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I spent most of last Sunday afternoon in my recliner chair reading about an overweight, out of shape guy who decided to go to Peru and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
He did it because he wanted to impress a girl who was also going on the trip. When he learned how strenuous the trip would be, because he didn't want to weenie out in front of the girl, he started working out.
A few months ago I joined a new gym, which is challenging me physically. I'm not training for a hike or anything, just a healthier life.
At the gym, I'm surrounded by people, younger and older, who can probably bench press me. Being around them is inspiring, and while I'd rather be stretched out in my recliner, when I manage to make it through the gym door, the actual exercising is often not too terrible and occasionally enjoyable.
When I first joined, a trainer showed me around and taught me how to use the machines and wrote out an exercise plan to follow.
Each time I go to the gym, I try to do more than the time before. I'm trying to challenge myself to go beyond what I think I'm able, to surprise myself.
My muscles often whimper and beg me to stop, curl up on the mat and take a snooze. But also, as whiny as my muscles can be, they concede that it's a good ache, a healing, necessary pain.
The Apostle Paul likened the spiritual life to training as an athlete. Years ago at a Bible study we got to the passage of scripture where Paul talked about how he "buffeted" his body. One woman thought the word was buffet, as in "all you can eat," and that maybe to buffet a body meant to eat all you can.
We got a good laugh out of that (and went out to lunch afterwards).
But Paul was talking about physical discipline and pushing oneself to go beyond in order to concentrate on holiness and godliness and reaching heaven fit and ready to enter the eternal city.
I like the idea of pushing myself physically, because the obvious result is tightening the jiggles and looking better in my clothes. I know that's not virtuous or admirable in any way. Just being honest here.
However, it occurred to me recently that what I really want, more than pushing myself physically, is to be pushed spiritually, although I don't want God to know.
Yes, I am fully aware that God knows our thoughts even before we think them and that trying to keep a secret from him is utterly impossible and ridiculous. But it's what we all do, isn't it? Play mind games with God?
The truth is, I'm comfortable. I'm not going through any personal crises or trials at the moment and I don't want any. Who does? Still, I'm seeing people around me stretching and working out their faith. They're experiencing God doing amazing things, and I'm envious, although I don't want to do anything about it.
It's like sitting on your couch watching "The Biggest Loser" eating Cheetos and wishing you could lose 75 pounds. Wishing won't make it so.
For me, getting off the couch and to the gym is far easier than trusting God to stretch my faith. I've been there many times before, and it often involves pain.
When the guy in the book hiked to the top of the mountain in pain with blistered feet and sore legs, he thought about the other people also there who had taken a train and then a bus and only hiked a mile to the top.
He wrote, "But the people who took the bus didn't experience the city as we experienced the city. The pain made the city more beautiful."
He said it made him think about the hard lives of so many people and the sacrifices they endure and how "these people will see heaven differently from those who have had easier lives."
When God pushes and challenges us, it's painful. I don't like pain and fight it with all my might. I'd rather watch TV. I'd much rather take the train and the bus.
But it's pain that makes the city more beautiful, and something within me longs to see its full beauty.