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Gym Training for Spiritual Fitness (1 Timothy 4:7-8)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Years ago, bodybuilder Charles Atlas made famous the "97-pound weakling." I weigh considerably more than 97 pounds -- too much, in fact. But this last year I've become more and more aware of physical weakness. I noticed it especially when I took out my chainsaw to cut up fallen trees. The chainsaw was supposed to be doing all the work, but after a very few minutes, I'd have to stop -- completely out of breath. "Out of shape" would describe me. Oh, for many years my wife and I have tried to walk together for a half hour a day, but we walk slower these days. My main upper body exercise consisted primarily of typing. Not enough to keep me fit.
Getting in Shape
Last March, I felt God lead me to talk to my friend Dave Pabalate, who runs CrossFit Loomis, a local gym near my home. We met the following Tuesday morning at the gym and he got me started doing a few exercises -- for nine whole minutes -- before he sent me home. I've been coming back for the one hour workouts twice a week since then -- not because I like to exercise. I don't. But because of what it's doing for me.
After a few weeks of my under-used muscles complaining, I noticed that I had more energy. Wow! And when I go to the gym I'm able to do more and more, lift more weight, do more repetitions of each exercise, and not be completely exhausted by the end of the hour. Of course, when I compare my stamina and strength to some of the buff young people at the gym, I'm really embarrassed. But I am getting stronger. And when I got out the chainsaw this spring it wasn't exhausting. Praise God!
Paul's Friendship with Christian Athletes
The apostle Paul and his circle were well aware of the culture of training and athletic games in the Greek world in which they ministered. Corinth was the host to the Isthmian Games1 every two years, attracting athletes from all over Greece. Paul probably had a famous athlete or two in his congregation. His letters are peppered with references:
"Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.... Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly." (1 Corinthians 9:25a, 26a)
"Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13b-14)
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown [wreath] of righteousness...." (2 Timothy 4:7-8a)
Physical training requires you to push yourself to do your best. If you're able to lift 150 pounds (68 kg.) 15 times today, you try for 155 pounds 16 times tomorrow, and 160 pounds 20 times the following week. If you can run a mile (1.7 km.) in 7 minutes, you set your sights on 6 min, 30 sec. And when you go all out (intensity), over time you find can run it even faster.2
Repeated exercise with intensity begins to make a difference. Slow-walking for half an hour is good, but not enough to get me fit or keep me there. It takes exercise with focus and intensity over time to get you fit. Consistent training increases strength and stamina and the ability to win.
I've only been working out intensely twice a week for a few months. But I can see the difference even that little amount of exercise makes. I'm no athlete, but I'm getting stronger.
Training for Godliness
Paul has a lot of respect for physical training. But one passage shows where his ultimate values lie:
"Train3 yourself for godliness; for while bodily training4 is of some value,5 godliness6 is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." (1 Timothy 4:7b-8, ESV)
Training the physical body (Greek gymnasia) has definite value for this life. But training yourself for godliness produces benefits now and in the life hereafter.
Just how do you train yourself for godliness? I look at it as a series of exercises that you do daily and weekly that get you spiritually fit and help you maintain that fitness, and even move beyond it to the next level. (Of course, it's more -- a relationship -- but bear with me!) The goal here isn't some kind of amorphous "spirituality." Rather it involves knowing God more intimately, and learning to enjoy him more fully. And when it comes to minister to another person on Jesus' behalf, you're able to hear what the Spirit is saying and follow what he says.
Here is what the average American Christian might do in terms of a spiritual regimen:
- Attend church two or three times a month.
- Pray at meals for 5 seconds or so.
- Say a rote prayer before bed. ("Now I lay me down to sleep....")
Frankly, that level of intensity is practically worthless. It's good so far as it goes, perhaps, but it won't produce spiritual fitness. Rather it produces an illusion of faith and layers of spiritual flab that get in the way of being able to really move in the Spirit.
So what regimen produces spiritual fitness? Here's a place to begin. Set up for yourself a regular daily practice (say 6 out of 7 days of the week, preferably in the morning):
- Vocal praise. You might sing a praise chorus -- or two or three. Tell the Lord you love him. Offer thanksgiving for the blessings that come to mind.
