Trust me, I’m not a big New Year’s resolution person. But there is something nice about turning over a new page, into a new year, as a fresh opportunity to reset priorities and goals. One of my goals this year (and every year for that matter) is to grow closer to God. The other goal that never seems to evade my list is to get my body into better shape (I know I’m not the only one!).
Interestingly, I feel like God has been giving me insights on how much those two goals have in common. Throughout my life I’ve had seasons where I’ve played competitive sports or was hitting the gym regularly, so I understand what it takes to get my body into shape. Yet, when it comes to my spiritual life and growth, I tend to think it should somehow develop more instantly and miraculously. As though it’s less about what I do, and more about what what God does to and for me.
I think New Years resolutions get a bad rap because most of us can’t help but set goals to “loose 15 pounds” or “workout everyday” and then when we can’t achieve that, the sense of failure rushes in and the whole thing does more harm than good.
But if i’m honest, that happens to me spiritually as well… I get these bold ideas that I’m going to jump into regular fasting, praying and hearing God’s voice so clearly this year. “Yes, THIS is going to be the year that I have a major encounter with God and get catapulted into the mighty, spirit-filled warrior for Christ that is ready to face any Goliath that comes my way!”
I get excited when I hear testimonies of others who have had major spiritual breakthroughs and supernatural encounters with God. Of course, God can break into our lives in miraculous ways which can change us in a moment. However, I think that most often spiritual growth is more of a slow burn. Similar to how we develop physical stamina and strength. I wrote a blog in 2021, ‘Spiritual Fitness: Taking Cues from your Physical Fitness Routine’, and today’s blog is a bit of a part two to that.
Once again, I wanted to share some parallels between developing physical fitness and spiritual growth, in an effort to help us stay the course, stay encouraged and help build our spiritual muscles.
The Time to Build Strength is BEFORE the Challenge
I’ve heard a lot of teaching on how we can battle negative feelings, fear and anxiety with the word of God and by taking captive our thoughts. However, when already I’m down in the dumps, that is usually the LAST thing I feel like doing. I’d rather retreat to food and some emotional black hole while I wallow in my distress.
Anxiety, for example, can feel like a runaway train, whereby once it starts to build, we are virtually helpless in pulling it back. So, I’ve come to realize that my best defense is a solid offense. i.e. Praying and pulling out encouragement from the Word that counter anxiety on the days when I’m NOT feeling anxious. Writing them in my journal, sticking them on a post-it note or jotting them in my phone, so I can read them often, tuck them in my heart and also turn to them quickly at the earliest sign of those anxious feelings.
Firefighters are a great example of this. I’ve always thought it’s pretty sweet to have a job where you can get paid to workout and have a gym at your office. But it’s necessary for them! They are in a profession where they can be met with some pretty intense battles so they need to be ready at all times.
It’s not a matter of if, but when, they are called to demonstrate incredible physical strength and stamina to fight a dangerous fire. So they commit to strength building in advance so that they are ready at all times for that battle. I think God has been showing me that being prepared for a spiritual battle with prayers and scripture in advance is no different.
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.2 Timothy 1:7
The Value of Slow, Intentional Movements
Here in Calgary, I used to workout regularly at Lagree Fitness. This is a unique fitness studio in that they run classes that really emphasize slow, low-impact movements. The focus is not on speeding through squats to see how many you can do in one minute. But almost the opposite – the instructors encourage you to move super slowly, so that you’re really firing those major and minor muscle groups to the point that you’re shaking – wishing you could move faster to get a break! It’s more difficult than it sounds because I think we’re somewhat wired to move through things quickly and measure our success by quantity over quality.
I’ve been trying to break this habit when I read my bible and pray as well. Like physical training, I tend to think that the more bible I can read in 15 minutes, the better. However, we are clearly told to ‘meditate on God’s word.’ So lately I’ve been challenging myself to spend that 15 minutes on just 1 or 2 verses. God has been teaching me about the value of this to to fully contemplate the meaning, commit the verse to memory and slow my mind down to allow the Holy Spirit speak to me in a different way through the Word.
