When serious athletes are training there a number of things they have to do to make sure they are in the best physical and mental condition to compete. They live very disciplined lives not only during their workout and practice sessions, but during their downtime as well. Their eating habits are tailored to give them the right balance of nutrition their bodies need to sustain them through the demands of their training. They don’t skip meals or eat junk food because they understand that food is fuel for the body. They know that junk foods will negatively impact their ability to generate and sustain energy so they make sure they are consuming only foods that will benefit them as they train hard and push their physical limits. Most importantly, their mindset is focused on the goal and their attitudes are constantly redirected to a positive direction because they understand the power that their thinking has on their performance. They expect the training to be hard, painful and to challenge them nearly to their breaking point, yet they don’t complain. In fact, they welcome the pain and suffering because they know it will make them stronger, sharper and more skillful. They live by phrases like “no pain, no gain”. They push through when they are hurting, frustrated and tired. They train with coaches who push, motivate and provoke them to higher levels, but also encourage them and believe in them. They surround themselves with supporters and fans and who will cheer them on when it gets tough, and celebrate with them when they succeed. For the athlete, all of these things are critical to ensure their success.
The Bible compares our spiritual lives with the training of an athlete. The apostle Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run [their very best to win], but only one receives the prize? Run [your race] in such a way that you may seize the prize and make it yours! Now every athlete who [goes into training and] competes in the games is disciplined and exercises self-control in all things. They do it to win a crown that withers, but we [do it to receive] an imperishable [crown that cannot wither]. Therefore I do not run without a definite goal; I do not flail around like one beating the air [just shadow boxing]. But [like a boxer] I strictly discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached [the gospel] to others, I myself will not somehow be disqualified [as unfit for service].
So what are we training for anyway? First of all we need to understand that we are not working to earn salvation. Our salvation was paid for already so we aren’t earning the right to go to Heaven. When we accept the gift of salvation we become part of God’s family and are given a position of royalty. Romans 8:16-17 says “The Spirit Himself testifies and confirms together with our spirit [assuring us] that we [believers] are children of God. And if [we are His] children, [then we are His] heirs also: heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ [sharing His spiritual blessing and inheritance], if indeed we share in His suffering so that we may also share in His glory.” So if accepting salvation makes us royalty, then we are training to live out the role of royalty He has called us to be. Jesus showed His example of what it means to be royalty when He came down to earth and took on the role of a servant. We need to change the expectations we have adapted that we are here to be served and things should come to us smoothly and easily. After all, nothing came easily for Jesus.
Imagine how crazy it would be if an athlete only read about what he should do to train for a big event and didn’t actually put his body into action until he got to the event? This is what happens to us when we read or know about God’s word but don’t try to put these characteristics into action until we find ourselves in a big struggle. We find ourselves out of shape and ill-equipped to handle the trial.
So how do we train ourselves spiritually? Our training begins with the mindset and an understanding that that this life is a boot camp and training ground for us to learn to be like Jesus. Any opposition, struggle or hardship we encounter is an opportunity for us to grow our character. As we spend time nourishing ourselves in God’s word, our minds can focus on what he is asking us to work on. This can seem overwhelming because there is so much to study in God’s word, and when we really begin to look at ourselves we realize just how “out of shape” we really are! The good news is he never intended for us to do this alone. When Jesus left the earth he promised to leave us the Holy Spirit to teach us and guide us to be Christ-like. The Holy Spirit for us is like a coach is to an athlete. When we allow Him to take His proper place in our hearts he will lead, guide, strengthen, encourage and push us to the next level in our character development. His nature is described in Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit [the result of His presence within us] is love [unselfish concern for others], joy, [inner] peace, patience [not the ability to wait, but how we act while waiting], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.” These characteristics don’t come easily. They have to be trained and practiced. They are painful to exercise because our selfish nature cries and hurts much like our physical bodies do when we begin to work out. If we practice these characteristics on a daily basis as we encounter the day to day issues of life, we will build the spiritual muscles we need to deal with the bigger issues of life. When those bigger issues and temptations come, we will have the strength and endurance to be able to withstand them.
This is why it is so important that we ask the Holy Spirit to coach us every day. With His help we can take each difficult situation as a challenge to work a muscle of responding in a Christ-like way. This requires discipline and obedience to abandon our natural desire to follow our sinful nature of doing what feels good and instead choosing to respond with Christ-like character. Hebrews 12:1 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [who by faith have testified to the truth of God’s absolute faithfulness], stripping off every unnecessary weight and the sin which so easily and cleverly entangles us, let us run with endurance and active persistence the race that is set before us” The more often we do this in an area, the more we build that spiritual muscle and the easier it becomes to respond well. After some time, we find that these responses become like second nature to us and we are able to respond Christ-like in more challenging situations without much of a struggle. The things that used to ruin our day no longer have that kind of power over us. As our coach, the Holy Spirit pushes us to push our limits and strengthen our spiritual muscles by practicing these things over and over. It seems this world gives us plenty of opportunities to practice this repetition!
James 1:2-5 ”Consider it nothing but joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you fall into various trials. Be assured that the testing of your faith [through experience] produces endurance [leading to spiritual maturity, and inner peace]. And let endurance have its perfect result and do a thorough work, so that you may be perfect and completely developed [in your faith], lacking in nothing.” I used to struggle to really appreciate what the apostle Paul was talking about in this passage. Who in their right mind finds joy in trials and hardships? I think of many of the hard things I experienced in my life. While I didn’t enjoy them at the time, when I look at how those experiences shaped my life, I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Athletes in training are not excited to feel pain and exhaust themselves, but they look forward to the “gains” they are developing when they train hard. They know that each training session is an opportunity that brings them closer to their goal. If we can keep this thought in mind when hard times come, we can make a conscious decision from the beginning to face it with a good attitude and allow it to work something of value into our life. This is how we can bring joy into our suffering. Hebrews 12:11 “For the time being no discipline brings joy, but seems sad and painful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness [right standing with God and a lifestyle and attitude that seeks conformity to God’s will and purpose].”