Fit for the Kingdom: Reflections on Spiritual Training

I glance at the clock.  I have 28 seconds remaining.   Those 28 seconds will feel like five minutes before they’re over.  I’m not sure which is louder: the beats blaring through the sound system or those pounding from my chest.  My eyes sting from sweat that has poured unabated into my eyes for several minutes now. My legs are on fire, caught in a relentless loop of squatting as I drive a 20 lb. ball against the wall four feet above me, looking towards the heavens for relief.  I hear the grunts of those beside me.  We’re almost there.  Just a few more seconds…

And the timer beeps, signalling the end.  We’re done, and not a moment too soon.   I try to take a moment and compose myself, but it isn’t easy.  My muscles are desperate to feed on oxygen and no matter how deep my breath reaches I can’t seem to satisfy their hunger.  There’s a pool of sweat underneath me and I think I might be seeing stars. And it feels fantastic.

I’ve just completed my third month at a performance training gym that integrates philosophies from CrossFit, power-lifting, and circuit training.  While I strain to catch my breath I am flooded with an enormous sense of accomplishment.  For at least three times a week I’ve participated in classes that have forced me to carry, lift, throw, run, jump, pull and push in ways that have challenged me in both mind and body.

I was introduced to V02 Performance Training through my wife, who had been attending for six months prior to my first day.  She had consistently encouraged me to take the time to prioritize training of this nature, believing it would make a significant positive impact in my life.  But I had every excuse at the ready.  Money and time found their way to the top of my excuse hierarchy.

However, in February of this year I found myself planning an Easter series on the resurrection, and as my preparation unfolded I became uncomfortably aware of how my theology of the body had grown to be robust in theory while remaining shallow in practice.  Over the previous five years I had developed a behavioral pattern prone to sloth and gluttony.  The result: I was overweight and, to borrow a Trumpism, “low energy.”  I struggled to make it through most weeks without consistent naps and copious amounts of coffee.

Even more humbling was the realization that while I was only a few weeks away from proclaiming the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, I was neglecting a profound truth the resurrection speaks to: the importance of our bodies.  In the resurrection God reveals his redemptive intentions for all aspects of creation, including our bodies and the material universe.  Our bodies are good gifts from God, marred by sin, but ripe for redemption in Christ.  And while redemption of the body takes many forms, I found myself challenged by the Scripture’s charge to “offer yourselves to God as people who have been brought from death to life and the parts of your body as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:13).

In March I decided to bite the bullet and signed up for my first month.  The first week was a shock to my system.  Three training sessions in and I had to confront the fact that I had grossly overestimated my current level of fitness.  My body communicated in all manner of ways that it was not happy.  Discomfort was constant.  My body was being forced to learn a new language, and very little about the new vocabulary was familiar.  I had entered into “strict training” (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25).

After each successive workout I found myself reflecting more and more on the implications of Paul’s charge to his young protégé Timothy: “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).  I’ve taught on that verse many times in different contexts, but until I began training at V02 many implications of this command were lost on me.  Dallas Willard’s distinction between training and trying took on new meaning as my experiences at V02 caused me to begin rethinking my discipleship practices.  After a few months I was becoming aware of the disparity between how I train physically vs. spiritually. As each month unfolded the performance training taught me just as much about my spiritual deficiencies as my physical ones.  I was not bringing the same intensity and focus to my spiritual growth in Christ as I was to my training sessions.  I decided to close that gap.

I began by taking an inventory of the lessons I was learning at V02 and then applying them to my discipleship to Jesus.  What follows are the principles I’ve learned through VO2, and how each one has a direct application to spiritual growth as well.

1. In the beginning all training feels unnatural. For the first two months almost every exercise routine felt awkward and contrary to my preferred mode of engagement.  I was clumsy, lacked proper posture, and continually battled to get my body to do what seemed so straightforward in my mind.  For several weeks my body did little more than protest again and again.  I was asking it to do things it had never done before, at an intensity it was not accustomed to, and it wasn’t quiet in letting me know how it felt.

When, for example, the Scripture calls us “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12), we must understand that integrating these elements of Christ-like character will prove difficult at first. When we introduce a new spiritual disciple into our lives, or attempt to deepen an existing one, the new practice often feels muddled and awkward in the early going.  But this is natural when learning any new habit.  The development of strong spiritual practices does not happen effortlessly and without uncooperative beginnings.  The good news is that what feels unnatural at first will become second nature if we persevere through the early, clumsy stages.

2. We train harder on the context of community. On any given week there are two training sessions I would likely quit on were I undertaking them in isolation.  However, VO2 structures their training in the context of a class, and the presence of others working out with me to push myself beyond my preferred comfort level.  Psychologists call this phenomenon social facilitation, and it accounts for why we do tasks better and faster in the presence of other people.

