Read. Pray. Serve.
When I first became a Christian I was exposed to a lot of teaching that reduced the Christian life to three simple disciplines: read, pray, serve. Read your Bible daily. Develope the discipline of having set prayer times throughout the day. Find a good church to get plugged into and serve.
I didn’t know anything about being a Christian so I did what the older men of God told me to. I read, I prayed, I served. Read, pray, serve. Read, pray, serve. Read, pray, serve. Every day. Until eventually it was not enough to satisfy me. The Christian life quickly began to feel just as unfullfulling as the non-Christian life. Just the same old routine repeated day in and day out simply because someone older than me had told me that’s what I should do.
The Ultimate Question
Before I became a Christian there was this ever lingering question I began to ponder all the time. Is this all there is to life? American society had raised me to belive the purpose in life was to get a good education, so you can get a job, so you can make good money. And I couldn’t help but wonder, Is this all there is to life? Where’s the meaning? What’s the purpose? Am I really going to spend half my life in school just so I can spend the other half of it locked into a 9 – 5?
Then I met Jesus who said that the purpose of life was to believe in Him and follow Him and that seemed to be a lot better option than the other ones I had been given. But then I met the pastors who reduced believing in Jesus and following Him to read, pray, serve. Okay, I thought, they’re the old wise ones so I should do what they say. It was all good at first but eventually much similar thoughts came back, Is this all there is to life? Where’s the meaning? What’s the purpose? Am I really going to spend the rest of my days, from now until the day I die, repeating this cycle of read, pray, serve? Is this really where the road ends?
Study. Pray. Serve.
I decided to step it up a notch. I changed the pastors’ to do list from read, pray, serve to study, pray, serve. Study, pray, serve was much more fulfilling. As I studied my prayers and service became more meaningful. As I studied I learned more about my heavenly Father and His will for my life. The more I learned about Him and His thoughts and desires the more meaningful everything else became. Bible study became my new addiction. It brought everything in life into new perceptions that gave everything new meaning. (This is actually where I get “Newfound Understandings” from. It was the newfound understandings I came to through studying God’s word that changed my life.)
The Addictive Personality
Of course, all of this was while I was still incarcerated. When I was granted early release on parole, after six years in prison, I remember telling one of the chaplaincy volunteers my biggest fear about life post-incarceration, “I’m scared. I’m scared because I have an addictive personality. Right now my addiction is studying the Bible. As long as I get a decent amount of Bible study in throughout the day I’m good. On days I don’t get my fix I usually have a bad day. But what if that isn’t enough for me when I get out? What if the Bible alone isn’t enough to cure the cravings of my addictive personality once I’m out?”
He looked at me in confusion, clearly at a loss for words, “Well… um…” he let out a little half chuckle, “I don’t see where the problem is. That seems like a good problem to have if you ask me. I wish I had that problem. I have a hard enough time just reading the Bible. I think you’ll be alright.”
He was right. I have been alright. But I was right too. Eventually, the Bible alone was not enough to satisfy my spiritual hunger. Study, pray, serve. In prison there’s a limit to how much “serving” you can do. I was always looking for innovative ways I could serve. Set up team, choir (I couldn’t sing, just wanted to serve), mentoring other guys, holding Bible studies and writing a lot of letters to my family on the outside sharing with them the things I was learning. I used all of these as outlets to serve while incarcerated.
But my daily studies were where I got my spiritual “fix.” I’d get up an hour or two before everyone else everyday for six years just to get my fix before the day got started. Some days I’d skip lunch or stay up an hour or two after everyone went to sleep to get my fix. Those are the only quiet times you ever get in prison. But this routine didn’t work for me when I came home.
It wasn’t just that the routine didn’t work. Altough that has been a big part of it. It’s a lot harder out here to function on 3 – 4 hours of sleep at night or make it through the day without lunch. But that wasn’t all of it. The majority of it was that studying the Word of God was just not giving me my fix like it used to. It was a little confusing at first. Was I losing my interst in the Bible? Did I feel like I had “conquered” the Word of God and there was nothing left for me to learn from it? Was I simply growing stale in my relationship with God? What’s going on? I can’t figure this out! That’s what a lot of my prayers looked like at first.
Shifting From Study to Service
However, ironically, even though Bible study wasn’t giving me the same fix it once did I didn’t feel unfulfilled at all. I was still studying, praying, serving just as I had in prison. Teaching a Bible study on Wednesday nights, this blog became my “letter” to my friends and family, and participating in outreach ministries with various local churches whenever I had the time. I still felt just as content and fulfilled as I had before. I just wasn’t as into my Bible study as I had been before.
Then I took a second job as a janitor at a big church. I thought it’d be great. I was going to get paid to be at the church all the time! The very thing I thought would be a blessing turned into a huge problem. The job required me to be at the church for every special event and church service.
I never got to sit down and enjoy a church service. It took me away from the Bible study I was teaching on Wednesday. Since I was working two jobs I never had time to write I for my blog. Additionally, since I was always at the church (cleaning) for special events I didn’t get to participate in any more outreach events. I was miserable and couldn’t figure out why.
Some where along my journey the thing that quenched my spiritual hunger shifted from Bible study to service. I never even noticed because I had always been so involved in serving others in some way. It had become just a normal part of life for me. When I took that job that took me away from all that I wasn’t getting my fix anymore and it didn’t take me too long to figure out what was going on.
Living to Serve
When Bible study is where I found my fix my hunger to learn more about God through the study of His word got stringer everyday. Some days I’d spend 5 to 6 hours studying, get my fill, only to be feeling empty again within an hour or two and I’d have to find a way to make some more time to study so I could get my fill again.
In the same way, my thirst to serve others has continually grown over the years. At the end of each day I’m never really satisfied unless I feel completely worn out and beat up from doing something beneficial for someone else other than myself. I know, sounds crazy.
I know that not everybody has an addictive personality like me. Not everyone has to have something in their life providing them with some kind of “fix” that makes then feel fulfilled. Some people are perfectly content with having nothing of any real meaning in their life.
But most people aren’t. Most of look somewhere for something that says, “My life matters.” Our jobs, our chidlren, our significant other, our churches, our possessions, our health, etc. Some of us are constantly looking for new ventures to conquer, always focused on the next challenge in life. And in those we find meaning until we run out of challenges.
I’m a dreamer. As such I can’t help but think, What a world it would be if we all found meaning in giving ourselves away for others? What if none of us felt complete at night if we hadn’t found some way to spend ourselves on behalf of someone else that day?
If you’re a Christian and you have become content with a quiet devotional lifestyle – you read, pray and go to church but aren’t serving – I am praying for God to take you to new heights through service to others. If you’re a knowledge junky like I once was I thank God for you. But I am also praying for you to experience that shift from study to serving.
I’m not praying for you to become the serve addict that I am. God has a unique path for all of us. But I can promise you that if you will find some way, big or small, to serve someone other than yourself then you will find great rewards. Jesus said, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
– Joseph Sterling