The Ancient Way of Routine and Discipline

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote only when I felt inspired.

Many people who write never experience this, but for a very long time when I was young, writing felt like a literally inspired act.  I would be thinking, or doing something—and then I’d have to hustle to put words to paper to capture whatever was running through my head before it was gone.  For a long time, I was convinced that was the only way to write.  To do so otherwise felt arduous and unmagical.  I even believed that what I wrote in those inspired moments was of God, and everything else wasn’t—because clearly, God was doing something supernatural to free word from pen.  Or computer.

This period lasted quite a long time.  Then I became an adult, and the inspiration died.

Well, it didn’t die, exactly.  But it didn’t come at convenient times, either.  When I had been growing up and living with my parents, I had the freedom and whimsy to write when the inspired word took me.  In college and graduate school though, and then during a career, inspiration was crowded out by the vagaries of life.  In grad school I was so busy writing and reading that the well seemed dry.  After that, during my career, I became inspired again—but that didn’t do me much good when I faced a class of twenty-five college students who expected to learn about writing, or when I had six hours of work ahead of me.

I grew upset at God.  I felt He’d given me a gift and then snatched it away.  Then I grew upset at myself.  Maybe I’d misused my gift, or not used it enough, or not in the right way.  Either way, nothing was working how it used to work.

But the writing came back anyway. Because I loved it, I kept plugging away at it, inspired or not.  In the moments when inspiration hit and I had the time, I’d sit and pour out whatever I could onto a page.  I still experienced, though less frequently, those lightning-bolt moments of inspiration. 

But I also buckled down and started writing when I didn’t feel like it. 

This was new to me.  Sometimes I wrote garbage.  Sometimes I wrote something good.  But I was operating on a simple principle: God gave me a gift, and I should use it, whether or not I felt like it.  Sometimes I was lucky if all I produced was something for this blog.  Sometimes it was a bit of scholarly work.  Other times, freelance writing or fiction and nonfiction. 

Eventually, writing grew to be part of my life again.  It isn’t all thunderbolt inspiration.  It has grown into a combination of desire and inspiration and discipline: a blend of letting myself be moved but also moving myself when nothing else is moving me.  I somehow write more now, and more productively now, than I did in all those moments of inspired frenzy when I was young.  Younger, more-inspired me would be astonished by what current me has accomplished.

And I am writing this not because I think you particularly care about my writing journey, but because I think my experience with writing mirrors too what I have experienced in my relationship with God.  Because I suspect it mirrors what most people experience: a frenzied rush of inspiration followed by a long testing period of drought, resulting in—hopefully—a richer and deeper understanding.

In a Bible study I completed recently, the author asked a question that turned out to be more probing than I thought: “How do you remember God’s promises when you see no evidence of them in your life?”

I wrote down one word: routine.

I read Scripture.  I pray at the same times, sometimes for the same things.  I visit God.  I do these things over and over and over again until they begin to feel like fact to me, like inevitability, whether or not I am actually experiencing them.  When I feel old and grumpy and everything around me appears to be in a state of perpetual decay, I read Psalm Psalm 92:14-15 and I envision myself and the believers I know, loved and tended to by God, as flourishing, fresh, fruit-bearing trees in the house of God.  I remind myself that this is how things are, and whatever else I am experiencing is a shadow of that truth.

And some days it really is a grind.  I wrote a while back about the strangeness of reading the same morning Bible verse on my phone over a matter of years.  The word remains true whether or not I am cranky, have had breakfast, have felt God’s presence or seen a miracle, or not.  Routine embeds faith in me.  Routine calls me back to God when feeling fails, because feeling will fail.  Rather than depend on my whimsical tempted heart to put me where I belong, I draw a path and I try as much as I can to walk in it.

And so with writing.  I write when I want to and when I don’t.  I write when there’s something to say and when there doesn’t seem to be anything to say at all.  I write when I am mad and sad and tired.  I write when I have given up on the hope that writing will accomplish anything or get me anywhere.  I write when I am certain I am going to die and all that people will find me of me is 3,042 unlabeled Word documents that never got published.  I write because it was given to me; I write because it is who I am.

And I want to define my relationship with God in that way.  I want to show up.  Whether I feel like it or don’t, whether His presence appears to be moving mountains or not, whether I feel beloved and fruitful or not, whether He feels far away or not.  I show up because I believe; my belief drives me to put my feet on the same path, over and over, because it is really all he asks of me.  Just show up.

Embedding in myself the memory of how to walk with God is vital.  In times where the path seems invisible, spiritual memory guides.  My hope is that in the new year, as I approach it, I’ll continue to tread and deepen those same paths.  Because the older I get, the more I recognize that novelty and “progress” and newness and the Next Cool Jesus Thing aren’t what will get me where I need to be. Sometimes the answer, instead, is as simple as this:

Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the roads and look; ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is; then walk in it, And you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)


6 thoughts on “The Ancient Way of Routine and Discipline

  1. I very much relate to your words today. Younger me hated routine, hated doing anything out of obligation. And I have been learning that so much of life is just doing the thing, again, regardless of my feelings. I have had to learn that discipline is a good word, not a bad one. Thank you for your encouragement!


    1. I think everyone must go through that period – I did too. It seemed so staid and dull and stifling to have a routine! And now I feel precisely the opposite. Funny how our thinking changes, eh?


  2. Ah, such a wonderful post. I can relate to so much of it! I have to strive to write through the dry periods just like I strive to pray through the dry periods.
    Happy New Year, my friend !


  3. Aw yis, it’s the ultimatest skill to have, writing when you don’t feel like it. It’s when you take the power back in your hands, and stop relying on inspiration, that you truly make the leap from casual to pro. Thanks for sharing!


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