Exercises that make the most difference
It all may seem a bit…ridiculous. Each morning, I submit myself to this, tending my own vineyard. I voluntarily sit on the rowing machine, inhale deeply, and pull. Leg muscles drive back. Abdomen tightens. Arms pull long and hard. One stroke. Two seconds. A couple of meters. My heart rate picks up. A few calories burned. Next stroke. And another. And another.
The screen reads 3, 400 meters, while my abdomen screams. I am breathing heavy through each row, closing my eyes. “Just concentrate on this one fluid motion.” Two hundred more to go. I am not going to make it, chest ripped up with heart roaring blood.
Squeezing eyes tightly shut, I drive my legs harder and muscles wail, desperate for release. Press on, press on. There it flashes: 3, 600 meters. I release my sweaty grip on the oar, run fingers through damp hair. Panting, I sit, head down, elbows resting on shaky knees. Pounding heartbeat fills my ears, reverberating.
Why do I torture myself like this myself?
~I prod myself to do this to strengthen my heart. To live longer.
“One hundred percent of people who exercise to the point of cardio-respiratory fitness will experience an increased sense of well-being” (Swenson, Margin).
~I submit myself to this to handle stress better, to feel happier, to sleep better at night.
“Exercising…can help keep us moving” (Swenson, Margin).
~I exercise to strengthen my back, to let me move during the day without pain.
Though I try to shirk it off, my physical body needs this kind of daily discipline to function well.
My spirit needs nothing less.
“Instead train yourself to be godly. ‘Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.’ …
Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever. ” (1 Tim. 4:8-10).
Physical training is necessary, healthy (I must keep reminding myself). We train to row for the Olympics, we train to play the piano, we train to learn Latin. Daily practice, effort, and diligence. There is no other way to reach the goal.
So mustn’t I train for the spiritual life? There is no other way to benefits in this life and in the life to come. Do I truly believe that? Is that why Timothy wrote “This is a trustworthy saying and everyone should accept it” (1 Tim. 4:9)?
I may admire rowers, reading rowing magazines and blogs of rowers. I may think every morning about rowing. But nothing changes the fact that unless I train, I simply am impotent to successfully row.
Why is it that too often I dismiss the notion that my spiritual life requires training… far more so?
As Mark Buchanan writes, “But we expect [not to train] in spiritual matters. We honestly think that we… should be proficient with spiritual power, moving and acting with agility and endurance… able to conquer long-established habits of sloth and rebelliousness, simply on the basis of our desire.”
Desire is insufficient to grant rowing prowess. And desire alone is insufficient in the spiritual life.
One summer my younger (fitter) sister ran our gravel roads in the early mist of morning. Dairy farmers down our road, on their way out to milk the cows, would pause in their yards to watch her jog by. And come mid-afternoon, farm hats pulled down low, they would meet Farmer Hsuband on the roadside, tractors slowing, talk about the weather, the price of crops…and that crazy girl that ran the backroads every morning.
“Why don’t you just give her some work around the farm if she needs to get her body moving?”
With a nod, Farmer Husband would kindly smile, and gently offer, “Farm work may be hard, but running five miles works different kinds of muscles.” Feeding cows and cleaning out stanchions is truly, hard work. But does it train you for a marathon?
Going to church every Sunday, attending a mid-week cell group, having daily devotions every morning may be the good beginnings of spiritual training. Yet does not the marathon of life require more? The spiritual training of prayer, fasting, memorization and study, service, awareness of the Person of Christ abiding in and with you, these train a different set of spiritual muscles, preparing for the long haul of a life well-lived.
I breathe deeply, step off the rowing machine and into my life. My head is cleared. I bound up the stairs. Is this what they call “runner’s high,” the release of endorphins? That flood of serotonin and good feelings? It bouys me, energizes me.
Spiritual training, meeting the person of Christ in daily spiritual disciplines, similarly transports one, invigorates one to meet the demands of the day as one is aware of constantly abiding in Christ, glorifying Christ, surrendering to Christ.
At noon, I open the fridge, scanning the shelves. The sight of a pastry crowned with whipped cream, quickens heart and hand dashes…and stops in mid-motion. Would I negate the benefits of my physical training by savoring sweets? I decide on a salad wrap and orange instead.
