Whenever I see pictures of runners preparing to race, or simply used as an example of what a good workout should look like, several thoughts enter my mind:
1) I want to go for a run. Maybe it is because it’s an activity involving movement (instead of staring at a screen), while the American lifestyle treats idle (idol?) entertainment as the just reward for work and school.
2) Then I remember that the motivation to run that I have while sitting idly on the couch, is not the same motivation that will help me complete the run. In the middle of a run, breathing quickens, mental capacities can get foggy and my heart beat accelerates. It’s a lot of sweating, pacing, and trying to find the right music (in my opinion).
Toying with the idea and actually doing it are two very different things.
3) There is the euphoric excitement that I recall at the end of every long-distance run, (that is, long distance for me), which makes the work out sound like it will be worth it. Former glories sound pleasant enough to drive future victories.
Lastly, 4) But I’m not consistent in my running schedule, and might clock out earlier than I did at my peak (resulting in discouragement). Therefore, maybe tomorrow morning (if not, then evening) will be better, starting with a fresh perspective and clear mind.
This pattern demonstrates the cycle we can put ourselves into spiritually. In Scripture, the Christian life is marked with struggles (Rom. 7), temptations (Luke 17), persecutions (1 Pet.1), and even backsliding (but those who do are brought back). Christians are not guaranteed a perfect life, or even promised to be totally free from sin on this fallen earth (as some heretical teachings may promise). As John MacArthur once said, “It’s not about perfection; it’s about affection and direction.”
So, what do we do? How do we get off the couch and run with the right motivation? Let’s take a look at my four thoughts on exercise and look at them through spiritual lenses:
1) Perhaps you go to church one Sunday, and become convicted that you haven’t been “doing enough” in your relationship with God. You begin plotting out different things you’re going to do: go to more Bible studies, read the Scriptures every day, maybe even get on one of those reading plans. You’ll download more sermons, listen to more worship music, go to more conferences, etc.
The next day, you are in bed and have a decision to make: Sleep a little longer, or read the Bible? More often than not, you don’t feel as excited about reading it today as you did yesterday. You beat yourself up the rest of the day, becoming hopeless and frustrated. So, you give into a sin here and a sin there, thinking you’ll reset tomorrow. Nope. Repeat. The problem? Too much about you and “doing,” not enough about Christ and what He did for you.
2) You realize that in fact the feelings you have right now aren’t enough to drive daily spiritual discipline. You remember how complicated subjects in the Bible can be, and don’t know where to start reading. Studying the Old testament sacrificial system, or learning from the writer of Hebrews sounds boring, and Jeremiah 29:11 is good enough reading for today. After all, people can get so divisive over the Bible, right? This relationship thing is too complicated. So, you take a break for awhile.
3) But, then you remember the feelings you would get from youth camp, or a worship concert, or a really powerful message on Sunday morning. Opening up the Bible and gaining new insight about your life was invigorating, and it drove you to make a change. It cleared your mind and gave focus where confusion was formerly present. You repented of sin and made progress, only now, you seemed to have gotten off track. You try repeating the formula, but it doesn’t work. The problem? Repeating the past doesn’t work because you’re in a different place now. You can’t un-learn then re-learn the truths that impacted you, but you can deepen what you already know.
4) You want to go to a Bible study, help someone out, or do the things you used to do (realizing you can’t relive the past), but you don’t feel like you’re at your “peak” or a “strong” Christian anymore. So, you hold off on getting to know people or diving into a Bible study too quickly. Repeat.
It is possible that most of us respond to the Christian life the same way I do when it comes to running: It sounds like a good idea, but the execution sounds too hard, without a clear reward in sight. If you have been saved for a period of time, you can relate to point 3 very easily. The Christian life has occasional mountain-top experiences, where the gospel and the Holy Spirit seem so fresh and active in your life- but it’s not like that every day. Of course, the Holy Spirit lives in you, and He is always at work to complete the promises of the gospel in you, but your awareness of that work isn’t always in sync with Him (or so it appears).
Maybe you try and fuel your present spiritual disciplines with memories of what it felt like when you first were saved; you may have been emotional, excited, and seemingly alive for the first time. So, you go to the latest worship events, listen to famous preachers, and try to “light the fire again.” It works, for a little while, then you go back to your mundane job or schoolwork. So, how can you discipline yourself spiritually and want to do so at the same time? What’s the formula, the secret to spiritual success?
Stop. Think for a second. Did you catch that last sentence?
This whole time you’ve been struggling, and the reason why is because you have been treating direct contact with God as if it were the background to spiritual growth. The priorities have been reversed. In a nutshell, there is no such thing as the secret to spiritual success; instead of a formula, you have something better, which is a relationship with a Divine Person, not an inanimate object who helps you. The Bible is just words on paper if God were not there to breathe life into it. There’s no formula to marriage, but a relationship. Should it be any less (no, greater!) with God?
We’ve been going at this all wrong. The question is not, what is the formula, the question is, how can I know God?
The answer is that there is no formula, because God doesn’t work that way. He’s not a formula. He’s a person, whom you can entrust anything to because everything is under His control. He deserves the glory in everything, the recognition for everything in your life, and the highest praise so that no one will be credited with what He alone deserves.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6, 7 ESV)
Therefore, 1) You know God through His word.
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! (Psalm 43:3 ESV)
He talks to you through the Bible as a Father does to His children- everything you want to know about Him is in there. You are adopted, who once was a slave of sin and God’s enemy. Now, you’re accepted because of what Christ did for you.
2) You know God by communicating to Him and trusting Him. He wants you to talk to Him. In fact, He wants you to take joy in knowing Him!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7 ESV)
Thus says the Lord : “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23, 24 ESV)
The goal of Bible study and fellowship, shouldn’t be to direct the attention towards ourselves, but towards knowing God and worshiping Him with others. The gospel is about Jesus substituting Himself for us, so that we could be reconciled with the God who was far from us. God saved you from Himself for Himself. It’s about relationship!
It’s simple: go to God’s word, to church, to Bible studies, and to work for God’s sake. Do so because you want to know God- learn more about Him, entrust everything to Him, depend on Him, delight in Him, and learn the depths of the salvation He has given you. That’s how you make spiritual progress.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 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 1:3-8 ESV)