Article - 5 min

The Spirituality of Subtraction

Becoming who you want to be

When I’ve thought about what it practically takes to be a Christian, I’ve often thought about it in terms of things I need to add to my life. I know I need to add things to my schedule like prayer, reading Scripture, worship, and church attendance. I know I need to add things to my character like love, integrity, purity, generosity, patience, and courage. I’ve internally hoped that if I continue to fill my life up with all of these good activities and attributes, I would somehow arrive at a more Christlike place and be filled with a renewed sense of peace and purpose. But the reality is that I never quite get all of this figured out. There are always pieces that get forgotten, left out, or just feel too difficult to accomplish. And what I’m left with is a feeling of discouragement, frustration, and insufficiency when it comes to my spirituality.

Becoming who I want to be can feel unachievable.

Now, this may seem a little random, but have you ever purchased something that was impossible to put back into the box it arrived in? We once had this air mattress that somehow possessed the ability to infuriate me every single time we used it. I was convinced that the company had sent the wrong storage bag because there was NO WAY that the mattress could fit inside after its first use. I would attempt to squeeze out every last molecule of air by resorting to extreme methods like insulting this inanimate mattress while I rolled around on it like a lunatic. I’d eventually resort to jumping up and down on the thing to barely squeeze it into the bag, where it would remain until the next vicious rematch. “Get thee behind me Satan!”

The truth is that sometimes I feel just as frustrated trying to squeeze all of the good Christian disciplines into my life on a regular basis. I know in theory that they can and should be part of a healthy Christian walk, but in reality, it feels impossible to fit them all in. Inevitably, something gets left out or I squeeze so much in that my life begins bursting at the seams, and the frustration with myself and the busyness of life get the best of me.

How are we supposed to make this all fit? How are we supposed to become who God has called us to be?

Recently, I noticed that things seemed a lot simpler when Jesus asked people to follow him. He didn’t provide lengthy job descriptions or lifestyle agreements. He didn’t seem to be caught up in the details, the little successes or failures. In fact, the Pharisees were the ones that seemed to be much more concerned with checking off the right boxes, and we know how Jesus felt about them. Let’s just say, he wasn’t impressed. It seems as if Jesus wasn’t at all concerned with the quantity of things that people did, either good or bad. He seemed to be much more concerned with how fully a person was willing to surrender.

Over time I’ve become convinced that the times I’ve struggled with my faith have rarely stemmed from doing too little, but rather from doing too much of the wrong things. And by wrong, I don’t mean necessarily sinful, but more like inconsequential. Our world is full of thousands of little distractions, expectations, pressures. The vast majority of these are pulling in a direction that leads away from a surrendered life to Jesus. 

And so I’ve found that strengthening my faith and walk with Jesus is often less about addition, and more about subtraction.

It starts with asking some hard but important questions.

“What’s getting in the way of my surrendered life to Jesus?”

“What’s taking up too much time that’s not producing spiritual fruit in my life and others?”

“What have I made more important than it should be?”

“What don’t I want to surrender to Jesus?”

One of the things I’ve realized personally is that money has become one of those things that’s getting in the way. I spent a long time doing ministry as a very poor musician and so have felt the need to “catch up” to where I’ve seen a lot of my successful friends are. I’ve said yes to opportunities that provide more money yet take away from the time I need to rest and refocus on the peace and provision of God. I may need to subtract those from my life.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that my phone has continued to steal time away from my relationships with God, my family, and my friends. Instead of my moments of relational presence, I’m drawn away to the distractions of social media, news, or emails. I may need to subtract some of those from my life.

It’s amazing how much easier it is to add good things to your life when there’s space for it. I have a lot more room for dinner when I haven’t eaten a bag of chips at 4:30 in the afternoon. I have a lot more energy during the day when I haven’t stayed up to midnight watching a movie I didn’t care a whole lot about.

I have a lot more intimacy with God when I’m not too distracted to notice he’s with me right now.

Maybe you’ve felt a little overwhelmed with trying to be all that God’s called you to be.

Maybe trying to add all the good spiritual disciplines to your life hasn’t been working for you.

Let me encourage you to try subtraction for a bit. Spend some time taking a look at what’s taking up space in your life, and see if you can do without it.

Create space, lighten your load, and see what God can do.

Josh Miller

Josh Miller