A Fitbit for Prayer

I’m a sucker for measurable results. A few years ago, aware that my day-to-day routine involves a lot of sitting and listening, rather than a lot of walking or standing, I got a Fitbit. If you’re not familiar with this little device, it’s part of the family of souped up pedometers that measure how many steps you’re taking during a given 24-hour period. My fancy Fitbit also measures how many flights of stairs I climb, what my sleep pattern is like, and my heart rate. From all of that, I’m supposed to get at least a preliminary picture of my physical health.

Part of the reason I chose a Fitbit had to do with my competitive nature. According to various health organizations, a healthy adult should be traveling 10,000 steps per day in order to stay in said health. This little black band on my arm vibrates pleasantly when I’ve hit that goal (or any other step-goal I’ve set for myself.) It’s the simplest form of reward for performance.

I went a week without feeling that little buzz. I wondered if I’d gotten a defective monitor. I logged into the online dashboard where my data is stored only to find that during an average day of activity, I was only hitting about 25% of my prescribed goal. Discouraged, I put the Fitbit away for another week before I decided to try again with a slightly more modest goal.

If you haven’t noticed recently, we’re obsessed as a society with measuring ourselves against any measure we can come up with. When I logged into the wifi at Starbuck where I am writing this post, the login page read “Kiwi: Bird or Fruit?” Once I selected an answer (can you guess which?) the page instantly shifted to display the percentage of people who had chosen either. My vote was measured—I was with the majority or minority—on something as silly as my initial impression of a word.

We do the same with “likes” on Facebook, or how the outside of our houses compare to the other ones on the street. We quickly size ourselves up against other people in the office, or the way our neighbors are worshipping during service on Sunday morning. We almost instinctively rate ourselves as better or worse than everything and everyone around us, and our feelings about our value or worth fluctuate accordingly.

I was sitting with a pastor friend of mine when she jokingly referenced a parishioner’s wish that someone would invent a Fitbit for prayer. The context had been a workshop in which the participants were encouraged to spend 30 minutes in prayer each day. Everyone was reacting internally to how much work this would be when the speaker pointed out that the time didn’t have to be consecutive. Just 30 minutes in a 24-hour period. The woman referenced was looking for a way to measure the time she did spend in prayer during those 24 hours. She wanted to make sure she was doing it right.

And that’s what most of us want to know, don’t we? Am I doing it right?

I strapped a Fitbit on my arm because most of me knew that I wasn’t getting the kind of exercise that my body needs to stay healthy, especially given my heart history. It’s ironic that I was discouraged when it showed exactly what a part of me already knew. I wanted the Fitbit to tell me I was doing it “right,” when the Fitbit isn’t designed to do that. It’s only designed to tell me what is.

That’s why measuring our spiritual lives on some kind of scale is both discouraging and dangerous. We’re already living in an atmosphere clogged with do-it-right-to-be-loved. Instead of relying on a relationship with Jesus, and God’s own voice to tell us who we are and what our worth is, we’d rather find some sort of spiritual device to buzz pleasantly when we’ve done the appropriate amount of spiritual disciplines. If it threw in a few badges “Contemplative Cruiser!”, “Intercessory Intermediate”, “Wonder Worshipper” that would be great, too.

Prayer, like the rest of our spiritual lives, can’t be measured by how many minutes we read our Bibles or what kind of attention we’re paying during the sermon or how often we serve the underprivileged in our city. All of those things are good things, but checking those boxes don’t automatically result in relationship with God, or even spiritual warm fuzzies.

It’s why “How are you doing?” is the wrong question to ask when it comes to our spiritual lives. How are you doing? implies that there’s a bar labeled “mature Christian” against which we’re all being measured. And before we start waving the Jesus flag, let’s remember that Jesus isn’t a bar against which we’re measured, He’s a savior who makes measurement irrelevant.A Fitbit for Prayer

But wait… I hear you saying. How do I know if I’m following this Jesus if I don’t have some boxes to check, a spiritual heart rate to measure?

I get it, I really do. Right now my Fitbit is charging beside my computer. I’ve lowered my daily goal, which I’ve hit regularly over the past few weeks, and I love seeing the steps cumulate to a total well beyond what I used to be doing on a daily basis. But I’m not going to let my penchant for comparison tempt me into giving you a new measuring stick with which to beat (or congratulate, but I see this a lot less) yourself.

The only person who can tell you if you’re following Jesus is Jesus. And the more you seek to hear God, to be with God, to enjoy God, the more you’ll be freed from the need to figure out how you’re doing.

So, instead of a set of standards, how about I give you a few questions that might be helpful as you consider this Jesus, this God, who loves you so wildly you’ll never plumb the depths of that love? I’m tentative about this, you see, as I’m very aware of my own ability to turn absolutely everything into some kind of competition.

First, spend some time (or maybe all of the time) thinking about, marinating in, and enjoying what comes of asking, How can God be this good?

It’s a question given to me by Bill Hull by way of Dallas Willard, and one I deeply appreciate. It’s a question beyond which I’d rather not go, frankly. It centers me, returns me to what’s truest in my life with God—in my whole life—and reminds me that the God I love is better than I usually give God credit for.

The second question is a little harder, a little more prone to diverting us back into the “how am I doing” paradigm. Before I ask it, though, I’d like you to picture the people who you care most about. Really think about it. Imagine the faces of your loved ones, their struggles, their joys. Think about the last conversation you had with each of them, and the way their faces light up with they smile.

Have that picture clear in your head? Good.

The next question is How am I loving the people already around me? 

It’s really important to notice that the question isn’t “how am I doing loving the people around me?” That would lead us straight back to evaluation, and our Fitbit friend would be asking for a Fitbit for Love. Which strikes you as silly, doesn’t it? A Fitbit for Love reduces caring for others into a set of behaviors that might be considered “loving.”

Go back to the images you had in your head of those you love. Remember their smiles, the way they laugh when they are surprised?

How are you loving those people? Not yesterday, not last week, not over the past 15 years of your marriage. How are you loving those people right now?

It’s a question inviting relationship, just as the first question did. It’s a question inviting you to take the love you received from Jesus, that you continually receive from Jesus, and spill it into the lives of those right around you. It will have your own style, your own knowing of yourself and those around you, but it will look like love, and it won’t look like obligation.

There’s just no badge for that. Love is its own reward.

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