The more I’ve talked with people striving to let Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shape their to-do’s, time, and targets, the more I’ve found that we too regularly watch the clock and too rarely consider the compass. This tendency hamstrings our journey towards spiritual transformation.
Which one are you? Reflect on the questions you ask yourself about spiritual growth. You are watching the clock when the primary questions asked about life-change are these: “How fast am I growing?” “How quickly am I changing?” “How soon will I arrive at spiritual maturity?” What matters most to those of us who watch the clock is haste and hustle. Getting there with haste. Showing lots of hustle.
Alternatively, you are considering the compass when these questions fill your mind: “Am I headed in the right direction?” “Am I making progress?” “Am I pointing at the right goals?” What matters most to those of us who consider the compass is trend and trajectory. Trending in the right direction. Travelling on the right trajectory.
One of the primary sources of discouragement in the spiritual journey stems from the clock. We despair because we’re not growing in prayer promptly enough or becoming a servant swiftly enough or overcoming rage rapidly enough. We are clock watchers. And clock watching inevitably leads to disappointment because none of us develops as quickly as we desire.
Thankfully, the issue which Paul models in his testimony to the Philippians is not accomplishment but aim. His ultimate concern is not rapidity (Am moving at the right speed?) but route (Am I moving in the right direction?). When it came to Paul’s own transformation, he did not watch the clock. Instead, he considered the compass.
We know this by listening closely to the confession he makes in his statement to the Philippians. By the time Paul writes to the followers of Jesus in Philippi he has followed Jesus for about thirty years. Yet despite devoting himself to the Christ-curriculum for three decades, Paul is far from graduation. He explains:
12Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12-14 ESV)
Paul is transparent: “I haven’t obtained Christ-likeness. I am not yet perfect. I’ve not made Jesus’ teaching fully my own.” Even after thirty years Paul freely admits to falling short of the vision Jesus has for his character and his conduct. “If I were a clock-watcher,” Paul acknowledges, “I’d have given up. I’d have quit for my lack of quickness. My forward movement has been too snail-like to suit a clock-watcher.”
But the discrepancy between where he is and where he wants to be does not discourage Paul. Why? Because he is concentrating not on the clock but on the compass. Paul strains toward what is ahead. Paul presses on toward the goal. What matters is being on the correct course, not having an acceptable acceleration. What counts is the target before him not the ground behind him. Paul does not fret about how fast he is growing. Instead he focuses on the fact that he is growing—gradually and on an accurate bearing.
Our culture is oriented around quick and easy. We want to over overcome anger in one week. We want to become more kind in ten days. We desire spiritual triumph in as little time as possible. But true life-renovation is neither quick nor easy. It is slow and steady. What matters is the compass. Are we moving in the right direction, slowly and steadily?
Malcom Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin in his book Outliers:[i] “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything…In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals and what have you, this number comes up again and again…”
Ten thousand hours is the time required to achieve mastery in any area of life. Ten thousand hours. Perhaps what is true for the pianist is true regarding purity. Perhaps what is necessary for composers is true regarding compassion. Mastering the character and conduct of the Sermon on the Mount just may require ten thousand hours.
Want to become a master at prayer? Invest ten thousand hours of practice. Wish to rise to the level of an elite giver? Put in the required ten thousand hours of rehearsal. This means if you pray one hour a day, it may take twenty-seven years to perfect prayer. If you labor thirty minutes a day on generosity, it may take fifty-four years before it’s instinctual and natural.
The expedition from the foothills where you now reside to the summit to which Jesus points is one of ten thousand steps. This passage is not a sprint. It is a marathon. It is not a day’s walk. It is a life’s project. So tuck the clock away deep into your pack. Its tick-tick-tick will only become a source of dangerous irritation. Like the pebble in your hiking book it will eventually rub your spirit and soul raw. Instead, keep your eye on the compass. When you wander off course let the compass guide you back. Don’t look behind to see how much territory you’ve traversed. Just look ahead to the summit. Keep your eye on the summit.
[i] Malcolm Gladwell Outliers (Little, Brown and Company, 2008).