- Scripture reading and meditation. It's good to read at least a chapter a day, then think about what you've read and how it applies to you. (That's called "meditation.") I try to read a chapter from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and a chapter from the New Testament each day. I pray before I begin, "Lord, please open your word to me today."
- A time of prayer. Confess to the Lord any sins you're aware of, and ask for his forgiveness. Offer to him your day, the people you'll meet, the challenges you'll face, and ask for his help and guidance. Then pray for the people you have some responsibility for or relationship to -- family, co-workers, friends, neighbors, church leaders, governmental leaders, etc.
I can hear you now. "My devotional life is better than yours. I memorize Scripture too." Okay. Good for you. But this isn't a competition for who is more spiritual. What we are looking for is training that will equip us for the long journey we're on with Jesus.
Start Where You Are, Increase Gradually
Yesterday morning at the gym, the workout of the day included doing back squats, that is, squatting while holding a heavy barbell on your shoulders -- 50 squats in a row! I started with more weight. But when I lifted it, I realized that I couldn't lift that much weight 50 times in a row. So I took off the heavier weights and sheepishly replaced them with something lighter. For me, that was a wise decision. As I get stronger, I'll be able to increase the weight, but not yet. I have to start where I am. I don't have to prove anything to anyone.
There are lots of other spiritual exercises that can help you: fasting, solitude, meditation, Scripture memory, study, simplicity, submission, service, confession, etc. And from time to time the Lord may lead you into one or more of these. And I've only talked about daily practices. There are some weekly and periodic practices that are important to help you grow spiritually too.
But I encourage you to start with something daily that is basic: worship, scripture reading with meditation, and prayer. Set yourself a time goal. Five minutes is a good start. When you've established that on a regular basis, then move yourself to ten minutes each day or more. You get the picture.
Now I want to get personal with you. How is your devotional life? What does it consist of? Is it enough to help you get spiritually fit and keep you fit? Really? I know church leaders and pastors who go through the motions with a nearly non-existent devotional life. It's tragic, but not at all rare. Maybe this describes you.
If you need to restart your spiritual exercises, I encourage you to set up for yourself a spiritual training regimen. And keep at it until it becomes regular. Then increase. If you're already established in a daily devotional time, think about increasing the time and intensity a bit.
I was quite amazed that two times a week at the gym could actually make a significant difference for me in strength and energy. Someone even asked the other day, "Have you lost weight?" That's just 2 hours out of 112 waking hours in the week, or 1.7%. But it is making a difference over time.
If you can give yourself to spiritual exercises for 5 minutes a day (0.5% of your waking hours) or 10 minutes a day (1%), you'll find it'll make a big difference in your spiritual fitness, and in getting to know and enjoy the Lord more. And in becoming sensitive to the Holy Spirit!
Why don't you plan to "train yourself for godliness" (in Paul's words) beginning tomorrow morning? The benefits are out of this world!
1. Corinth is situated on the a thin strip of land or isthmus separating mainland Greece from the Peloponnesian peninsula.
2. As of July 2019, the IAAF record for running the mile is at 3:43.13 for men, 4:12.33 for women.
3. "Train yourself" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "exercise thyself" (KJV) is the verb gymnazō, commonly in literature of gymnastic exercises in the nude: "exercise naked, train"; but also figurative of mental and spiritual powers: "to train, undergo discipline" (BDAG 208).
4. "Physical training," NIV, NRSV), "bodily training (ESV), "bodily exercise" (KJV) translates two words: the adjective sōmatikos, "pertaining to the physical body, body-related, bodily" (BDAG 984, 2), from sōma, "body"; and the noun gymnasia, "training" (BDAG 208).
5. "Of some value" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "profiteth little" (KJV) translates two Greek words: the adjective ōphelimos, "useful, beneficial, advantageous" (BDAG 1108); and the adjective oligos, "small," here, "relatively low on a scale of extent or existing only to a small degree, little, slight" (BDAG 703, 3).
6. "Godliness" is eusebeia, "awesome respect accorded to God, devoutness, piety, godliness" (BDAG 413).
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