Thursday, January 8, 2009

Physical Exercise and Spiritual Discipline

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. — 1 Timothy 4:8
I have an uncomfortable relationship with exercise. I recognize its value for my long-term health, appreciate the improvements to my physical appearance, and relish the fact that, when I am exercising regularly, I can eat more and still lose some portion of my less than firm mid-section. Nevertheless, I am a far from enthusiastic practitioner of the painful arts of physical conditioning. Maybe too many days spent under the sadistic tutelage of various gym teachers and coaches scarred my psyche. Or maybe it’s because I am married to a wonderful woman who loves me deeply and still finds me attractive despite the need for a larger belt since our wedding day. Or maybe its because keeping in top physical shape is neither required for my job nor seems to offer any immediate reward. Certainly at least part of my thinking on the subject comes down to fatalism: “Eat right, exercise with regularity and vigor, and die anyway.” Regardless of the underlying reason(s), I am a reluctant exerciser at best and have never been able to be consistently motivated over a long period to maintain an exercise regimen. The payoffs are just too intangible and long-term to matter that much to me.

I have a suspicion that a similar attitude prevails among most Christians with respect to the spiritual disciplines. That is, while they can appreciate the long-term impact on their spiritual lives that things like meditating on the Scriptures and fasting would have, they have a deeply rooted aversion to actually practicing them with any consistency. Perhaps it’s because it seems mechanical or even legalistic. Perhaps somewhere in their spiritual journey the spiritual disciplines were made an end in themselves at the hands of a well-meaning, but misguided spiritual leader. Or perhaps it’s due to an understanding of grace that reasons “since God won’t love me any more if I do this and since my eternal salvation is secure, what’s the point?” But I have a theory that if a person can readily identify some significant, short-term benefits to doing something along with a compelling, motivating, long-term purpose to it, then the mental equations change significantly. For example, suppose that you had a wealthy relative who promised you $1 million and a beach house as soon as you finished the Boston marathon. While we’re dreaming, imagine that he also offered, more minor but still significant (say $1000 per month) encouragement until you achieved your ultimate goal. Would that change the equation for you? It certainly would for me, because I would not be engaging in exercise merely for some sort of intangible personal benefit, but training myself for a goal whose achievement carries with it a compelling reward of a new life at the beach and the resources to enjoy it.

While there are seldom significant financial benefits, the Christian life is indeed similar to the scenario I just described. It is like a marathon, not a sprint. The road is long, the route hard, and the strain intense. And just like a successful marathoner, the successful Christian must train himself for success, not merely try harder to be good. A baby Christian can no more “run with endurance the race set before him” (Hebrews 12:1) than I can in my present physical condition successfully compete at Boston.

But, just like our mythical scenario above, God has promised us a new life in a beautiful place, abundant rewards when we finish the race, and many smaller blessings as we train. The spiritual disciplines are a means of training ourselves for a more successful (defined as a more holy) Christian life. At their most basic level, the spiritual disciplines fall into one of two categories: disciplines of engagement and disciplines of abstinence. Disciplines of engagement are things that a Christian does to shape his spiritual life in the direction he wants it to go. They are like an athlete’s commitment to calisthenics, running, and weight workouts. They include practices like prayer, bible study, confession, and celebration. Disciplines of abstinence, on the other hand, involve a choice to deliberately (and normally briefly) forsake satisfying some normal desire to further one’s spiritual maturity. They are akin to an athlete’s refusal to eat Ho-Hos and Doritos while he prepares for competition. These are the practices like fasting, giving, solitude, and simplicity.

Wouldn't it be worthwhile, as we consider all the ways to improve our bodies in this new year year that we also consider how to train and shape our souls? After all, if physical training to shape our fading, temporal bodies has value (and it does), then isn't it worth it to also invest in the shape of our eternal souls? I certainly think so. But I also need help and accountability just as much as anybody else. So here's my five resolutions for the new year:
  1. Pray for the needs our the people in our church 3x weekly.
  2. Pray daily for the expansion of the gospel and for God to use me in accomplishing that mission.
  3. Spend time in the Word for myself at least 5 days a week (it's easy to blur one's time prepping to preach and teach with personal time).
  4. Take 1 day per month for an 8 hour spiritual celebration/retreat.
  5. Fast 1 day each month.
Anybody out there want to join me on the journey with some mutual accountability on these?

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