I remember a Peanuts cartoon with a characteristic Charlie Brown saying: “Some people say I’m wishy-washy, but I don’t know.”
Part of me identifies with Charlie Brown. There are times when I am all-too-human. My weakness and ambivalence manifest themselves in a lack of motivation and even spiritual laziness. My prayer is distracted, or I neglect it altogether. I take the path of least resistance and try to find the easy way out. I have good intentions, but I give in to fatigue and settle for less.
In contrast to my wishy-washy ambivalence, I was struck by an interview with Tom Brady. Many consider him the greatest quarterback of all time. His career spanned 23 seasons. It included playing in ten Super Bowls and winning seven of them. In the interview, Brady attributed his success to a relentless competitive stamina. Throughout his career, he was driven by an intense desire to compete and win.
As disciples, we also need stamina – spiritual stamina. We need the staying power to remain faithful no matter what life throws at us. Spiritual stamina is necessary to maintain our trust in God in the midst of dry spells, tragedy, and suffering. It gives us the strength to hang in there when we experience ambivalence, weakness, doubt, and darkness.
Spiritual stamina requires discipline. Henri Nouwen points out that the words “discipline” and “disciple” come from the same root word. The disciple is a person with discipline. Spiritual stamina includes persistent engagement in practices that help us cultivate a deeper relationship with God. Persistence in prayer tops the list of those practices.
Persistence in prayer is a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching. His Sermon on the Mount provides an example.
Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matt. 7:7-8)
Jesus elaborates on persistence in prayer with a parable that encourages his disciples “to pray always and not to lose heart.” (Luke 18:1-8) He describes a widow who is relentless in pestering a judge who has “no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” The judge gives in to her demand simply to get her off his back. The parable is a rather surprising description of prayer and makes a powerful point: never quit praying – even to the point of pestering God.
Spiritual stamina focuses our attention and energy on engaging in regular practices that open us to God. Building spiritual stamina is a necessary aspect of discipleship, but it is not enough. Focusing exclusively on spiritual stamina can lead to excessive focus on our own efforts. Taken too far, it can cause us to think that we can save ourselves. There is no way that we can make ourselves worthy. It is precisely that kind of spiritual arrogance that Jesus criticizes in the Pharisees. He calls them out because they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” (Luke 18:9)
The role of building spiritual stamina is to open us to God. It helps prepare us for the second dynamic at the heart of discipleship: surrendering to God. The disciplines and practices of spiritual stamina prepare our minds, our hearts, and our whole selves to receive and accept the divine presence. Building spiritual stamina is a preparation that is part of the journey, but it is not the destination. Ultimately, discipleship requires embracing surrender. It calls us to the complete trust necessary to give ourselves over to God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love.
Discipleship requires both building spiritual stamina and embracing surrender. Spiritual stamina focuses our attention and energy on doing what we can to open ourselves to the divine presence. It helps us cultivate an ever-deeper relationship with God. Embracing surrender acknowledges our weakness and need, gives up control, and trusts the presence and power of God to forgive, redeem, guide, and empower us.
Building stamina and embracing surrender are good news for Charlie Brown and the wishy-washy ambivalence in all of us. We will never be perfect, and we don’t need to be. Discipleship urges us to build spiritual stamina through persistence in prayer and other regular practices that open us to God. It helps bring us to the point of surrender. Embracing surrender requires leaving our own efforts behind and placing our total trust in God. Embracing surrender requires giving ourselves over to God’s will and God’s way.
Centuries ago, St. Augustine captured both building stamina and embracing surrender in simple and compelling language.
Pray as though it all depends on God.
Work as though it all depends on you.
Augustine had the wisdom to put prayer first – praying as though it all depends on God. In prayer, we build spiritual stamina – staying faithful to daily practices that open us to God. Those practices help us find the staying power to trust God’s enduring presence through dry spells, tragedies, and suffering. Ultimately, however, we are called to embrace surrender – placing our ultimate trust in the presence and power of God. It is in embracing surrender that God gifts us with mercy, forgiveness, healing, and redemption.
Invitation to Prayer
In the spirit of St. Augustine – praying as though it all depends on God – here is Thomas Merton’s Prayer of Surrender.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope to have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me through the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face myperil alone.