Force Yourself: Why Spirituality Sometimes Sucks

When I was younger, I used to wonder why all of the best-tasting foods are usually the worst for you. Why can’t ice cream and chocolate and burgers be good for me? Or at the very least, why can’t I have cravings for fruits and vegetables? 

My husband shared an interesting insight in a Facebook status the other day: “When I eat poorly, all I want to do is eat poorly. When I eat well, I can’t believe I ever ate poorly.”

I’ve experienced this as well, as I’m sure many have. Even though it’s hard at first, the longer you sustain a habit of eating better, the harder it is to go back. If I’ve been doing well for a couple weeks and then I have a burger, I can feel the difference. The same thing goes for exercise; I’ve been training for my first 5k run and have been working out more regularly than I have in months. It sucks at first, but if you persevere it gets better. Although some days still suck. Some days I just don’t want to go run, or I feel too tired, or I’d rather sit on the couch and watch Hulu. Some days I just want to eat a burger and fries and not care.

Some days, I have to force myself.

A Facebook friend commented on my husband’s status, saying, “Replace ‘eat poorly’ with ‘sin’ and ‘eat well’ with ‘don’t sin,’ and you’ve pretty much got the story of my life.”

Do you ever feel too tired, or too busy, or too lazy to pray? Do you sometimes feel like you’d rather sleep in than go to church? Or do you ever find that you’re in church, but your heart really isn’t? I am guilty on all counts. For whatever reason, my personal spirituality is the most difficult for me to maintain. I’ve been a Christian since I was about twelve, and ever since then I’ve struggled to keep a regular regimen of prayer and Scripture study. It’s so easy to make excuses: it’s late, I’ve had a long day, and I’m tired…I’ll pray in the morning. And then: it’s early, I’m running late, and I don’t have time…I’ll read my Bible tonight.

But when I manage to get into a habit—usually my husband and I like to say our evening prayers before bed—and then I don’t do it, it feels especially wrong. Because when I don’t make time to pray or study Scripture, I’m ignoring God, and that fact is more obvious when I neglect my spiritual responsibilities after starting to get good at fulfilling them.

When it comes to most important things in life, I think “easy” is overrated; at least, I think it’s dangerous to believe that if something is right or worth doing it will always be easy.

I believe the opposite to be true sometimes: sin is apathy; sin is laziness; sin is easy. Righteousness is difficult.

St. Athanasius wrote in On the Incarnation that human nature is inherently akin to nothingness, and therefore at odds with God:

For the transgression of the commandment [sin] was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of nonexistence, so were they now on their way to returning, through corruption, to nonexistence again…By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of his power and he remains incorrupt.”

By the grace and salvation of God through Christ we’re able to return to holiness; we are made worthy to approach God once again. If we persevere, it becomes less difficult—I think the best way to put it is perhaps that, as with physical habits like diet and exercise, it becomes harder to turn away from spiritual goods once we’ve worked to build them into our lives and experienced their benefit. After all, that’s what we’re made for. But it’s not always easy, because thanks to sin, we are at odds with ourselves.

My husband once put it this way: “I have to remind myself that when I don’t want to pray, that’s the part of me that wants to go to hell.”

And so I think sometimes, what’s more important than having the right “feeling” about something—even more important than feeling like my heart is truly in it, or doing something because it always feels easy—is to do what I know is right and good for me and for the betterment of my soul, even if I have to force myself.

If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to, but force yourself. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force. (Matthew 11:12)

– St. Ambrose of Optina