Professional Christian Syndrome
While on vacation this summer, I grabbed my Bible in an attempt to read it devotionally. Just one sentence in, I reached for a pen and paper — not to make a note for myself, but in order to outline a sermon. Rather than being in the presence of my Father to listen to him speak to me as his beloved son, I turned the moment into work.
As a professional Christian, that is what I do. Studying and teaching the Bible, leading worship services, offering public prayers. Religion is quite literally my profession. In the same way that someone may work as an accountant, or in pharmaceutical sales, or on a road paving crew, I work in the church.
I’ve compared pastoral ministry to the life of a coach: crazy schedule, seasonal ebbs, a lightning rod for criticism, living on the success of our last outing, etc.
However, when it comes to an authentic devotional life, I think the best pastoral comparison is with a gourmet chef. Few people besides those in the cuisine industry realize what it takes to become a gourmet or what preparing a banquet-style meal requires in preparation, not to mention presentation.
They don’t show up at the restaurant at 4:30, put on an apron, and whip up dinner for paying guests. They prepare for years in order to gain the experience necessary to oversee the lengthy and complex preparation of a gourmet dinner. But the ingredients and combinations of food, seasonings, and sauces also must be presented in a way that is not only edible but truly enjoyable.
Being a gourmet is unlike cooking Tuesday dinner for the family. A professional chef is often under a tremendous amount of stress behind the swinging doors that separate the kitchen from the dining room. It is hot. Fast. Sometimes furious.
Even though the chef may love his job in the food industry, I wonder what he does for dinner at home. While meal prep for ordinary folks may be a welcome diversion from ordinary life in the office or on the road, by the time he arrives home, the chef has been laboring over the stove for hours if not days.
I wonder if cooking feels like work to the professional chef.
That is how devotions can feel for the professional Christian. Whether worship, Bible reading, prayer or any other means of grace that the non-professional Christian may enjoy as something alternate from their job, for the pastor, it can all feel like work.
Is there anything we can do about professional Christian syndrome? I think so. In this post, I want to offer some suggestions that are designed to help me. I hope you will find them helpful as well.
Confess Your Struggle
The place to start is with a simple confession. You want to engage devotionally with God through prayer and Scripture but you struggle to shake the feeling of it being work and not a relational connection with your Abba, Father.
You are not alone.
Just trying harder to make prayer and reading Scripture not feel like being on the clock hasn’t worked for me. The harder I try the more guilty I feel. Actually, it is the feeling of being a fake. I stand before people every week to preach and pray. When I fail to experience a vital experience with God in private, I feel like a hypocrite — like I am only performing a religious act. Like an actor, which is exactly what a hypocrite was in the ancient world. The word comes from the Greek hupocrites, which literally means play actor.
For me, Hebrews 4:14–16 comes to the rescue, enabling me to simply confess my struggle to experience genuine devotion as someone in a Christian profession: “14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin.16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
In view of Hebrews 4, I am invited to do two things as I confess:
- Hold firmly to the message of the gospel. Jesus is my righteousness. Not my degrees, ministry, titles, or human recognition.
- Boldly approach the throne of grace with confidence that I will be met with mercy.
Because of the cross, the throne of my Father is not one of judgment but of grace — where God makes no demands but gives. It in that needy condition, where my heart feels cold and lifeless that I find guilt replaced with grace.
In Jesus, I am not a professional pastor. I am a forgiven son whom the Father treasures with an eternal love. He is my good, good Father and I am loved by him. That’s who I am.
Remember that the Word and Prayer are Gifts, not Duties
Pastor Scotty Smith once noted that while the means of grace merit us nothing, they profit us much. I find that a helpful distinction and important reminder, especially as someone who tends to legalize religion into a merit-based point system that is dependent upon fulfilling certain ceremonial expectations such as reading the Bible and having daily prayer.
But as Scotty says, these are means of grace not ends in themselves or means of acceptance. Theologically, I know that I am forgiven and accepted based on the merit of Jesus, not my own. But for some reason, devotionally and functionally, I live as if I’m scoring points through the practice of duties. Ugh.
But the Word and prayer are not duties. They are gifts to savor and enjoy.
In the same way that date night should be an opportunity to connect as spouses and not tick off a marital duty, devotional “practices” are not tasks, but opportunities to connect in person with the heart of God as Father.
Read and Pray Devotionally Using Lectio Divina
As a pastor in the Reformed tradition, I deeply value the expository study of the Scriptures using the Grammatical-Historical-Redemptive method for Bible interpretation. This model leans toward a heavily analytical, logical approach to reading the authoritative text of God’s word putting the Word of God in its full cultural, literary, and biblical context. In my opinion, this method is critical for Bible study, especially for preparing to teach the Scriptures.
However, there is another approach to reading the Bible that lends itself to a distinctively devotional experience — Lectio Divina. Latin for Divine Reading, Lectio Divina is method of engaging Scripture that focuses on reading, listening, reflecting, and responding.
