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Dichotomy: Rigidity and Flexibility January 27, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Church, Fitness, Grace, Infinite, Lessons, Questions.
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Our God is a God that is comfortable with contradiction. Or at least what may appear to be contradiction from our earthly, 3-dimensional perspective. He is 100% just and 100% merciful. He is love but he hates sin. Christ told his disciples he would not be always with them, but he promised to always be with them.

Some of these dichotomies arise from the limits of the language and some from the limits of our human understanding. For some of them, we understand what is meant even if words fail us, but others remain a greater mystery. Rather than finding these contradictions of my faith frustrating, I find them reassuring. If it were easy and logical and completely comprehensible, it would be something a person could have made up, because we like things to be simple and plausible and easily explainable. The paradoxes and implausibilities that stretch my understanding as far as it can go and beyond are where I find the Divine in the religion that so often has a man-made structure around it.

God built a lot of paradoxes into this life, and we ourselves are paradoxes. We are God’s good creation, made to be like him but we are fallen sinners. We can be redeemed and restored and forgiven but we still will always sin.  Many of the problems in our lives occur from us partaking in things that God made to be good, but applying them in the wrong way or to the wrong extent.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the need to be both rigid and flexible. I’ve been trying to develop better habits as I look for a job, get in shape, and be more intentional about my relationship with God. I’ve noticed that when trying to form a new habit, particularly at the very beginning, you have to be very rigid in your application of it or it’s far too easy to let it go “just once” and then end up not doing it at all.

Exercise x amount every day, at the same time. Eat no desserts whatsoever. Clean one room of the house thoroughly every day. Once the habit is ingrained you can be a little more flexible – if you skip a day or have one cookie it’s fine because you know you will go right back to the good habit. In fact not only is flexibility okay, it’s vital for maintaining a good habit in anything and a good relationship with God.

You can pledge to read your Bible every day as soon as you as get up, just as you can make a promise to go to the gym every day after work. You can apply that rule without fail to your life and really see the results you want to see. But here’s the thing: it’s not going to happen every day. No matter how much of a priority you make reading the Bible every single morning at six am, there will be some days that it just will not work. The alarm won’t go off, you’ll have a sick kid, you’ll be travelling and have to catch a plane.

If your time with God (or any other habit you want to develop) is unbendingly fixed to a single set of parameters, it’s going to hit a circumstance that will make it break if it can’t bend. If you have such a rigid mindset that if you miss that appointment you miss your window for the day, then you will end up missing out on that time with him entirely. It’s better for me to work out at home in the evening if I can’t make it to the gym after work than to just give up on getting exercise all together. And it’s far better to make time with God later in the day than to just forget about it entirely, especially on a day where your routine has been broken – you probably need that time with with him even more than on a day where all is going normally.

So too, our faith itself requires rigidity and flexibility. We need to be firm and unyielding when it comes to believing that God loves us and will take care of us. But if our belief is tied to a specific set of circumstances, any change in those circumstances can lead us to doubt him. We need to be unwavering about following God’s will for our lives, but soft and malleable regarding what that looks like at different points of our life or we may find ourselves forcing our way down a path that we should have turned off long ago. We need to strong about what we believe about our faith (and about right and wrong), but give grace to others and be flexible (to a point) with them and allow for the fact that they may not interpret God’s Word the same way we do, as well allowing God room to change our minds and hearts if we are in the wrong about how we are seeing things.

It makes me think of yoga. To do yoga you need a certain amount of flexibility, and much of the point of yoga is to develop even more flexibility. But it also develops strength, and many of the positions require you to be very strong and to keep your muscles quite rigid in order to hold them. Following Christ is like that. We have to be strong in our faith, we have to be strict and disciplined about pursuing him. But we also need to be flexible about where he is leading us and allow him to change and grow our faith, otherwise we can end up following a Christ of our own making and going by our own wisdom, instead of his. If we are not flexible, we may miss the opportunities he has for us or the ways in which  he wants us to grow because we are so firmly set on what we think he wants from us.

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Spiritual Fitness December 13, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Attitude, Fitness, Grace, Growth, Lessons, Pain, Struggles, Suffering.
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I recently started a new exercise regimen. After several years of trying, and mostly failing, to get fit on my own I finally gave in and bought some exercise DVDs that would tell me what to do. I hate exercise videos, but I have noticed that I tend to lose focus on my own and have trouble figuring out what the best strategy is, and DVDs are significantly less expensive than a personal trainer. Although the individual workouts are short, they are intense and brutal. By day three I could barely get up off the couch because I was (and still am) so sore. My aching muscles have got me thinking about what physical fitness can teach about spiritual fitness.

