If you have been following me on Facebook or Twitter, you might be aware that I have been really focused in on physical discipline. I think the Christian life can be so blessed and even improved if we simply listen to what God says to us about our own bodies. Moreover, over the last year or so, I have found that allowing God to mold me physically has taught me much about how to grow spiritually. As we all know, exercise is a huge part of healthy living for the body, but, for a moment, I do not want to talk about exercise as a physical discipline, but as a spiritual discipline. Spiritual exercise looks a bit different than lifting heavy weights, but often times it is just as difficult. The exercise of restraint, not allowing ourselves to give into temptation is, in my mind, the spiritual equivalency to picking up those dumbbells. It is truly resistance training, is it not?
Before we talk too much about exercise, I want to speak briefly to exercise’s wonderful counterpart, diet. Proper exercise is really not all that great without proper diet. Now, I am not talking about fad diets; I am talking about lifestyle diet, what we choose to eat, day-in and day-out. We are all on a diet of some sort. Some are simply better than others, and some are just flat out weird. Just as our bodies need sustenance, our spirit requires a type of food as well. Once again, some spiritual diets are better for our souls than others, and some are just plain weird.
The Word of God has proved to be a great diet for the soul, but just as with physical food, if we do not exercise, the food we consume is of little use, and it ends up burdening us instead of fueling us. If we eat of the Word, but we do not allow it to energize our spirit’s activity, its exercises, then we are wasting the knowledge God has given. It will begin to pile up and fester as our souls are burdened with knowing what we ought to do, but are not doing. Just as physical sloth can produce guilt, so too can spiritual sloth produce guilt. I mention all this about diet to show the intricate relationship that it shares with exercise. We will return to the need to exercise momentarily, but the real reason I bring up spiritual food is this: If we do not fuel our souls, we should not think we can exercise them properly. The two go hand in hand. If you are not eating properly from the Bread of Life and The Word of God, don’t expect to have a joyful soul, even if you try to exercise it often through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, liturgy, study, contemplation, sharing, and taking care of the needy. Besides the disciplines, and as I mentioned upfront, resisting temptation is also exercise and true training for our spirit. No matter what the activity is for the spirit, the truth of the matter is that spiritual practice requires spiritual food.
Now, back to exercising our spirit. When we think of our sanctification, that is our becoming more and more Christ-like, we often think of our role in very passive terms, and certainly we should. God is the one who sanctifies for sure, but that is not an excuse to not involve ourselves in the strengthening of our souls. The fact is, no matter how odd it seems, God calls us to work with Him, even though we are faulty and often disappointing. We have a role in our own sanctification. Paul tells us: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12,13). Paul demonstrates this peculiar relationship. As Mr. Wesley put it: “God works, therefore you must work.” This is not works righteousness. It is a grace-fueled offer to walk with God and to be apart of His work.
Why must I work? With little effort we can discover that our wills are weak, even the Christian’s will. This is seen every time we do those things we know we ought not to do. Weakness of Will presents itself in such mundane ways that we often do not see the insidious problem until it is too late. For example, we know that we should not eat too much, but we do it anyway. We know we should get enough sleep, but we stay up on the computer anyway. We know we should read the Bible, but we watch TV instead. We know those things we should do produce life, and those things we shouldn’t do produce illness and death, but we are weak and often do those things we know good and well are detrimental to our being, even when we want to do what is good.