Dear friends of Vital Signs Ministries, July 2018
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about exercise – both physical and spiritual. The first stimulant to these meditations was a presentation from wife/mom/homemaker Anna Friedrich that a small group of us listened to at a L’Abri Evening at our home last April. That lecture concerned the links between spiritual disciplines, creativity, and the desire to pursue the most healthy and vibrant relationship with Christ possible.
But a second factor in my recent attention to exercise was tearing a calf muscle back on May 20th. That injury sent me to my doctor, Ralph Kramper; postponed for several weeks my daily walking regimen; and eventually required a series of visits to a physical therapist in Fremont, Lance Shillcutt. Interestingly enough, Lance targeted my lower back even more than my calf. He explained that though he admired and applauded all the strenuous walking I have been doing the last few years – it’s been terrific for cardio, weight control, stress relief, and time for prayer and reflection – he did see that I was woefully underworking other muscles.
I went through 6 or 7 sessions with Lance (Claire always in attendance to give me moral support!) and those sessions were extremely beneficial as are the daily exercises he has me doing at home. Yes, it’s a daily plan and I know that can be pretty daunting but, believe me, remembering the dramatic difference between how I felt and moved before I went in for physical therapy and how I’m doing now remains a great incentive for me to diligently stay with the program.
Finally, the third source for my interest in physical and spiritual disciplines comes from fresh investigation into some of the Bible texts dealing with the subject. Let’s take a quick look at two passages.
The apostle Paul, writing about the balance between spiritual liberty (that is, our being graciously forgiven from the penalty of our sins) and the duties which love requires us to demonstrate towards others, says, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (I Corinthians 9:24-27, NASB)
Notice how a faithful steward of God’s gifts (which Paul has earlier explained include bodily strength and ability, money, time, humility and patience) resembles an athlete in training, one who regularly and strenuously strives in competition. Required of such athletes is self-control, even self-denial, as they put forth the patient, hard work of exercise. (The Greek word used in verse 27, by the way, is the one where we get our modern English word gymnasium.).
Paul’s ministry was a rigorous one and he needed to be in constant training to best endure hardship and most effectively serve others. He underscores the fact that his exercise was purposeful (“not without aim,” “not beating the air”). Neither should our spiritual exercise be superficial or haphazard. And, like the athletes he uses here as a metaphor, Paul was willing to undergo this bodily discipline for a prize. But it wasn’t just a temporary prize that motivated him; it was the imperishable reward reserved for him in the life to come.
Paul takes up this matter again in I Timothy. “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. Buthave nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” (I Timothy 4:6-10, NASB)
The exercise metaphors are all over this passage. For instance, “nourished” in verse 6 comes from a verb that Vine’s Expository Dictionary translates as “train up or nurture.” Think of an athlete’s training table where the menu and portions are carefully selected and controlled. It’s an extremely important point. For before the athlete deals with the exercise of the body, he or she must be careful about the fuelthe body ingests. The application is clear — careful Bible study and teaching should be our steady diet. The most diligent exercise regimen isn’t going to get a person in shape if their diet is heavy on biscuits and gravy, Little Debbie cakes, and strawberry malts. That would indeed be “beating the air.”
In the same way, the Christian will not grow to maturity if he feeds on shallow, fluffy, entertainment-oriented preaching nor if he ignores the habits of careful, personal Bible study. No, Paul emphasizes that the first step to spiritual health (and value in ministry) is the joyful reception of and careful obedience to sound doctrine. But then, after the athlete pushes away from the training table, he needs to discipline his body for the purpose of godliness, exercise strenuous enough that Paul uses the action verbs “labor” and “strive.”
