Saturday, January 2, 2010

Spiritual Fitness

America is obsessed with fitness, and the start of a new year is always the beginning for "get fit" resolutions. Health clubs and gyms always see a spike in memberships at the start of the year, and diets are usually started near the beginning of January: Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Atkins, South Beach, sugar-busters, carb-counters…you are familiar with those terms, maybe even involved in those programs. Curves is the number two franchise in America, right behind Subway, which has its own claim to fitness fame in “Jared”, Mr. Subway. The whole food industry is scrambling right now to crank out “low-carb” alternatives to your favorite foods. Krispy Kreme is a sinking ship; their stock is headed south faster than a Mid-West retiree. Sports nutrition stores are booming, and Wal-mart, never one to miss the opportunity of turning a huge profit, has their own nutrition section. There is a plethora of products available that will enable you to maximize energy, minimize fatigue, and accelerate recovery (supposedly).

Fitness is big business. America is obsessed with fitness, but America is also obese! Its unreal isn’t it, that the same country can be obsessed with fitness, counting carbs, being thin, and worshipping beauty, but at the same time be populated with the heaviest people in the world. According to statistics, we are the overweight nation, the land of lard, the bastion of freedom and flabbiness. As Christians we have not always been positive examples of physical fitness, even though we believe the body is the temple of God, and through it we give expression to our service for God, we don’t have a strong track record in this area. Most of our fellowships and gatherings revolve around food, generally fried food, followed up with lots and lots of desserts. And how we love to fellowship!

Now, there is certainly nothing run with physical fitness. If you are saved, after all, your body is the temple of God, your body is the one instrument you have for worshipping and serving God. Your body is not to be worshipped, but it is the instrument for worship. But all of us should realize that a healthy body with a sick soul is a tragic thing. For everyone, the ultimate issue should not be the physical, but the spiritual.

In my brief 36 years of living I have learned this one inescapable truth: discipline is the necessary key for accomplishing anything in this life. And that is true whether we are talking about being physically fit, playing an instrument, learning a trade, etc. The apostle Paul states this to his young protégé Timothy, and to us, in 1 Timothy 4:7-8,
“But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.”
The word translated “exercise” in our Bibles is the Greek word "gymnazo". The word basically means discipline. (I think it even has the gym smell all over it!) We need to be disciplined Christians as we make our pilgrim trek through this world. You need to discipline your behavior, but most importantly, you need to discipline your mind, your thoughts. Disciplined hearts will produce disciplined attitudes and behaviors. Now I don’t want you to have a negative picture of discipline in your mind. Discipline is not a cuss word, it’s not a bad thing. Discipline is a good and necessary thing.

Sermons without illustrations are akin to houses without windows. It often takes a good illustration to crystallize a truth that we have heard. Jesus always employed vivid, relevant illustrations when He preached, and the apostle Paul was no different. Paul regularly used three illustrations: that of a soldiering, athletics, and farming (2 Timothy 2 is one example).

In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Paul utilizes the athletic simile. The Greek culture was huge on games. You all know that the Olympic Games have their origins in Olympia, Greece, but are you aware that the city of Corinth also hosted a popular sporting event that occurred every three years known as the Isthmian Games? Much like the Olympics, in the Isthmian Games athletes competed in a variety of events such as foot races, javelin, discus, wrestling, boxing, and even gymnastics. One commentator makes note of how consumed the culture was with sports. He said that the masses only demanded two things from their government: bread and games. The man wrote, “By day they stood about idle; in the evening they watched sports.” Some things just never change! But one thing is for certain, the Corinthians understood Paul’s illustration of athletics, and this is the true test of a good illustration.

Determined Running – 1 Corinthians 9:24

Paul asks a rhetorical question. “Don’t you know that of all the people who start a race, there is only one winner?” Of course they understood that, as do we, so, Paul says, “Run, that you may obtain.” Now, one thing of which you can be certain is that Paul is not teaching Christians to compete with one another. This is not a call to proselyte members of other churches, or keep a ledger of who brings the most visitors to church, and who has led the most people to the Lord. We compete not against each other, but against physical, practical, and spiritual obstacles that would hinder us. We are not competing with one another for a reward, but we are to serve Jesus Christ with everything that we have! Run to win, not just to be in the race. Don’t present Christ with a half-hearted effort!

Do you want a football analogy? If you’re carrying the ball, don’t duck out-of-bounds when the linebacker has got a bead on you, put your head down and gain those extra yards. Yes, your body will take some punishment, but give it your best, everything you have. Do it with all your might!

What separates must winners from losers? It’s not always superior talent, superior coaching, superior intelligence, or giftedness. What separates winners from losers more often than not is sheer effort and determination. Listen, Jesus Christ endured death for you! He who was sinless, took upon Himself your sin, so that you may become the righteousness of God in Him. Jesus Christ desires and deserves your best effort, not a lazy, half-hearted, mamby-pamby, “I don’t wanna get hit” effort! Run in such a way as to win the prize!!

