A gifted Christian, age 93, spends most of her time in bed in a convalescent home. A misstep resulted in a broken foot. She insists that she will never walk again. Prior to her accident she enjoyed excellent health and above-average intelligence. She drove her own car, cooked, read extensively, and socialized with abilities and alertness that seemed to defy the aging process.
The fractured bone mended within six months and can now support her. But her fear of pain not only keeps her from trying to walk on the foot, but also threatens her survival.
To retain usefulness, bodies must remain active. Their ability to perform diminishes through inactivity. The last chapter of Ecclesiastes describes poetically the inevitable diminishing of human capacities and urges a call for God’s help early in life:
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come (12:1).
In other words, correct choices must be made while we are physically adept.
Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.
John wishes for Gaius a good and prosperous journey through life, both bodily and spiritually.
When we understand that physical and spiritual fitness complement each other, we can make appropriate comparisons. Physical fitness implies a state of readiness. We are prepared to meet demands made of our bodies, be they strenuous labor, climbing, recovering from illness, or participating in rigorous sports. Encouragement builds up and maintains spiritual vigor in the body of Christ. Spirituality involves relationships — how we relate to God and His family. So the closer and warmer we feel toward God and the brotherhood, the better our spiritual health.
No program to improve fitness can succeed without a person’s determination to alter his lifestyle. Minor changes that avoid inconvenience or disruption stifle the resolve to improve health. Adopting better health practices requires a person to make major adjustments in attitudes, routines, and disciplines. He must exert willpower to improve fitness physically and spiritually.
Spiritual vitality becomes a concern after a spiritual birth, which John described as a birth of the water and spirit (John 3:5). Peter preached convincingly that Jesus was the Messiah: crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended into heaven. After listening to him, many of Peter’s listeners were strongly affected and asked, “What shall we do?”
“Peter replied, ‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized . . .’” (Acts 2:38).
Repent is coupled with baptized in a manner descriptive of birth by spirit and water. Repentance implies a turning. It begins when a person regrets his sins, and it enlightens the past and future. Repentance unloads burdens and brings inner peace. As a result, God rewards the remorseful with membership in His family and establishes a relationship with Him. Baptism offers public acknowledgement of this new bonding with God — this nativity of the Spirit.
We can see an illustration of true repentance in the parable of the prodigal son. The son’s unusual demand for his undeserved inheritance put undue economic and emotional stress on a household that had served him well. Squandering his inheritance, the son plummeted into obscene living conditions in a sty. He fed pigs and wished his own diet were as nourishing. We can imagine how often the son regretted demanding and wasting his inheritance. Realizing that his circumstances were deplorable was not enough to initiate his recovery. He resolved to “set out and go back,” but not until hebegan moving toward his father did hope replace despair. The son did what the spiritually fit must do: put his intention to do better into action. Spiritual fitness requires “walking the talk.”
Reading the Bible
“You are what you eat,” many declare. The statement is too broad, of course, but it makes the valid observation that our health is impacted by what we consume.
Spiritual enhancement comes from good discipline, wholesome sources of enjoyment, forgoing corrupting allurements, and carefully regulating ourselves. We develop spiritually through what we experience, whether religious or secular.
A superior source of spiritual nourishment is the Bible. It offers the purest revelation of the being and will of God. Though the novice can understand the Bible, especially if he reads a newer version,* it remains a challenging quest even to the most accomplished Bible scholar. The Bible can be largely understood but never fully comprehended. A good appetite for it comes from a healthy curiosity about its contents and meaning.
The Bible informs that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17, NASB). After hearing, a further step is needed:
Now the Bereans were of more noble character . . . for they received the message with great eagerness, and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).
This attitude was exemplary because the Bereans accepted responsibility to make sure that the Bible was presented accurately. Truth that is stretched is no truth at all. We do not change God’s message; it changes us. No other document expresses the divine will as precisely as does the Bible, and we need to understand it in order to obey God rather than men.
We also gain spiritual nourishment by listening carefully when the Scriptures are read, explained, and discussed. Excellent opportunities to learn are offered by pastors and Bible teachers who have an obvious love for the Word. Group discussions are spiritually nourishing because those who attend present a variety of ideas and reflections. One is never too familiar with the text to ask questions because nothing enhances learning as does a hearty curiosity.
No other book has had so much commentary written about its existence and contents as the Bible. Almost every library has a religious section, some appreciably large. As one develops spiritual strength, writings about the Bible and its contents offer valuable insight, even though they must be read critically. Any aid to a greater and more accurate understanding of God’s Word supplies spiritually healthy intake.