It’s very important to also point out that verse 8 here has frequently been used to dismiss physical exercise altogether, to suggest that it is only of “little profit” and therefore not worthy of interest. In fact, many suggest that physical exercise is nothing but vanity and wasted time. But the Greek structure of the phrase is different than what most English translations portray. Here’s how the Nestle/Marshall Greek Interlinear puts it: “For bodily exercise for a little is profitable, but piety for all things profitable is, promise having life of the now and of the coming.” You see the difference? Far from demeaning its value, the text validates physical exercise. The main point of the verse, of course, is quite clear; namely, the priority of piety/godliness/spiritual lifestyle because of its eternal effects. Nevertheless, one must concede it acknowledges that both kinds of exercise are good things. Physical exercise is indeed profitable. Don’t neglect its importance. But never forget either that spiritual exercise is profitable…for a lot longer!
For those of you who like to dig into the Scriptures yourself (and I hope that takes in a lot of you), let me suggest a couple of small projects. 1) The word ophelimos (meaning advantage, value, usefulness, profit) is used twice in verse 8 and it is also used to describe the Bible in 2 Timothy 3:16 and godly living in Titus 3:8. Other words connected with this one are used several other times in the New Testament. It makes for an enlightening word study. And 2) here’s a few verses where the Greek word qumnazo or its noun equivalent is used. (This is the one where we get gymnasium.) Check out Hebrews 5:14 (train, NASB); Hebrews 12:11 (train, NASB); 1 Corinthians 9:27 (discipline, NASB), and 2 Peter 2:14 (trained, NASB). That last verse, by the way, illustrates a vivid picture of negative training. Very interesting.
So what are some of the applications of physical exercise to spiritual disciplines? Well, there’s the training table metaphor I mentioned earlier which is of critical, first-step importance. But there is also how exercise can fix problems, prevent problems, improve and extend health and movement, reduce stress, increase concentration, protect us from unhealthy practices, build strength, present healthy role models for others, and more. There’s no doubt about it. Physical exercise is a very profitable thing and, for all of the above reasons, I heartily endorse the suggestion that we do more of it. But, in also considering eternal values, I suggest we also invest in relevant spiritual exercises. In fact, these should be done with even more purpose and vigor.
Want some examples to compare with yours, ones that might serve as stimulation for us all to step up our game? Listed below are a few of the spiritual exercises from our life routine. Some of them I’ve talked about in other LifeSharer letters or in posts on Vital Signs Blog and I’ll be happy to talk to you about any of them in greater detail if you’re interested. But for now, I’ll just give a quick list.
* Our daily Bible-reading and Bible-listening schedule.
* Pondering the daily email devotional from Joni Eareckson Tada.
* Our ongoing Thanksgiving Jar project.
* The calendar-scheduled Vital Signs activities.
* My weekly meetings (3 of them) with close friends.
* Following organized schedules for intercession and correspondence.
* Prayer walks, prayers in the car, and the 3 for 5 Prayer Campaign against Planned Parenthood.
* Our two reading clubs and our own reading lists.
* And I should also list our daily physical exercise program (walking and calisthenics) since, more than ever nowadays, we understand howthese are connected to our spiritual disciplines as well.
Like the exercises Lance has given me provide benefits for my strength, mobility, and overall health, these spiritual exercises I’ve listed are of significant value to Claire and I in helping our spiritual growth, service, and happiness. They teach us, stretch us, protect us, improve our serve, streamline our routine, establish correct priorities, increase our joy, and win imperishable wreaths that the Lord Jesus Himself will one wonderful day present to us.
And this now brings me to the final (but very important) point of this month’s letter; namely, to invite you to one of two upcoming L’Abri events where we will again listen to and discuss Anna Friedrich’s sparkling presentation on creativity and spiritual disciplines. Mrs. Friedrich’s lecture is just about a half hour long and we will follow it with refreshments and discussion. I’m telling you straight – I think you’ll find it a stimulating and extremely helpful time. Please consider joining us at our home on either of these two dates.
Saturday morning, August 11th at 9:00.
Tuesday evening, August 14th at 7:00.
And, naturally, RSVPs are of tremendous help to us. Our number is 341-8886.
Until next month,