Getting Fit (A Useful Metaphor)

A few years ago, I was about fifty-five pounds overweight.  For those who knew me before that time or have met me since, this may be surprising to hear, since I have been basically rail-thin for most of my life despite a tendency to voraciously consume any type of food I wanted.  But in 2008 I was at one of several personal low points:  I was addicted to prescription drugs, abusing alcohol, rarely doing any work, physically inactive, and gorging myself on junk food (the drugs I was taking made me crave two things:  sleep and quick-energy food; mostly sweets).  For a guy whose ideal weight is about 140-145 pounds, fifty-five additional ones is a lot.  I looked and felt terrible.
The process of getting healthy again was a long one.  Early on, a return to full-time gainful employment was my primary vehicle for exercise and diet improvement – especially because I got a job that involved a lot of walking.  With the regularity of a full work schedule, I was able to get free of drugs (for a while).  I dropped some of that dead weight, regained a bit of the spring in my step, and felt closer to being my old self again. 
But then I had another down period.  I spent a considerable amount of time in county jail paying for misdemeanor offenses committed during the earlier, self-indulgent times.  Hopelessness descended upon me once more, and I found myself back on drugs and even more inactive (the close quarters of the hoosegow can have a severely limiting effect on one’s exercise habits).  I was rendered very weak.
After being released, my initial attempts to jog resulted in so much knee pain that for days afterward I could barely walk.  Stepping off of a curb was agonizing.  My legs hadn’t been properly used for a long time, and I guess I overwhelmed them.  Still “medicated,” I regressed to indulging in various unhealthy practices (that is to say:  sins).  Nonetheless, I managed to procure part-time employment, and – after waiting out the knee pains – resumed enough of an exercise regimen to yield some positive results.  With persistence over the course of time, I broke free of drugs (this time permanently, I hope; as of this writing, it’s been well over four years since I’ve swallowed a pill of that kind), and eventually got into the best overall physical condition of my life.  At age 42, I was running faster than I had in my 20’s (for distances up to two miles, at least).  Having not yet regained my driver’s license, I bicycled all over town, and I gained more upper-body strength as well.  And while I may not be the most objective source for judging my own looks, I would argue that my appearance was significantly improved.  Sustained fitness can have a way of reflecting itself in one’s face and demeanor, as well as in the relevant muscle groups.
So what in the world does this physical confessional have to do with the mostly spiritual subject matter of my website?  I submit that there is a valid parallel between the struggles for physical discipline and those for spiritual health.  For example, I have an impatient and unreasonable desire to see noticeable results from my various “soul exercises” immediately.  When prayers do not produce the answers I want in a timeframe that’s to my liking, I am tempted to be upset with God or even to question his existence.  I get distracted in prayer and study; I feel frustrated with the more difficult Biblical passages and wish that it “would all just make sense.”  Yet I’m reminded of a time (or times) in my life when I’ve devoted myself regularly, over a longer period, to seeking God.  I recall that I did in fact get stronger and also felt closer to him (and despite what some may say, I don’t believe that such feelings should be trivialized).  I gained knowledge and understanding, and I found it easier to resist temptations.  There was some verifiable fruit in my life.  Just as with physical discipline, it’s quite possible that I even displayed a healthier appearance, for spiritual peace and contentment tends to have a positive effect on one’s overall bearing (see Proverbs 17:22).  But obtaining those results took sustained practice over a span of time; it took faith.  And as with the physical body, the “fatter” one is, the more time and effort are likely to be required to regain good health. 
Many of us in the United States have a great deal of material comfort, and therefore are perhaps considerably overweight with regard to our spirits.  We suffer from knee pains and we are easily winded, and we get sore muscles from just a slight workout.  It might be tempting to quit as we face the thought that it’s just going to take too much effort, or that success isn’t possible even if we do stick with it (see Jeremiah 18:12).  We may be led to believe that God isn’t there – or at least that he’s not there for us personally.  Was he there for the saints of old and the great prophets, and is he there for the family next door?  Sure; but not for me.  We just aren’t seeing the proof that we think we ought to see in the timeframe that we want to see it.
