Saturday, 18 June 2016

Physical Training Compared to Spiritual Disciplines

'No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.' 2 Timothy 2:4-5

'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.' 1 Timothy 4:8

Today, my husband is half way around the world from us, doing a lengthy sponsored cycle ride to raise money for the orphanage where our middle son spent some of his early weeks. What has impressed me most has been his commitment to training in a slightly challenging city. The traffic here is heavy and also does not obey many rules. It is quite usual to have cars and motorbikes mounting the pavement (if there is any) to make an extra lane, or nipping the wrong way down a dual carriageway. In many places, the edges of the road are badly eroded, and there is a deep ditch to the side. And between the dust (when it is dry) and the mud (when it has rained), it could be fairly slippery. Finally, there has only been a short period of time between it being light enough to be safe and the traffic becoming too much, so he has had to get up earlier than he would prefer. Alongside this, I have been impressed with the positive effects it has brought - whilst requiring a bit more sleep at night, he has had more energy, been more enthusiastic and physically is in much better shape and at least 30 Kg lighter.

We've recently obtained a book entitled, 'Home School Family Fitness' which is written by the father of nine homeschooled children who also has a PhD in sports science and many years of experience. It's a great book! It is full of ideas for different sizes of groups of children of different ages, and also brings in plenty of science and exercise physiology. Do you know what your maximal heart rate is? Do you know what your target heart rate for training in the zone of maximal impact is? We do now! And there are great charts which indicate what would be expected of children of different ages. I would recommend this resource highly! But I digress slightly. 

Physical training is not always easy. There are a couple of occasions where the Apostle Paul draws a comparison between physical training and spiritual disciplines. Here are some ten basic and direct comparisons which come to my mind:

1) It requires a choice. It does not just happen by vaguely thinking about it or hoping for it. I could dream of running a marathon, and think the idea of ultra-distance running sounds good but make no progress at all. Spiritually, we often have a vague idea of what our goals should be, yet do nothing about it.

2) It requires specific actions. Especially when training for a specific event, it is good to think about what will be required, and plan training properly. If you want to ride 190 Km, there is no point in only doing 5 Km rides in training. If the proposed route is mountainous, training will require some hill work. We need to look at the different areas (prayer, Bible reading, Bible memory and so forth) and see what tasks are needed to grow stronger in each

3) It needs practice at that specific task. To grow stronger in prayer, one must not just read about prayer, but one must do it. One learns much about Bible study but studying the Bible. We must be realistic. One cannot expect to ride 100 Km on the first day. I remember his first cycle ride in this country, about 15 Km and wobbly-leg inducing; however week by week this increased until the rate-limiting factor was the time available rather than his fitness. Spiritually, many people set out to pray for an hour and read 10 chapters of the Bible a day, and stumble during the first week or two, to abandon these disciplines for many months. It would be better to aim for a few verses and 15 minutes of prayer per day and take it from there.

4) There are times when it is not easy. There were mornings when he really did not fancy getting up before dawn for a long cycle. But he knew this was necessary to reach the goal. Similarly, for us it might be difficult to get up early, or stay up late, or otherwise carve out the time to be alone with God. But we need to make that time. God knows that we all have 24 hours in a day and He knows our human frailties and need for rest. 

5) It requires encouragement. Because I shared his goals, I was able to get up earlier too, help him get out of the door in good time, and take care of things at home whilst he cycled for several hours. Spiritually, we might need somebody to remind us of our goals and to encourage us. People talk about accountability, and this needs to be specific. Did you pray today? How is your Bible reading plan?

6) There were times when fruit could be seen more easily than others. Some days he seemed to cycle a long way in good time. Other days felt more like ploughing through treacle. Spiritually we will have some days where there is clear encouragement, whereas other days we might question whether there has been any benefit or improvement. This is where we need faith to believe we are not working towards things which are seen, but towards those which are unseen and of eternal value

7) Others could see the change in his physique more than we could. Spiritually, one might be wrestling with a character flaw (anger, irritability, envy or so forth) and whilst progress is made, it might take spending time with a person who has not seen you for a period of time for the change to be remarked upon. Change can be gradual, and often as we grow closer to God, we become more aware of our weaknesses and shortcomings. We should not be seeking spiritual growth in order to get a pat on the back from another person, but if it comes, it can bring encouragement

8) It takes perseverance - we are both aware that it would be easy to neglect fitness after this event. Whilst not being able to maintain the recent schedule, we need to work out how he can continue to reap the health benefits of what he had worked towards. Similarly, spiritually after a 'victory' one must take care not to become complacent or to neglect the disciplines

9) People may think you are crazy or wasting your time. Time spent in prayer, Bible study and quiet time before God does not produce an obvious product. Also, the Bible makes it clear that this unseen time is between us and God, and should not be drawn attention to. 

10) It requires sacrifice. There was a need for more early nights, and for some people there might have been a need to modify diet (for us, we eat a very basic diet of market produce and nothing processed or fried anyway, so there wasn't much need for change - except to INCREASE the calories). There were mornings when I would have liked to have slept a bit later. These are small examples, but I strongly believe that everything that requires focussed hard work requires sacrifice at times. Spiritually I have no doubt this is true - we could be using the time to do more immediately rewarding or pleasurable things (or at least, that is how it can feel at the time. Whenever I do feel that way and make proper time for the Lord, I am always richly rewarded and encouraged and gently chided for such an attitude!)

So, where are you up to spiritually? Are there any areas you have been neglecting? Are there any specific steps you can put into place to improve? Any goals to set? Any person to be accountable to? Any habits you might need to change?

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