A serious fitness program includes exercise. Activity, some of it strenuous, keeps bodies ready for extraordinary physical demands.
On the outskirts of a Mexican village is a trail that escalates hundreds of feet up a mountainside to a small Indian pyramid. At its beginning, the trail is wide to provide easy hiking, then gradually narrows. Steps are later replaced by stepping stones, closely positioned at first, but soon requiring small hops from one to the next. Eventually, ladders take climbers through vertical tunnels. On this path are climbers dressed in hiking gear and backpacks, but these are rare in comparison to many who ascend wearing street clothes: ladies in medium high heels, parents carrying children too small to walk, and other hikers who hardly seem prepared for a climb that requires at least an hour for experienced hikers.
It matters little how the climbers are outfitted, nor whether the burden they carry seems fitting or ideal. Success in reaching the top depends on determination and fitness. Most climbers reach the top, but all along the trail are those who acknowledge they can climb no higher. They are wise to stop, because for the unfit, the highest one-third of the trail can be life-threatening. The climbers are an ongoing reminder of how important it is to remain fit.
In the same way, the Bible constantly urges that after we learn what to do in our spiritual lives, we should do it. Jesus said:
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).
For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God hath prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).
Putting good intentions into practice can be as challenging as climbing a mountain. It requires good conditioning.
Often church members attend a weekly service out of a sense of duty, looking forward to pleasant visiting afterward, a good dinner at home, a nap, and some evening diversion — all of which prepares them for another week of spiritual inactivity. Were they interested, the learning and inspiration given in Bible class and worship could have energized and strengthened them spiritually, but their lack of interest and concern leaves them listless. A sudden spiritual crisis may find them unprepared and vulnerable.
Religious vs. Spiritually Fit
In his book Letters to Malcomb: Chiefly on Prayer, respected philosopher-theologian, C. S. Lewis, wrote:
I can well understand how a man who is trying to love God and his neighbour should come to dislike the very word religion.
A non-intrusive religion frequently becomes a substitute for the development of a dynamic relationship with a personal God. For example, a paper by an anonymous author declares that nothing is more important than to teach children to use the sign of the cross. How important many of our religious habits and rituals have become! Many “believers” who offer minimal efforts through habitual religious rituals are spiritually flabby.
To be religious without a personal bond with God is like reading recipes without ever cooking or being an accountant with no thought given to profit. It is devotion to the means to an end. It is learning how to exercise without doing so. Religious activities without a spiritual relationship are essentially secular.
Specific Spiritual Exercises
Matthew 25 contains three parables that give criteria for judgment. The first is the parable of ten virgins. Its message is general: A Christian must always be spiritually fit, the same as being ready. The second, the parable of the talents, encourages Christians to use the abilities God gave them. This means leaving comfort zones to put oneself at risk. The third parable about a division of sheep and goats gives further definition to the two previous parables. After the livestock were separated, the King explained why he put the sheep on His right and goats on His left.
To those on His right He said,
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (vv. 34-36).
Those rewarded could not remember the occasions when these benefits were given to the King. But He said:
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (v. 40).
More affluent societies have developed welfare systems by which the poor and disadvantaged are supported though taxation. The grudging taxpayers experience no joy in giving; those receiving from a faceless agency feel little gratitude, and the politician who helped arrange the redistribution hopes he will gain favorable attention. Philanthropy is managed through dedicated foundations. Requests for funds from private sources are scrutinized for their legitimacy before donations are distributed.
A Christian executive from such a culture was assigned temporarily to live where there was no welfare system. He was disturbed to see many beggars. They walked the streets, sat on sidewalks, moved through crowds, begged from tourists, and were so abundant, there was no way to escape them. He noticed that native residents were undisturbed and often gave to the beggars. He began wondering whether his ignoring the pleas from the poor was Christ-like. Experiencing intensifying guilt, he began to place small coins into paper cups, plastic dishes, hats and begging hands. Growing satisfaction accompanied the donation of an occasional pittance. It was worth the minimal cost. Gradually, larger coins found their way to the beggars.
One day while the executive browsed in a marketplace, an elderly man limped toward him. He had lost one eye and didn’t see well with the other. In his hand was a small, plastic bowl. The businessman reached into his pocket for a coin and found none, so he went to his wallet for a larger amount. The beggar was stunned and feebly said, “Thank you. God bless you.” The beggar’s excited gratitude reminded the giver of the teaching that to give to the least of Jesus’ brethren was the same as giving to our Lord. In that context, the man concluded that his contribution was not so sizeable after all.
