The morning sun grew hotter, and I felt sweat slide down the back of my neck as my hoe sliced into the base of a thistle plant. One after another, the prickly giants sank to their knees in defeat as I chopped and chopped.
The mere mention of hoeing thistles was enough to raise wails of protest from my progeny. I didn’t especially like it myself. But unless we wanted a pasture overgrown with thistles, the thistles simply had to be hoed.
I slowly learned to find some pleasure in the tedious project. While my hoe chopped, I kept an eye on the birds nesting nearby. I noticed the wildflowers newly bursting into bloom. I saw the patterned clouds giving clues to tomorrow’s weather. Sometimes I almost forgot that I was hoeing.
Exercising spiritual disciplines is a lot like hoeing thistles. Doing the thing itself with no greater vision in mind than perhaps looking good is pointless and self-righteous. But when the disciplines (things like meditation, prayer, fasting, worship, and service) are practiced with a longing for a life uncluttered by sin and selfishness, they produce a spirit and soul with an enlarged space for Jesus.
I’ve seen that while practicing disciplines, I notice things I was too busy and preoccupied to see before. I wonder at the beauty and truth I have been missing.
Because I’ve been so burned out by empty religious systems and practices, I really want to take the easy route. I want Christianity lite. I’m often too tired to engage in anything that takes effort. And it’s okay to take a break from routines at times, even spiritual ones. Yet my closeness to Jesus won’t grow by default.
Everything important in life takes effort, whether it’s building a good marriage, raising children well, learning a skill, earning a living, or having a pasture free of thistles. My spiritual life is no exception.
Spiritual disciplines create space for spiritual growth. In this era of feel-good Christianity, our lack of discipline is producing shallow, floundering Christians. The best things in life are worth caring about and working for, not in a slavish way, but with a heart full of love and longing. We can’t earn favor with God by practicing routines, but we can listen to Him talk to us during those routines. And His voice changes us. Always.
These are the things I thought of while hoeing thistles.