While this practice is criticized by some for being overly mystical and subjective, its roots trace to the church fathers Origin in the 3rd century, and later with Ambrose and then Augustine of Hippo. Lectio Divina eventually finding a welcome home in Christian monasticism under Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century AD.
Admittedly, when I first encountered Lectio Divina, I was suspicious. It did feel mystical and subjective. But it also was explicitly biblical and spiritual in the best sense of the word.
Let me explain what I mean by showing how to use Lectio Divina devotionally with four readings of the same text.
Reading One. In Lectio Divina, you take a passage of Scripture and read it slowly — very slowly.
Reading Two. Then, you read the same passage slowly again, listening intently and looking for one word or phrase in the passage that stands out to you. It is a word that captures not just your mind, but your heart. This is going to be God’s specific word for you from that text.
Reading Three. During this reading, you are aking the Holy Spirit to reveal why this word is God’s specific word for you. What could your need be for this word or phrase in your life at this moment? Why is this your word?
Reading Four. As you read the text a final time, talk with the Father about what he would have you do with this word. What is the next action step you should take?
Does this sound mystical and subjective to you? It certainly did to me.
Until I tried it.
What I discovered is that this method of reading and praying through Scripture helped my move from a professional Christian to a son of the Father who was meeting with him for words of wisdom and direction. In a very real (yes, mystical and somewhat subjective) way, he was speaking to me through his Word and by his Spirit. I was able to share that word with others for their feedback and confirmation or even their concern if it seemed like I had misunderstood the application of God’s word for me.
Obviously, the danger is that we take the Bible out of context, which is why the Grammatical-Historical-Redemptive method of Bible study is so important. But with basic contextual principles in place, I believe, especially for pastors seeking to connect with God on a more devotional rather than professional level, Lectio Divina can be a valuable resource.
Go on a Prayer Walk
In addition to Lectio Divina, I find it helpful to get up and move when I’m praying. While i’ve never tried it, I wonder if doing Lectio Divina while walking in the woods would result in something really cool? That is an idea!
“But what about your eyes?”
You do know that you may pray with your eyes open. Like talking with your wife. There is nothing more holy about closed eye prayers. Or heads bowed. Sure, posture can influence the heart, but if you are taking a prayer walk, keep your eyes open. 🙂
For some reason, praying while walking (and with my eyes open) makes me feel more authentic. Not sure why it works that way for me. It may not for you. Maybe I’m not as constrained and don’t feel like I have to keep making words come out of my mouth. There is no rush. Nothing else to do. No email to check or Facebook to update.
I find it refreshing and freeing to know that it’s okay to just walk for a while and then start talking when something comes to mind. Like a real walk with a friend. Over the course of an hour prayer walk around a lake, I might speak for ten minutes, just listening and walking with a conscious awareness of the presence of the Spirit with me.
Sit in Nature without an Agenda
If you choose a prayer walk, let me recommend that on occasion you just sit in nature without an agenda and see what happens. God is not only our Redeemer. He is Creator. It is his world that we can enjoy, his air we breathe, and his leaves that change color in the fall. On a park bench, we can worship in awe of his creative genius and flair for beauty and physical wonder.
Contemplation of God as Creator can spark all kinds of devotional conversation with the Lord. Questions. Curiosities. And then trust.
Knowing that the Savior is the Sovereign King over a universe of 400 billion galaxies is mind-bending. It is also heart-shaping.
Whether you say a word in prayer or not, sitting in nature without an agenda can be a powerfully devotional experience.
Use a Print Bible
With the advent of the internet and mobile apps, there is little to no need to use print Bibles. I wonder if they will go the way of the kind of telephones that hung on a wall and had an earpiece you’d take off the box and press to your ear in order to be connected by the operator to a particular line. Those phone boxes are still around… in antique stores. But nobody uses them.
Yet those stationary phones provided a much more focused conversation. There may be distractions in the office or home, but not nearly as many as driving, shopping, or any other kind of multitasking presents.
The same is the case with digital versions of the Bible.
While the vast resources of online research tools make studying the Bible electronically a potentially fruitful process and being able to cut and paste the Scripture from an app into a document is incredibly convenient, there is also much more opportunity for distraction when reading the Bible on the web.
With discipline and focus, we may be able to overcome those distractions. But there is something about the printed page that not only helps us avoid distraction but aids in the literary analysis necessary for reading a text in context. Furthermore, if you grew up with a print Bible, there probably are a number of passages that you can literally see on the page with your mind’s eye.
A printed Bible may not be as big of a deal to you as it is to me, but if you struggle to experience the Scriptures devotionally, let me encourage you to take a print Bible to a park, practice the four levels of Lectio Divina, and then go for a prayer walk… and see what happens.
Dr. McKay Caston is a writer/pastor/professor/husband/dad whose passion is to help people come alive to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of God’s grace in Jesus by tethering all of life to the cross.
Read more at medium.com/@mckaycaston.