Disciplined Training – 1 Corinthians 9:25, 27

Here Paul argues from the lesser to the greater. If individuals are prepared to go into strict training and deprive themselves of justifiable enjoyments all for the sake of a laurel wreath, how much more should we be concerned to run the race of the Christian life in order to gain heavenly rewards?! Now, it’s obvious that those ancient athletes, much like their modern counterparts, were not competing just for that laurel wreath, or in our day, a gold medal. They competed for the fame and the acclaim, to be hailed a hero and be famous, to be profiled on ESPN, or to be “immortalized” in the Hall of Fame of their field. But that “immortality” is just as mortal as a laurel wreath or a gold medal. In other words, none of that stuff will last forever, not even a bust in Canton or Cooperstown will last forever; they are corruptible, perishable.

But think about all that athletes endure to gain acclaim, or rewards that won’t last. They endure strict training; they must exercise extreme self-denial and self-discipline in order to be in shape to run the race. Athletes limit their freedom and liberties, they discipline their minds and their bodies, they restrict their diets, they sleep when others are partying, and they are awake and training when others are asleep, their training is tough and demanding, they sacrifice everything as they pursue their goal of winning the prize, and their financial, mental, emotional, and physical commitment to winning is unrivaled. And they do all that for a laurel wreath, for their bust in a Hall of Fame.

Now one thing is obvious, it was obvious to the Corinthians in the 1st century, just as it is obvious to us 20 centuries later; no one wins the 400m at the Olympics coming straight off the couch, or after a brief period of training. Those athletes train their whole lives, in many cases, their training is their life! They discipline their minds and bodies; they bring their appetites into subjection, and this dedicated training is a continual thing, so that they will be prepared to run the race as so to win. They can’t start training the night before, and there are no shortcuts!

That’s the kicker, that’s where it hurts, especially in our fast-food, microwave, convenience society. We want all the end results of a life-time of disciplined training, but without all the disciplined training. That’s why stuff like “instant abs” has such appeal. Have you seen those ridiculous commercials of people putting electro-shock belts on their bellies that will work your tummy into a flat, appealing shape while you watch TV?!?! It’s ludicrous, but it’s apropos of our society.

People want the perfect body with the minimum of effort, and the same is true in the spiritual realm. People want a quick fix and an easy route to godliness; a 12 step program, 40 days of purpose, whatever. Look, quick fix offers are useless, because the Bible does not offer a shortcut to spiritual fitness.

The athlete’s disciplined self-control and strict training is a rebuke to the flabby, half-hearted Christians who do not discipline themselves for the race. Our race, our fight, is much more noble and deserves far greater effort than the Olympics, or the Isthmian Games. We strive for an incorruptible crown, a “crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing,” (2 Timothy 4:8). Ours is “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you,” (1 Peter 1:4).

We live and work for eternity. Keep your eyes on that prize!

Dedicated Reasoning – 1 Corinthians 9:26-27

Athletes train for a reason; they have set goals for for which they aspire (and perspire) to reach. Did you notice that in verses 26-27 Paul switches from “you” and “we” to “I”? Paul has a dedicated reasoning, a clear purpose; he doesn’t aimlessly run, nor does he compete with uncertainty. His purpose has been stated throughout this chapter, specifically in verses 19-22. His goal was to win as many people to Christ as possible by any means possible.
“For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
Paul is not shadowboxing; he’s not flailing around with his eyes closed. He’s not just working up a sweat. He is right there in the mix of things! There is a dedicated reasoning to the race he’s running and to the fight in which he is engaged. He has disciplined himself; he has brought his body under subjection so that he won’t become a hypocrite, and so that he may win souls to Christ.

Now understand this, Christianity is not about law but liberty; it’s not about rules and regulations, but it is about holy discipline, because liberty and freedom require self-control. Do not misunderstand me, external rules and asceticism will not make you holy, will not provide the training that I have been writing about in this post. And those of you who are reading this and thinking to yourself, “I know what you do, you do all these external things and then it all fits”. No, that’s not the case; just read Colossians 2:20-23,
“Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.
Now here is the key to spiritual discipline, it’s found in Colossians 3:1-2,
“If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.”
If you are a believer, a Christian, one who has repented of his sin and trusted Christ as his Savior then you’ve been raised with Jesus, positionally seated in the heavenly places. Let your practice match your position! Get your heart there, get your mind there, get yourself there, and as Colossians 3:5 says, “Chuck out all the garbage!” Why? Because you’re now in tune with Jesus, and He doesn’t like that stuff, He knows it’s no good for you, He doesn’t want you to be a part of it, and you’ll never win the prize if you’re clinging to that junk.

We need spiritual fitness in this flabby generation. Spiritual fitness, much like physical fitness, is begun and maintained, not on the basis of emotional surges and New Year’s proclamations, but on the basis of disciplined commitment, and a little (actually a lot) of “I get by with a little help from my friends!” We need training partners, sparing partners (don’t read to much into that!) The journey to spiritual fitness is not a series of sprints but a cross-country run that lasts the rest of your life!

See you at the finish!

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