See part one of this two-part series on fighting sin here.

My alarm went off. I squinted at the time: 6:25am. It was cold and dark and my body was being uncooperative. It screamed at me to roll over and get some more sleep. I was seriously tempted. There was another voice though, albeit a quieter one. It simply said you need to do it. I felt the internal struggle, amazed at how quickly the war had begun once again. Then—though my body reeled at the betrayal—the covers were off and my feet were on the ground. The hardest part was over.

Or so I thought.

5 minutes later with my face washed and my dressing gown on, I was in my lounge room with my Bible and my phone. I opened my reading plan, skipped over the prayer section, and went straight to the readings for that day. Three chapters of Jeremiah, I thought, that isn’t so bad. It took me about 15 minutes. I wondered over the Israelites’ unfaithfulness, noted a prophecy that I remembered had been fulfilled in the New Testament and prayed briefly to be forgiven of my own sin of faithlessness. Then I moved to writing my shopping list—it was grocery day.

Spiritual duties are only useful if they seek their intended end of having communion with God

The memory faded as I blinked at the words I had just read:

And this is the reason why professors thrive so little under the performance of a multitude of duties. They attend not unto them in a due manner, their minds being drawn off from their circumspect watch; and so they have little or no communion with God in them, which is the end whereunto they are designed, and by which alone they become useful and profitable unto themselves.

John Owen and his “untos”! My 21st century mind translated it:

This is why people who profess to be Christians don’t get much benefit from reading their Bibles, praying, listening to sermons and the like. They only worry about doing these things—not how they are doing them. But spiritual duties are only useful if they seek their intended end of having communion with God. If they don’t help with this, they are worthless.

Well, that explained a lot. I had often wondered why reading my Bible and praying hadn’t helped me more in my daily struggle against sin. Having read the first nine chapters of John Owen’s book on Indwelling Sin in Believers, I was starting to realise just how sly and powerful an enemy it was, but somehow I hadn’t seen this move coming. I thought that the battle was simply to overcome my internal resistance to start on a spiritual duty: get out of bed to read my Bible; hit play on the sermon recording; get in the car to go to Bible study group. Once started, I felt I could relax—spiritual growth was bound to happen.

Now a light was dawning. My sin was far more persistent—“importunate” is the lovely word Owen used—than I thought. Not only did it attempt to distract me from starting on any spiritual duty, but the entire time I was doing it, it was trying to prevent me from doing it in the way that would benefit me.

It matters how, I realised. Up until now, I had thought of spiritual growth taking place in a similar way to osmosis. I thought it didn’t matter how I did it—I’d absorb godliness through the very act of reading my Bible, or hearing the Word preached at church, or attending a study group. It was only about being in the right place and doing the right thing. Yet the way Owen explained it, it seemed that the spiritual duties themselves weren’t necessarily the agents of change. Communion with God as a result of performing spiritual duties, was.

But what was this communion? I went looking for an answer and found John Piper’s explanation: “Communion refers to God’s communication and presentation of himself to us, together with our proper response to him with joy.”[1] In other words, God shows us his glory, and we joyfully respond. This experience is what transforms us, bringing forth godly fruit and causing sin to wither and die each time we have it (2 Corinthians 3:18, 2 Peter 1:3, 1 John 3:2, John 1:14-16). That is probably why spiritual duties have also been referred to as means of grace. It’s because they are simply means to this end. But it is possible to use the means without seeking the end—and this is what sin aims to do.

I tried to pull it all together in my mind. I knew that the sin within me wanted nothing to do with God, and so there was always a struggle to get myself started on those duties that may give me communion with him. I knew that the first step of sin was having my mind drawn away from said duties—sin could then build on this by laying a trap of deception while I was distracted (read my other article for more on this).

Spiritual duty is about communing with the triune God … Am I aiming to know God better? To gain a better sight of Christ’s glory?

But now I knew that my mind could be drawn away even as I performed them. This happened whenever I used the means of grace without seeking communion with God. All I was likely to achieve in that case was a self-righteous feeling of pleasure that I had ticked my spiritual box for the day.

So then, a spiritual duty isn’t primarily about reading the Bible, or saying a prayer, or meditating on a theological truth. A spiritual duty is about communing with the triune God. It’s about how I read the Bible, how I pray, how I meditate. Am I aiming to know God better? To gain a better sight of Christ’s glory? To have my heart affected with what I know to be true? And to continue with the duty until God is gracious to give me those things? If not, sin wins.

So plead with the Lord, beg him to change your heart and help you to see him in a new way as you do any of the duties he has appointed for your growth. Trust that he can and will do it. Struggle out of bed at 6:30am to read your Bible, by all means—it matters that you start on it. But remember it isn’t over.

It matters how too.

[1] John Piper quote from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/communion-with-god-what-why-how