failure of so many members at Planet Fitness is due to insufficient motivation. This might be true for some members, but not all. Another way to interpret the data is to identify a strategic fault at the center of this model of gym, namely, that of prioritizing choice over clarity. Some people might be happy to blaze their own trail in a weight room; most prefer to follow a well-marked path. The Planet Fitness model of gym undervalues this need.

The second model of gym in my hometown is the ‘CrossFit’ model. The key value at CrossFit is not choice, but clarity (alongside camaraderie, a topic to which we will return). CrossFit gyms are designed to eliminate ambiguity. They provide members with shared workouts that are all but guaranteed to be effective. As a result, people who join CrossFit are never overcome by choice paralysis or wasted effort. Stick to the routine and higher levels of fitness are the outcome. It is hardly surprising, then, that CrossFit works for people who struggle at Planet Fitness. Unlike Planet Fitness, CrossFit appreciates the degree to which motivation and success require clarity.

What is the spiritual application of this parable? For a lot of Christian men, the road to spiritual maturity is more like Planet Fitness than CrossFit. Rarely do churches pave a clear, carefully marked path for men to follow. Instead, most present to men an a la carte menu of studies, groups, and disciplines that guys can select from in order to grow. Something similar is true for guys if they decide to buy a Christian book or to enroll in an online Bible course. At every turn there are multiple options. Some men excel under these conditions – usually the ones with extraordinary focus and self-discipline. Other guys experience choice fatigue and end up feeling overwhelmed and undermotivated. These men would benefit from less choice and more direction. Instead of being shown a bookstore filled with racks of potential books to read, they would do better being handed a list of ‘10 books to master before you die’.

Of course, the spirit is not the body. Whereas CrossFit can all but promise results, no Christian ministry can do the same. But to admit this does not negate the benefits of clarity. God calls us to be wise even while acknowledging that no growth is possible apart from His grace.