I’ve always tended to view Christian growth as primarily an individual endeavour, but VO2 has really challenged this presumption.  My training has shown me how much easier and effective it is to train in the context of community.  As a result I’m learning to involve more people in my spiritual growth plan and have become interested in exploring how discipleship within the context of community helps us “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

3. Routine can be the enemy of growth. We all love routine, but in V02 the only routine is strategic confusion.  Week over week, strength emerges by shocking the body through muscle confusion.  The training is scheduled so as to continually confound your body’s ability to adapt to a pattern of conditioning.  Said another way, Vo2 has a liturgy: planned disruption.  No two workouts are alike and several factors are adjusted continually to ensure my body is kept guessing.  This never allows my body to adapt to a routine, which would mean a less intense, easier workout (which I want but don’t need).

Discipleship to Jesus demands a liturgy of planned disruption as well.  If you read the gospels carefully, you’ll notice Jesus doing this all the time with his disciples.  No two days of ministry are alike.  The result?  The disciples were continually forced to stretch themselves and adapt.  Spiritual growth was the result.  Similarly, in order to ensure I’m not spiritually coasting I need to employ a variety of practices from the deep tradition of Christian spiritual formation that challenge me to adapt and grow into a disciple that is able to love God heart, soul, mind, and strength.

4. A commitment to strict training means a commitment to living in a state of chronic physical discomfort. When I began V02 my wife warned me, “You will love it, but you will have to get used to living in chronic pain.”  That may have been an exaggeration, but not a large one.  On any given day there are muscles protesting the previous day’s session.  Since beginning my training I’m not sure how many days I’ve moved through comfortably, but I could certainly count them on one hand.

Discipleship to Jesus will mean living in a state of chronic spiritual discomfort as well.  As we adopt and strengthen habits of loving God heart, soul, mind, and strength, we discover the Holy Spirit moving us into areas that disrupt our preferred life of ease.  Jesus’ call to forgive those who have harmed us, bless our enemies, practice gospel-sized generosity can leave us tired, sore, and definitely uncomfortable.  But that’s evidence that our spiritual muscles are being worked.

5. Rest is imperative. My rest days are precious.  Without them I couldn’t sustain the mental and physical intensity of VO2’s workouts.  They are Sabbaths that allow me to replenish in both body and mind.  I’ve never slept better since starting this training regime.

Training in godliness demands a reclamation of the practice of Sabbath.  After attempting to live too long without a day to pray and play, I’ve learned that I just can’t sustain intentional, intense discipleship.  My discipleship efforts do not flow out of my attempt to secure acceptance in Christ, but flow out of my acceptance in him.  Therefore, if I’m not taking time to rest in God’s grace, love, and goodness, spiritual injury (i.e. burnout) is inevitable.  The practice of Sabbath grounds me in the gospel and renews me for Jesus’ mission.

6. I need to eat intentionally and healthy. If I fail to intake the proper food before or after my workouts, I pay the price.  Exercising at this intensity has caused me to focus more on what I’m putting into my body, because more than ever it has a direct and almost immediate effect on my ability to perform when the clock is ticking.  I’ve become more conscious of what I eat and why.

A casual approach to discipleship will lead to a casual approach to spiritual intake.  When I committed to strict training, my diet necessarily followed suit.  I’ve become more conscious of my need to consume, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8), beginning with feeding steadily on Scripture and quality books and resources.

7. Coaching matters. Our head trainer Megan understands that each of us comes with a set of pre-conceived self-limitations.  Because she’s a skilled coach, she understands where I’m strong and weak, and is able to identify opportunities to push me beyond my comfort zone.

In order to grow beyond my present capacities I need to enlist wiser, more mature Christians who can help me become aware of areas where I’m plateauing or coasting.  I need spiritual mentors who can help push me into new patterns that I wouldn’t think to try without their input.

What Am I Training For?

V02 is a performance training gym.  Which begs the question: training for what end? 

Everyone’s answer is different of course, but here’s mine.  As a disciple of Jesus my central calling is to love God and love others (Mark 12:28-31).  Discipleship is the process by which I cultivate spiritual strength and vibrancy so that I can fulfill this calling and be a blessing to others.  The last three months at V02 have challenged me to move into that calling with a greater focus and a renewed perspective.  Echoing Paul, my aim is simple: I do not want to run like someone running aimlessly.  I do not want to fight like a boxer who can’t land blows.  Instead, I train my body, making it my slave, for the world’s good and God’s glory.

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