Many religious people never have contact with Jesus’ brotherhood of the disadvantaged. Seldom do they feed, give drink, accept the needy stranger, offer clothing, accept the responsibility to encourage healing, and spend time with those banished from society. Giving these valuable gifts is spiritual exercise. It keeps us ready — spiritually fit.
Exercising the Fruit of the Spirit
Descriptions of spiritual exercise are also in Galatians. The fruit of the Spirit, listed in chapter 5, identifies spiritual drills that develop proficiency. To be a good runner, one must devote more time and energy to running, less to lifting weights. Whatever benefits a sprinter can get from other activities, he can never run at his best unless the most important part of his training is running.
The fruit of the Spirit operates similarly. If one wishes to experience joy, he must practice being happy. One learns to love by loving. Those seeking to be more patient must practice serenity. When Paul offers this list (Galatians 5:22, 23), he issues a challenge to learn and master behavior demonstrating these virtues. This is spiritual training that develops increasingly nourishing spiritual fruit.
Maintaining a Spiritual House
Part of spiritual conditioning is contributing to the health of other believers. Two metaphors in Ephesians encourage this practice. The first is that of a building. Paul discusses the need to receive believers from significantly different backgrounds. He reminds them that they are united through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Such a gift of grace must result in more than tolerance but in full acceptance of others. There should be no “foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” His ideal is that
In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord (Ephesians 2:19).
Peter’s first general letter uses the same verbal picture:
You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5a).
Walking across his basement floor, a homeowner slipped and almost fell. He noticed a small puddle of water behind him, and he saw an additional drop join the accumulation. In the ceiling was a sizable wet area that had obviously been soaked for a while. A drain pipe above the basement was leaking. Alarmed, the man called professionals to fix the leaking pipe and refinish the ceiling. Everything had to be restored. Failure to do so would result in more costly damage. Likewise, a “holy temple rising to the Lord” does not honor Him if damaged parts of His building are neglected.
Maintaining a Healthy Body
A second metaphor is in Ephesians 4:16, where the community of believers is described as a human body:
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
In his insightful book Where is God When It Hurts? Philip Yancey describes work Dr. Paul Brand did among lepers. His experience with this dreaded disease debunks centuries of misconceptions. The most prominent is that leprosy is caused by bacteria that create ulcers and result in decaying tissue that falls from the hands and feet. He notes that leprosy is indeed cruel but not in the way many have thought. It acts like an anesthetic, numbing the pain cells in hands, feet, nose, ears, and eyes. The inability to feel pain denies the victim the ability to protect himself. Lepers have been seen reaching into hot coals to retrieve food accidentally dropped into the fire. A leper’s blood ran down the handle of a shovel because a protruding nail was piercing his hand repeatedly. There was no pain to signal a warning.
Yancey calls pain “the gift nobody wants,” but the body experiences it anyway. A person may wish to be rid of pain, but doing so could result in disaster. Similarly, the body of Christ cannot enjoy good health when it is numb to the pain that should warn that one or more of its members is suffering. All body parts should work together.
It is a biblical postulate that the grace of God can never be earned, but Jesus suggests an exception in His model prayer:
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors . . . For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:12, 14, 15).
God forgives us after we have forgiven others. Forgiving is strenuous work, but we must do it before we can receive God’s mercy. Forgiveness never ends for the Christian. He must pardon not only friends with their slight offenses but also those who deeply hurt him.
Additional Forms of Spiritual Exercise
Numerous other kinds of exercise are needed for spiritual vitality. Our limited commentary here by no means suggests they are less important. For example, the Ten Commandments — all of them — are basic to vigorous spiritual living. If we ignore them, we will stumble in our walk with God.
Jesus’ sermons in the Gospels set forth many divine mandates we must obey. Also, giving consistently and cheerfully of our time, energy, and possessions are basic Christian obligations that maintain spiritual health. Anyone concerned about spiritual well-being will find health-enhancing instructions in most Bible passages.
Not much physical exercise is done on the knees, but a substantial amount of spiritual exercise is. A person improves his spiritual health by committing to pray regularly.
Volumes have been written about the theology, philosophy, practicality, postures, and purpose of prayer. Some claim to believe in it fervently, but seldom do it. Others confess that they are not people of faith, denying a belief in God but occasionally find themselves in crisis that makes them pray in desperation. Prayer is how we communicate with our Maker.
When we pray, we maintain and strengthen our relationship with God. When a person calls to inquire about a friend’s well-being, to offer gratitude, to extend congratulations, or to provide helpful information, it strengthens a personal bond. Extended silence and disinterest weaken personal ties.