But I ask:  do the contestants on the World’s Biggest Loser go from gross obesity to comparatively respectable shape in one day, after just one visit to the gym?  Is even one week, or one month, enough time to make that remarkable transformation happen?  Of course not.  They show up for the program in extremely poor health, and they necessarily sign up for a long-term regimen with the expectation of an eventual observable change.  They face numerous challenges and perhaps some setbacks along the way, and there is an unavoidable need to make sacrifices; to deny the habitual cravings of the self.  It’s not just a simple matter of filling out a contract and appearing in front of a camera; in order for change to happen, sustained work must be done.  And over time, those who keep the faith of the program get thinner, stronger, more attractive, and generally healthier.  I believe it’s safe to say that they end up happier than they were when they began.[1]
Isn’t it rational to assume that these principles are likewise true for the health of the spirit?  Some of us (and I’ll put myself at the top of this list) show up for the program of the soul in a state of spiritual morbid obesity.  The initial workouts are difficult, and for a while, stepping onto the scale doesn’t seem to indicate any improvement.  It’s tempting to wonder if there’s any point in continuing to try.  Just as some people become accustomed to their ungainly physical proportions and at some level decide to simply settle for the consequences of a lifestyle steeped in bodily self-indulgence (or at the least, to put off attempts at improvement until some hypothetical future point in time), a person can get used to spiritual lethargy and its attendant consequences – consequences even more dire than those of physical inaction.  However, if we choose to believe the Bible and to undertake a regimen of spiritual discipline, we have to trust that improvement is taking place regardless of whether or not the results are immediately apparent.  With adherence to regular practice over time, a person can experience the fitness of spirit that is necessary in order to finish our course with hands held high. 
The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, “But without faith it is impossible to please him:  for he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (11:6).  Notice his use of the word diligently.  This does not indicate a one-shot attempt to get all the answers; it implies sustained discipline.  Jesus taught that if we’d ask of God, we’d receive (Luke 11:5-13).  If you’re like me, you may have been tempted to disbelieve this promise (and as a corollary, to disbelieve in Jesus altogether) after not getting the results you wanted after what you felt was enough asking.  However, I recall reading at least one interpretation of this passage that presented it as “keep on asking.”  The idea was one of continual pursuit until the answers are obtained.  In light of general life experience, I think that such an interpretation is reasonable; I also think it’s reasonable to assume that the seeking must be wholehearted, since this is stated in various other Biblical passages (see Deuteronomy 4:29, Jeremiah 29:13, and 2 Chronicles 15:15).  To return to the analogy of physical discipline, what happens when someone sets out halfheartedly on an exercise or dietary program?  Perhaps they buy an expensive treadmill which ends up becoming a clothing rack.  Maybe they watch the first disc in a multi-DVD set of progressive workout routines, but then give up and the whole set ends up being donated to a thrift store where it will be bought by a more dedicated person at a fraction of the original cost.  They might sign up to run a race but then fail to train properly for it; after sprinting for the first 200 meters they run out of steam and end up walking (or just walking off the course).  And along with the quitting, there may be misplaced blame:  “I bought this piece of junk, and it didn’t do anything for me!”  But it’s absurd to believe that a fancy machine or a set of videos will automatically result in fitness; it’s naïve to think that the initial positive feelings attendant to filling out an entry form are enough to constitute “race training.”  Similarly, the purchase of a leather-bound, gold-leaf Bible and a beautiful prayer rug for kneeling will not magically result in instantaneous spiritual strength.  On the contrary, spending money on such trappings and then letting them sit unused is more likely to make a person look ostentatious and to draw attention to his inaction.  If you want to get physically fit, you’d better put some tread onto that treadmill and follow the directions on those video discs; if you want to get spiritually fit, you’d better wear some of the gold off of those pages and put some knee marks into that rug.  You also have to apply what you’ve read to your life, and adhere to God’s responses to your prayers.  You’ve got to develop a routine and stick to it.
And when I say “you,” of course I mean “me” as well (and perhaps more so!).  I continue to learn and to reluctantly accept that the maintenance of spiritual health is a continual pursuit that requires the aforementioned diligence – a diligence that begins with but a small seed of belief.  The fat will come back and the legs will get weak again without regular workouts and a healthy diet.  And it’s really no fun to keep vacillating between health and lethargy; there is the likelihood of ultimately falling back into poor condition and never going forward again, or of incurring a career-ending soul injury.  There’s the temptation to presumptuously say, “I tried the God and religion thing, but I moved on.  It just didn’t work out for me.”  I don’t want to be that guy, and I hope you don’t either.  Let’s get fit!  
[1] I don’t intend this to be an endorsement of that particular television program or of reality shows generally.  I use it as a reference because it is presently well-known and because participants have lost weight – even if some of the methods employed have been called into question.