Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was a prolific writer. But apparently he didn't like to write. As he put it, "I love having written."

I admit that when it comes to Christian devotion, there are too many days when I say, "I love having prayed." I think of myself as a committed Christian, but many days prayer is more duty than delight, certainly not something I bound out of bed and eagerly begin. But I do admit to often being happy once I have prayed. It seems I like the idea of prayer more than prayer itself.

I know this is true because of the mental battles I fight upon first waking up. I often hear the enticements of the Enemy: Why not just sleep in; you deserve it; you've been working hard. You're not going to get much done if you're tired all day.

Or: You really need to get that SoulWork column written; writing is a type of prayer, after all.

Or: Wouldn't it be more loving, more Christian to make your wife breakfast than to piously pray by yourself?

And those are just the opening lines of a book I could write: Excuses I've Entertained to Avoid Prayer. But it would never get published. Way too long.

The reason I don't like to pray is simple. I don't really love God. I do love the idea of loving God. It would be a fine, fine thing to love God, I believe. But I have to face it: One reason I go to church is not because I already love God but because I'd like to love him. I'm afraid I have the same reaction to church as I do to prayer. Lots of debate about whether I should go. Going most Sundays because I should go. And when it's over, a lot of times I can say, "I love having worshiped."

Don't get me wrong. I'm as devout as the next Christian. Or I should say that it's been my experience that the next Christian struggles as I do. We love having prayed. We love having worshipped. We don't love God as much as we like the idea of loving God.

We shouldn't scold ourselves for this. There's no point in shaming ourselves because we don't love God. To begin with, you can't make yourself love someone or some activity. You either love or you don't.

I know a young man who took up basketball in high school and was totally taken with the sport. He spent hours practicing spin moves, jump shots, and behind the back passes. One day an older man complimented him on his discipline. The young man was startled. He never thought of basketball practice as discipline. He practiced because he loved it. And the love came to him unbidden.

Article continues below

You either love to pray or you don't. You either love to serve the poor or you don't. You either love to evangelize or you don't. You either love God or you don't. You can't make these things happen. The love has to grow inside us, like a child grows in a mother's womb. It's something like being born again, said Jesus (John 3).

You can't make yourself be conceived, let alone be born again. This is something that happens to you, over which you have no control whatsoever. You can't even prepare for it—as if an egg could "prepare" to be met by a particular sperm. All the egg can do is wait for something to arrive that will make its life complete.

Maybe that's why so many times in the Bible people are told to be still (Ps. 46) and wait (Acts 1). It's why many traditions have created a whole season—Advent, the first and defining season of the church year—and say it's all about waiting.

But just because we don't love as we wish, and have no ability to do anything about it, doesn't mean we should despair.

It isn't as if our lovelessness surprises God. As if he hadn't figured this out long ago. As if he's hurt at how we could be so indifferent to him who has done so much for us! The gospel isn't about God doing something for us so that we might be shamed into loving him in return. No, he's done so much for us because, well, he loves us. So the fact that our narcissistic hearts have the hardest time taking an interest in anything but ourselves is not an issue.

The issue is that God is in the business of changing hearts. He had been giving humanity chest compressions for the longest time, when suddenly he gave our hearts the shock treatment—a treatment that began with the Incarnation we celebrate this season. Talk about a shock to the human system—some are so stunned, they still don't believe it's happened.

But in Christ—in his life, death, and resurrection—God unleashed a medicine that is already working wonders. It's a kind of wonder drug. It's only a matter of time before his healing is known over all the earth. Yes, even the healing of hearts more enamored with their own thoughts than the thoughts of their Lover, and the healing of those more committed to doing their own thing than to the One whose thing is us. Jeremiah is right: How deceitful and desperately wicked is the heart (17:9). But St. Paul is more right: "How blessed is God! … Long before he laid down earth's foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love" (Eph. 1:3-4, The Message).

Article continues below

The crazy thing about this time of year—the time we remember Jesus growing in the womb of Mary, coming as love to this lonely planet—is that we don't have time to be still, let alone wait. It's like there's this conspiracy to prevent us from doing the one thing that can heal our hearts. Do anything, anything, says the Tempter, but don't be still.

I wasn't completely truthful when I said there is nothing we can do to be filled with the love of God. God, in fact, commands us to love him. So what's with that? He must think there is something we can "do." But it turns out that the one thing we "do" is, by its very nature, a non-doing. It's a relinquishment of all doing. We can be still. We can wait.

And this is why we continue to drag ourselves to church (even though most services do their best to quash stillness!). And why we get up in the quiet of dawn to pray. It's why we clear our neighbor's driveway of snow or volunteer at the food closet or spend an evening listening to the heartbreak of a friend. We put ourselves in places where God has been known to show up. In each of these acts, we are saying, "Okay, I'm here where you want me to be. Come, Lord Jesus."

Most days writers like Robert Louis Stevenson have to drag themselves out of bed and force themselves to go to their writing desk. They don't fret about this as much as give themselves in willing obedience to a call. They know that they have to show up at their writing desks and start putting pen to paper if they ever hope to meet their muse.

Those who love obey, and those who obey love. We don't give ourselves to the various and sundry tasks God calls us to because we want to be good, obedient Christians. We don't equate obedience with love. The great commandment is not to obey God, but to love him. We obey God, yes, but only because in willing, joyful obedience do we find ourselves in places where he shows up in wonder and love.

To put it another way: While we can't change our hearts, we can, like Zacchaeus (Luke 19), climb a tree and wait for Jesus to pass by, expecting that when he does, he'll see us and invite himself over for dinner! Enough encounters like that, and we'll find that our hearts are never the same.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker) and Beyond Bells & Smells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy (Paraclete).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous SoulWork columns include:

The Impossibility of Thanksgiving | Why gratefulness is more gift than duty. (November 25, 2009)
Yawning at the Word | It's really hard to listen to God when there are really interesting things to think about. (November 5, 2009)
Leaning Over and Getting Close | The neighbor is closer than we imagine. (October 8, 2009)

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: