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When spiritual disciplines seem meaningless

May 17, 2011 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down. Again the LORD called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. The LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:1-10)

If you have ever attempted to make a regular habit of prayer, Bible reading, fasting, or any other spiritual discipline, you know that it can be a frustrating endeavor. You have probably noticed that there are many times that prayer feels like talking to the ceiling, or Bible reading does not bring about great revelations, or fasting just leaves you with an empty stomach. We often feel like these exercises should be more meaningful, yet there are many times that they do not seem to bear much fruit.

But then, in God’s timing, whenever He so pleases, He shows up. We are overcome by His presence as we kneel in prayer. The Word that we read speaks directly into our situation. And in our fasting, we find ourselves hungry for more of Him. We can not force Him to show up, and we do not know what we did to cause Him to grace us with His presence, but all of a sudden, God is there in all of His reality and majesty.

When I read the story of the young Samuel in 1 Samuel 3, I am reminded of that reality. The presence of God in those days was most powerful at the ark, and Samuel spends every evening lying down in the temple, close to the ark. Who knows how many nights he spent there, in that temple, before the ark. And as the text says, “In those days, the Word of the Lord was rare.” But then, one night, God speaks, calling to Samuel. Comically, Samuel goes three times to Eli before Eli realizes what is going on and tells Samuel to answer the Lord.

What I see in Samuel’s story is a reminder that spiritual disciplines, drawing near to God, do not automatically produce the transforming presence of God every time; however, they are about putting ourselves in a position where God can show up and speak to us. We may come to God 99 days in a row in prayer and Scripture reading that simply seems fruitless and without benefit, yet that on that hundredth day, God shows up in power, and because we are “by the ark,” so to speak, we hear Him speak.

This past week, I have had that kind of experience with fasting. I have fasted in the past out of a desire to seek God in a deeper way, or to ask for His help in a more desperate way. However, I have never had a transformative experience of His presence through that discipline. This time, however, was different. As I fasted this past week, I found myself with a burning desire to know Him, to put Him first above everything, including food. Even this week, as I have returned to eating again, I find myself looking forward to the next time I can skip a few meals and spend time with my God. I have found myself smiling in agreement with Jesus’ words in John 4:32-34, after the disciples offered him food in his hunger: “But Jesus said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about.’ Then his disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’ ‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.’” I find myself with an unquenchable desire to do God’s work, no matter what the cost, and not even food can compare to the satisfaction that comes from doing His work.

So do not be discouraged when your times of prayer, Bible reading, worship, or other disciplines are dry and seemingly meaningless. You are like Samuel, lying down near the ark, putting yourself in a position where God can speak to you. The Word of the Lord may be rare, and He may remain quiet for a long time, but when He does speak, you will be there to hear Him.

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