My first journal was given to me when I was 13 years old. It was a leather-bound book with the year stenciled in gold. The pages were big enough for me to write significantly, and wide enough for me to doodle along the edge. Each page proudly displayed the date. Every evening I would sit at my desk and write in this journal. I recorded my secret thoughts and feelings openly and honestly. For about a month.
It was then that I began skipping days. Each time I skipped a day in my journal, the blank page stared at me. I felt I needed to fill in the page that I had missed. When I next approached my journal, I would cast my mind back to the previous day, forcing myself to record something of consequence. Afterwards, I would move to the present day and begin the process over again.
This was my journaling practice. I attempted to write as faithfully as I could, diligently making up for any days I missed. For about a month.
At some point, I missed two days in a row, then four. Suddenly, a month had gone by with no entry in my journal. Each time I returned to my journal those blank pages criticized me. The dates at the top testified to when I should have written in my journal but didn’t. Worse yet, as those blank pages increased, so did my feeling of judgement. I was failing at journaling. So, after only a few months, I gave it up. The empty pages were far too condemning.
We can approach our spiritual lives in the same way. That is, we can live our spiritual lives under a spirit of duty and demand. Our spiritual practices become burdens we must undergo, activities to begrudgingly plod through. When we live this way, our spirituality feels lifeless, and we can’t help but feel condemned. No matter how hard we try, we rarely perform our practices a perfectly as we would like, or as we believe they should be performed.
Should…what a negative word. It leaves us feeling discouraged and ashamed. The very word robs us of our spiritual vitality.
Instead of this shame, Jesus calls us to joy. Jesus states our experience of joy is to be one of the byproducts of his resurrection. Prior to his betrayal, Jesus prays to the Father, saying “I am coming to you now….so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them” (John 17:13). Jesus desires us to live in joy. Joy is more than just being happy; it is an inward feeling of deep comfort. Joy is knowing that, despite all that we face or feel, the presence of Jesus remains.
Joy gives us the freedom to be our selves and stand before God unhindered. We can embrace our mistakes, our failings, and our imperfections knowing that those are places where Jesus meets us. Joy is found when we let go of the demand to be perfect and accept ourselves as loved by God.
What are the “shoulds” that you battle against? How might you lay down that spirit of duty or demand and enter a deeper joy? This doesn’t have to be complicated. You can start with the spiritual activity you already engage in. Take prayer for example. As you pray, don’t focus on praying as it should be done. Instead, honestly present yourself to the Lord. Give yourself the freedom to pray with “ums”, “ahs” and “ers.” Dare to believe that Jesus loves and accepts whatever prayer you offer. Why? Because that prayer is a true reflection of who you are, and Jesus loves and accepts you.
Perfection isn’t the way through our spiritual discouragements. The way through our discouragement is to allow Jesus to meet us where we live, and to allow his joy to spread throughout our life. Know yourself to be loved. Know yourself to be accepted. Silence the “shoulds” and live in joy..