Building Spiritual Muscle

Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to the generational differences I observe in those who are younger than I am. I find it is easy to criticize them because their values and culture seem different from my own. But criticism is rarely constructive or instructive. I believe that God wants me to give positive encouragement, instead. This led me to read through Paul’s letters to Timothy. While much of what Paul wrote was specific to Timothy’s work pastoring the body of believers, he also encouraged Timothy personally to “press on toward the goal.”  My favorite exhortation is 1 Timothy 4:7b-9: “Rather, train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and the life to come.” This idea that godly character requires effort is not unique to this passage. In 2 Peter 1:5-8, Peter used the phrase, “make every effort,” and he then described a building up of one godly trait upon another. Scripture makes it clear that godly character requires work on our part.

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:5-8

I have learned through my experiences that training myself in one area of life builds discipline and self-control that helps me in other areas of life. One of the pivotal experiences in my life was learning to discipline myself for physical training. At seventeen, I did not posses much self-discipline, but I decided that I wanted to attend the Coast Guard Academy. I wasn’t naturally athletic, and I needed to train in order to pass the physical fitness exam. I submitted myself to this task. My parents helped me and encouraged me, but I had to decide how hard I would work for it. I remember clearly the mental aspect of the battle. I continually reminded myself of my goal, especially on long runs. I goaded myself with the thought that, if I wanted to go to the academy, I couldn’t quit. I will never forget the feeling of passing that first fitness exam. Determination and discipline had allowed me to achieve a goal.

A few years later, in my last year at the academy, I joined the crew team. It was a strange time to embark on this new activity, but I was ready. At twenty-one, I had matured and was mentally ready to submit to what the coach prescribed, knowing that he would require more of me than I ever had of myself. It was a new level of discipline and training, and it didn’t just make me physically stronger, it made me mentally stronger. The physical, mental, and spiritual elements of our nature are inextricably linked. Training of one element cannot be achieved without also disciplining the other elements. Training in one area builds self-discipline which helps us to train in other facets of life. Our culture is very focused on what brings happiness in the moment. Yet, when we exercise self-control and live in a disciplined manner, we are actually happier. Rather than making decisions based on immediate pleasure, we learn the joy of achieving long term goals while avoiding the consequences of impulsive behavior.

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

1 Timothy 6:11b-12

The lessons I learned through physical training when I was young, have stayed with me and helped me to make better choices to train my mind and spirit, as well as my body. Of course, I still have my struggles with discipline. One is getting out of bed in the morning. I have plenty of time to hit snooze, but hitting snooze means little or no time in God’s word or in prayer. I spent much of my life insisting that these things did not have to be done in the morning, but giving in, and learning to start my day this way, has made me happier. I hate getting out of bed, but once I do, I enjoy my mornings. I love the peace and quiet, and I relish the time spent reading Scripture and having prayer time, while I sip my coffee. I have gotten to a point where I truly miss this time with God when I am away from home or out of my routine. I know that this exercise helps me to build godly character because it keeps me in touch with how God wants me to live. It allows Him to speak into my daily life. But this habit has taken time and effort. You can’t build muscle overnight.

I think my admonition for those who come after me would be to start a building project, one decision and one habit at a time. Live life in training for a godly character. I remember clearly when God convicted me that I was ordering my life around going to the gym and getting exercise, but I was not setting aside time for Him. It was a painful realization of my true priorities. I had to take that discipline and drive for keeping my body fit, and turn it toward the goal of spiritual fitness. I’ve come a long way since then, but my journey is ongoing. There are always new challenges and new distractions. We all need to fix our eyes – our mind, spirit, and body – on the goal, “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way. . .”

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