Like working out, it often feels more rewarding and easier to speed through the bible and my regular prayer routine. So, it takes intention and discipline to approach God’s Word and prayer differently. But I think in this humble and quiet surrender, I’m learning that I can appreciate God’s Word on a whole new level and hear Him speak more intimately to me.
God Always Looks at the Heart, Not the External
Jesus said, when you fast and pray, go away in your room and close the door. And that God always looks at the heart. This seems simple, but yet we often tend to look at the external because that is what we can see and hear in the natural.
With this tendency, it can get easy to let our pride creep in and start to build our identity in things like how much scripture we can quote, how much volunteering we do at church, etc. Those things are not bad, but when our identity is grounded in impressing others or achieving God’s favour through works, that’s where things can get off track.
It reminds me of competitive BodyBuilders. There are a lot of hoops they have to jump through, that are often incredibly unhealthy, to get their body ready to be on stage and flex their muscles. A close friend of mine was in the fitness competition industry and she can attest to that fact that when it came time for competition, while your muscles and body ‘looked’ the strongest, you were actually physically the weakest inside because you have to starve and do a lot of unhealthy things right before competition to get your body looking a certain way. Their health and strength actually lags when all of the focus is putting on the ‘image’ of strength and their physical physique.
So, let’s remember that for ourselves – and perhaps even when we are looking up to other people around us – that it’s not necessarily about your external display of righteousness and spirituality. But rather, real spiritual authority and strength comes from the state of your heart and that intimate, quiet time spent with God when no one else is looking.
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen…Matthew 6:6
Memorizing Scripture and Muscle Memory
We’re not in school anymore, so why do we have to work on memorizing scripture? Seems a bit elementary to me sometimes. But the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Memorizing scripture is like building muscle memory when you do an activity or sport. Through discipline and repetition, you are preparing your body (and mind) to go into auto-pilot mode for the task you’re trying to achieve.
When you repeatedly practice anything – riding a bike, swinging a golf club, doing a dance – the days of practice can feel so long and as if no progress is being made. But eventually, you create ‘muscle memory’ so that when you walk up to the tee box as a golfer, you can simply swing and smash the ball down the green.
I think knowing God’s word is like this too, you are literally building spiritual muscles. We can read through the bible and that is good. But again, consider the value in taking one verse at a time and committing some of your favourites to memory. Read one every morning when you wake up. Post one on your bathroom mirror to look at when you get ready in the morning. Embed those scriptures in the deep memory of your mind, heart and spirit so that when you step up to pray for someone, or fight a spiritual battle, guess what is going to jump up to the forefront of your mind!?
God also loves to speak to us through His word and His Holy Spirit can use these to bring them up in our mind and speak to us when we need it the most.
Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.Joshua 1:8
Don’t Forget to Stretch
It may not be a perfect analogy, but I think just listening and soaking in Worship music can be like a really good stretching session before or after a ‘workout.’ It’s easy to skip stretching because we don’t have time. I know that’s how I feel when I’m working out. I’d rather spend all my time with the productive stuff – cardio and lifting weights. a.k.a. Praying and reading my bible. Who has time for stretching?
But again, God is not focused on our works and He already knows what we’re going to pray. So I think sometimes what we need the most is to just say nothing but sing, maybe cry a little, and seek him Him in the quiet of our heart. Personally, Worship music often takes me there. It really helps me set my heart before Him and I feel like He speaks to me often through the lyrics and melody. So in a way, I feel like carving out time to simply worship (or stretch) is the most valuable thing I can some days.
Well, I hope you could relate to some of these and it helps you stay encouraged and motivated to pursue your relationship with God and spiritual growth this year! I know I’m often wondering and asking, ‘How do I grow closer to God?’ and ‘How do I strengthen my faith in my spiritual life?’ Thinking about spiritual growth in this context has helped me to break it down into more relatable and practical steps and spiritual disciplines to stay on track in my walk with God.
Again, if you liked this blog, you may also appreciate ‘Spiritual Fitness: Taking Cues from your Physical Fitness Routine’. I hope this encourages you to build your spiritual muscles.
Now… that I’ve been sitting here writing for so long and talking about spending time with God and spiritual muscle, I might just go do that! But… with a little stretch first 😉