The Bible is not short on comparisons of spiritual and physical training, and I’m beginning to see why. It’s a powerful metaphor, and frankly if you are not able to be disciplined with your body it is going to be hard to be disciplined in your spiritual life (I have this problem!). Although we would like to think we are above such things, our bodies do have a huge influence on our emotions, actions, and attitudes. Here are the things I’ve been thinking about in regards to physical training and spiritual growth.

1: You can’t be your own trainer.

Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always.
Psalm 105:4

This doesn’t mean that you can’t just go for a run, or pick up the Bible and read on your own and get some positive effects. But in both fitness and spiritual growth you can vastly benefit from the wisdom, guidance, and encouragement of others. I tend to approach Bible study and prayer the same way I approach exercise and many other areas of my life – haphazardly. I try things aimlessly. I page through Psalms. I do some arm exercises. I download a bunch of sermons to listen to and go for a long run one day, and then the next day I’m eating cheetoes and watching TV all evening.

In fitness, having a guide to help you find an effective routine that will get you where you want to go is invaluable – whether it’s a person, a guidebook, or a simple regimen. You can exercise all you want, but if you aren’t doing the right combination of things you may never reach your goal – or you may end up hurting yourself. In my case, having a clearly deranged woman with incredible abs telling me what to do each day and yelling encouragement helps me to stay on track because it removes the feeling of aimlessness that often prevents me from wanting to work out.

In your Christian walk, a mentor can help guide you in a similar way. But even Bible study guides and books can really get you to go deep into the Word and build those spiritual muscles, make you really think about things in a substantive way. That’s something all all the unfocused reading in the world will never achieve. A good preacher or teacher can also bring you God’s word in a way you have never thought about before, and help you to connect the dots on what he is trying to tell you.

However, the ultimate trainer is God himself. He is the one we need to surrender to, and he is the one with the plan for where he wants us to go and how we should be trained to get there. Bible studies and devotional plans are good things. But what will really make our faith muscles grow are the experiences and challenges that God puts us through to make us strong for the work that he has for us. Just like I show up and submit to the trainer on my DVD, doing what she says each day to build my strength and endurance, I need to “show up” with God and submit myself to his training, however difficult and painful it is at the time.

2: You can’t do it alone.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1

This should be a no-brainer. Everyone needs partners to help them get in shape, to encourage them and build them up. We all need community on the spiritual journey too. People we can share our struggles with and open to, and who can keep us accountable in our lives. I’ve tried both fitness and the Christian walk without community and it does not work. Satan’s first tactic to prevent us from changing or from reaching our goals is to isolate us. Once that is accomplished it’s all to easy for us to succumb to thoughts like “I’ll do it tomorrow” or “why should I bother, it’s hopeless” and we practically implode in ourselves in very little time. God made us to live in community for a reason – we need each other. Not just in high, spiritual matters but in practical, everyday ways.

3: You have to do it every day.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Corinthians 9:24-27

Consistency. I’ve written any number of times about my struggles with this, and they haven’t gone away. But if you are going to train for a race, you have to do it every day. That doesn’t mean you have to (or even should) do the exact same thing every day. But you have to face each day – even rest days (because rest is a part of training) – as a day that you are preparing for the race, a day that is an important part of you reaching your fitness goal. What you do or don’t do, what you put in your body, the attitude you have – all of those things  are integral to how effectively you are able to train. You need to be thinking everyday “How is what I’m doing preparing me for this race, this goal?”

It’s the same with spiritual training. Not only should we be spending time in prayer, in praise, in the Word every day, but we should be looking at everything in our lives, all our experiences and challenges each day, for what they can teach us about God and how they can make us stronger spiritually and more like him. We should ask ourselves “What is God trying to teach me in this situation?”, “How can this experience grow me spiritually?”. and “What action here will bring me closer to being like Christ?”.

The spiritual walk is no more about church and devotions than fitness is about a 20-minute work out. It’s a constant, consistent, and pervasive practice that is required if you want to get results.

4: It’s going to hurt.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.
Hebrews 12:11-12

To build muscles you have to tear them a little bit, let them heal, and tear them a little bit more so that they grow back bigger and stronger. To build endurance you have to push yourself past the point where you think you can’t go any farther, again and again, until you find you can go farther. It’s going to hurt at the time, and it’s going to hurt even more the next day.

You can’t grow in your faith and trust in God if that faith is never stretched to its very limit and beyond. It has to break a little bit and grow anew if it’s going to be stronger. Every roadblock, frustration, and disappointment, though painful, is a chance for us to put our trust in God again and for him to come through for us in ways we can’t imagine yet.