Likewise, spiritual training radically affects my appetite. Slowly, I sense a hunger and thirst after the living God, craving for satisfaction and filling in Him. I savor His Word, sweet on my lips, throughout the day. I’m learning, slowly, to decline the tempting delicacies the world and the flesh offers. I find myself routinely drinking of the cold Living Waters.
Growing into this training on the rowing machine effects every part of my life: my sleep patterns, my mental health, my food choices. My energy to romp with six children, to scrub the floors, wash the windows. There is no disconnect between physical training, and the rest of my physical existence. It changes all of my life, not part of it.
So I’m finding it is with spiritual training. It pervades all of my existence. Not boxed up into Sunday mornings, or daily quiet times, training in godliness permeates all my movings and being: baking bread, changing diapers, reading bedtime stories, tying shoes, making beds. All is sacred because God pervades all.
I’m still figuring this out, this physical exercise. My leg muscles groan throughout the day, stretched and aching. Every time I stand, my abdomen whimpers. I row only for 20 minutes. And feel it for agonizing hours.
But I know what comes after: shoulders loosen, back straightens, abdomen strengthens, muscles able to hold position for several minutes, steady, stronger.
In these spiritual disciplines, this daily training in godliness, I too have this growing sense of soul muscles, slowly, surely—painfully—strengthening.
In days swirling with family, children, learning, I need to hold my soul muscles in form.
Those phrases of Scripture memorized hold thoughts firmly and I’m learning to discipline my mind, my moments… my mothering. Soul muscles learning to hold their form?
Yet I feel the ache of tender soul muscles, crying for the ease of the undisciplined life, the release to self-indulgence.
But I remember that when rowing, I refuse to yield to flesh’s cry. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, can’t I too be determined to stay the course in training for godliness? As Timothy exhorts to those training soul muscles, “Give your complete attention to these matters. Throw yourself into your tasks.” (1 Tim. 4:15)
Effort and Work
Rowing fails to earn me medals. It simply changes me physically (if I’ll persevere!).
Spiritual training fails to earn my salvation. It simply changes me spiritually. One does not gain anything from God in practicing spiritual disciplines. One can earn nothing; one can only accept the free gift of God, the shockingly gracious blood of His Son.
Salvation is an utterly free gift bestowed. I cannot, in any sense of the word or imagination, work for it. But I am directed very clearly to work out my salvation. Sweat and push hard. Eight times in the New Testament, those in Christ are urged to “make every effort.” Train, discipline, work it out.
“The difference between working out our salvation—making every effort— and working for our salvation can be quickly and easily explained. You can only work out what you already have.” (Buchanan)
I can work out my salvation because I already (stunningly) have salvation through the Cross and Grace of Christ.
Legalism offers to be my spiritual training coach, cheering me on to dig deep into self and flesh for holiness. Pride slips in with a stopwatch, recording benchmarks, charting comparisons. Arrogance and self-righteousness offer water bottles to quench parched throats, massages to lessen the pain, accolades of self-glorification.
O, to remember: Fire them all. Send them packing. They have absolutely no place in training for godliness. O Heart, be vigilant against their slinking return.
Appreciation for life and health compels me (finally) to physically exert my body. Because doesn’t physically training allows one to love better, love life more fully, and have energy to love others around more wholly?
Neither is spiritual training an end in and of itself. It is not a dry, dead exercise in religiosity. Training in GODliness is about cultivating and nurturing a love relationship with God Himself, my soul’s trainer.
Peter writes, “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love” (2 Pet. 1).
The ultimate purpose of making the effort is love.
The reward of a spiritually disciplined life is love: a passionate, all-consuming, consummate love for God alone. And a humble, servant love for the souls who live in community with us.
Physical training may be good but spiritual discipline of soul muscles, training for godliness, is better. “Lord, your discipline is good for it leads to life and health” (Isa. 38:16).
These days I feel the aching good of strengthening leg and abdomen muscles, exercise leading to life. But far better yet, these soul muscles too, beginning to hold their form. To steady and by His Spirit, making every effort, striving in the disciplines that lead to soul health.
For over that finish line leans God Himself, arms open wide.
Press on, press on.