Recently I was talking on Facebook with a friend whom I’ll call Enif. I’ve only met Enif a few times in person, through swing dancing, but we know quite a few of the same people. I had asked her about something that she had written about, something personal going on in her life that I thought may have had some similarities to some thoughts that had been on my mind. She explained more of what had happened with her recently, including some things she had been praying about and gotten a clear message from God in response. I explained what was on my mind, and I added that I need to spend more time praying in general.
Twenty years ago, when I was a student at UC Davis and a brand new Christian, one thing I heard frequently from those around me, leaders and friends at church and in my college group, was the importance of spending time in prayer and reading Scripture. Many students would share testimonies of how they would spend every morning, or every evening, reading the Bible and praying, because that is how one truly knows God. One wouldn’t have a friendship without spending time with the friend in question, so how is a relationship with Jesus Christ any different? I tried for a while waking up extra early and finding a quiet spot at home to start every morning with God, but my concentration that early in the morning wasn’t what it could be. I eventually started using time between classes for prayer and Scripture. Typically, my schedules would end up so that I had an hour or two between classes mid-morning. The UC Davis campus has a creek running through it, along the south end of the core campus area; along both sides of the creek runs the UC Davis Arboretum, featuring plants from all over the world. During my break between classes, I would walk to the Arboretum, sit on a bench, read a few chapters of Scripture, and pray for a while. It worked for me, but I still felt a little guilty that I only did this four or five times a week, not every day. As an adult, my prayer times have been even fewer and farther between, as the hectic stresses of life take over.
Enif’s reply to my statement about needing to spend more time praying surprised me. She said that I don’t necessarily need to be praying more, and that making such a statement sounds more like the kind of works-based belief system that Jesus saves us from. I should be doing things because I want to do them for God, not because I feel pressured that I need to, and that in living a Christian life, I am praying throughout the day.
I stand by my statement that spending more time in prayer and Scripture would be good for me. Yet I think Enif is right.
Probably the greatest misconception about Christianity, particularly because it is still held by many who consider themselves Christians, is that we are saved by good works. This position incorrectly views God as a sort of omnipotent Santa Claus, rewarding the good little boys and girls and punishing the bad ones. That is exactly what the Bible does not say. Jesus Christ shed his blood on the cross to save us from our sins, and nothing we can do can earn salvation from our sins. Our acceptance of Jesus’ salvation shows through a changed life, with Jesus Christ as Lord, and it is out of this changed life that the good works happen, not out of obligation.
I forget sometimes that some of the other Christians I knew when I was in college may not have been very mature in their faith at the time. Many people who call themselves Christians are really just looking for rules to follow to feel self-righteous, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. Just because someone I knew in the ’90s self-righteously pointed out that they spent two hours every day reading Scripture and praying doesn’t make them a better Christian than I am. God is not sitting on a cloud with a stopwatch, checking to see who spends the most time in prayer every day.
But, on the other hand, if my life has really been transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t I want to pray, to read his word, to listen to his guidance in my life? I should. And that can happen when I sit in a quiet place and open the Bible. But it can happen in so many other ways too. God is bigger than our human routines and rituals. The important thing here is that I am not letting the worries of this life choke out spiritual matters.