When there is no communication with God, it is not because He is silent and involved elsewhere but because we are quiet and inattentive. We never need to wonder whether He is available. God is omnipresent not just in an abstract sense but in what we see around us. We see His handiwork in humanity, nature, food, weather, deeds, health, daily survival, and in the plethora of good that makes up our lives. This broader view of God’s presence inspires us to maintain harmony with Him. Often we recite a prayer listing ways in which He might treat us kindly and graciously. Such a list, however, may distort the relationship, suggesting that God should serve us instead of us serving Him.
When Moses saw a burning bush, he was drawn to it and found God there. How intriguing that he could readily accept the presence of God in that unusual happening! The conversation that took place there forever changed the course of human history. Not all that God said pleased Moses, but it compelled him. He became God’s spokesman.
It is always difficult to know how many events in a praying person’s life are the direct result of prayer and how many God would have brought about anyway. We do not instruct God in prayer. Rather, we place our trust in Him and recognize His will in what happens.
Prayer also helps us recognize our weaknesses. Humans usually ignore, rationalize, or legitimize their sins. But a person who regularly prays knows that while he can ignore God, he cannot hide from Him. Confession does not impress God with the gravity of sins a person committed; rather, it enables the confessor to learn about himself. A person doesn’t appreciate the boundless grace of God when he has never discovered his need for it. Those who openly discuss their shortcomings with God experience His grace and power to overcome.
Expectations from Prayer
Is it right to expect miracles in response to prayer? The answer is the subject of ongoing, sincere, soul-searching conversation among believers. Jesus assured:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7, 8).
Jesus’ disciples could not drive out a demon when they prayed over a sick boy. “Why couldn’t we drive him out?” they asked Jesus. Jesus replied:
“Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).
Jesus’ reference to faith the size of a mustard seed has led to the unanswerable question, “How do we quantify faith?” If we pray that a mountain be removed and it remains, is our faith smaller than a mustard seed? If so, how can our faith increase?
A respectable answer suggests that Jesus’ reference to the size of faith has less to do with quantity of faith than with exercise of faith. The power Jesus speaks of is available to people who live by faith, who have ongoing, disciplined trust in God. They trust in Him to answer according to His will, even if that is different from their request.
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. — John Milton (1608-1674)
Those who have had little exposure to religious conversation or preaching will be curious when they note how often “heart” is mentioned. They may wonder whether the speakers are cardiologists! They will learn quickly that references to the heart indicate concern about the believer’s spiritual fitness. Christians want to experience a benediction Jesus offered: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
How can the heart be purified?
The Danish theologian-philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes with powerful idealism in his book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. The title connects the condition of the heart to the will. What we want determines our attitude, and this, in turn, describes the condition of our hearts.
In most biblical usages, heart refers to all that is inside a person — specifically, human passion.
Passion often seeks its own direction and path, and concerns itself with the moment. It has a big appetite, limited discretion, and little memory. Passion is clever in serving a deluded master, gradually seeking greater things until its master serves it like a blind and ignorant slave. Millions refuse to control their passions and are now enslaved by self-destructive lifestyles and habits they are helpless to escape. With help from God, only mental sturdiness can correct and protect us from abuses caused by undisciplined passion.
Whether or not any of us remains physically and spiritually fit depends on our mental toughness. Paul underscores this in his call to present our bodies a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. To do so we must be transformed to a new kind of thinking that enables us to test and prove God’s will (Romans 12:1, 2).
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
An anecdote describes a conversation between three ministers, all having problems with mice in their church basements. The first reported, “We set traps, put out poison, tried noise, among other things, but failed to get rid of them.”
The second pastor added, “We tried all of that without success. We finally called in an exterminator, but the mice are back. We don’t know if we’ll ever keep them out.”
The third pastor spoke more triumphantly. “I had a team of men catch the mice. I baptized the mice, gave them a church membership, and I haven’t seen them since.”
This absurd little story satirizes a religious phenomenon: the inactivity among so many who see value in a life of faith but not enough to develop and strengthen it.
Keeping physically fit has its rewards: energy, reduced vulnerability to sickness and accident, better maneuverability, enhanced relationships, raised spirits, and sound sleep. Better health improves almost everything else.
Similarly, successful godly living is enhanced by wholesome spiritual activity. It establishes a relationship with God and assures we are part of eternity. It increases our appetite for what is good and gives eternal purpose to our existence. It makes and keeps us ready. All effort put into spiritual fitness is enhancing; nothing is wasted. Let the wise get started and stay active!