They will hurt at the time. The hurt may linger. But each time we experience heartbreak or hopelessness and yet still keep clinging to God, the stronger our faith will become and the more able to weather the future storms of life. The more times we see God come through in a seemingly impossible situation, the more we will trust him in the future.

And in the same way that a good trainer will never push you beyond what your body can really bear, to the point of true injury, so our good God will never give us more to handle than he is able to save us from.

5: It’s always going to get harder.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-4

It feel like every time I get to the point in my training where I’m starting to feel good about things, feel like I’m able to handle the workouts, they suddenly get harder. So too in my spiritual life. As soon as I feel like I’ve really learned some lessons, things are flying along and I’m just happy and praising God, with everything finally under control – boom, all of a sudden there’s a big hill and I am doing everything I can just to keep it together. A tragedy hits, something stressful comes up in my work or my marriage, there’s a problem with a friend, and all of a sudden my hard-earned smooth sailing has turned into very choppy waters.

The thing about fitness is that if a workout is easy, that means it’s no longer effective. At best you might be maintaining, but you certainly aren’t making gains. If it’s easy for your muscles to handle, then it’s not growing them and not challenging you. A few workouts like that are fine, but if that’s all you do for a long period of time at best you will stagnate. More likely, you will start slipping backwards and losing ground.

If everything is going well in your life, and with your faith, then you aren’t really needing to use those spiritual muscles to stay in touch with God and to handle difficult situations. You pray less, because you don’t need anything. You don’t wrestle with doubt because you have no reason to doubt – everything is fine. You don’t have to work to give grace, because no one is giving you hard a time.

These times are a welcome respite for all of us, but if they continue for too long we lose our spiritual fitness. If a problem comes and we’re spiritually complacent and stagnated, we will have lost the resources to deal with it. Like a sucker punch coming out of nowhere, we will be totally incapacitated.

Just like a trainer keeps upping the difficulty and intensity of the workouts, so God keeps new challenges coming at us just as soon as we feel like we’ve mastered the old ones. He doesn’t want us to be satisfied with an imperfect relationship with him – we can always get better, always get closer to him and trust him more. Unlike physical fitness, to which there is a limit, our God is infinite and limitless. There is always more to learn, more to train for in the process of becoming like Christ.

6: It will change the rest of your life.

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:20-21

I’ve already talked about training not just being about the actual workout time but about a lifestyle of training and preparing and growing. But just as your whole live impacts your training, your training can impact the rest of your life. When I am not fit and not trying to be fit, my baseline health and attitude is not great.

But once I really start to get in shape, if I can get over the initial hump where I’m just tired and sore all of the time, my whole life starts to change. I have more energy, I sleep better, my moods are generally more positive. I start to crave better, healthier food because my body knows it can’t run on junk. I’m more productive at work and more relaxed at home. Thousands of little benefits that reinforce each other.

It’s the same in my spiritual life. When I am consistently spending time with God, turning to him when I am in trouble, being faithful in the areas of my life that I know I have trouble with, and seeking out good fellowship and teaching, my whole life completely changes. I am more loving and forgiving of others. Less judgmental. I work harder, even when I don’t really like what I’m doing. I am more compassionate and less self-centers. My attitude is better. I am grateful and often more cheerful. I am more able to be present to others and more open to what God is trying to teach to me. And all these benefits make me want to spend more time in spiritual training.

Coda

I find more and more as I work to change myself physically that I see spiritual parallels with all of my struggles and successes. And with my weaknesses. My physical  and spiritual failings mirror each other: My lack of consistency, self-control, and endurance are the same in both the physical and spiritual arenas. The main difference is that the consequences of these failings are literally visible in my physical body, while they can sometimes be easier to hide in my spiritual walk – at least to hide from other people.

While I certainly don’t think that someone who is not fit cannot have an awesome relationship with God, or that someone who is in peak physical condition automatically has an olympian’s spiritual walk (exercise, like anything else, can become an idol, obsession, or escape from God), I am definitely starting to believe that physical training can help me spiritually. Both in the ways that it can help me develop attributes for my faith which I am lacking, and how it can keep me in mind of the spiritual lessons God wants me to learn along the way.

But when all is said and done, it is important to keep sight of which kind of training is the more important one. Spiritual and physical training are not mutually exclusive, and are in fact often very complementary. But it’s important not to let my fitness goals overshadow my growth as a Christ-follower, for it is clear which of the two is of greater importance:

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.  That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.
1 Timothy 4:8-10