“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified”
~ I Cor. 9:24-27
Everyone is born with a different innate level of athleticism—some people can go out and run a few miles without any training or warm-up, while others feel like they’re dying on that first mile and have to train for a 5K. But no one is born with innate endurance. It’s one thing to get out there and run a 5K without preparing, but even the most athletic person can’t go out and run a marathon without extensive training. Long-distance runners or triathletes train specifically for their races and shape their entire lives around their training regimen. Without this preparation, they’ll run out of gas and have nothing left for the final push to the finish line.
The fact is, we’re running a spiritual marathon, not a quick 5K. We need to understand what it takes to be spiritually “in shape” so we can endure to the end. The elements of a spiritual endurance training program are the same as those for a marathon runner—cardio, strength training, and diet, intensified with rest, discipline, motivation, and a commitment to finding and working on weaknesses.
Cardio – conditioning the heart
Cardio conditioning is the first thing most people think of when it comes to running a marathon, since improving the heart’s function and capacity is critical for going long distances. The state of our heart is also a major focus—perhaps the major focus—of our relationship with God and His plan for us.
In the bible, the heart is used to signify a person’s innermost thoughts and intents, the essence of who they are. Fear, love, courage, anger, sorrow, faith, forgiveness, and humility all come from the heart. It’s where the thoughts reside that we won’t even acknowledge to ourselves, let alone to God or our fellow brethren. The heart is the center of relationships and spiritual activity, where sin originates and godly character is built.
Many people think that the Old Testament is all about control and law and harsh judgments, but God made His endgame clear even then. Many of the prophetic writings centered around how God will ultimately give Israel a new heart so they can finally be in true relationship with Him. While they were His physical nation, they never had the heart or spirit to truly follow God the way He required. In Ezekiel He says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you…I will put My spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you will keep My judgments and do them…you shall be My people, and I will be your God” (Ezek. 36:26). In Jeremiah He says that he will put His law “in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). Israel and Judah, however, continually turned away from God and His way, compounding His law with hundreds of rituals and rules while completely oblivious to its intent.
The Word of God then came in the flesh and began shaking things up for the people of that time because His teachings were particularly focused on the quality of heart, often at the expense of their man-made rituals. Just a few examples from dozens:
- Matt. 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
- Matt. 5:28 But I say to you whoever looks after a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart
- Matt. 6:21 Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also
- Matt. 12:34 For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks
- Matt. 15:19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man
To a people that thought their myriad commandments and traditions made them special and set them apart, this didn’t compute. But the focus of the New Testament makes it clear that is God building a relationship with individuals who are to develop His character and heart. When we are converted, we must have a new heart to replace our hard, carnal heart. It’s not just a change of heart, but cutting out the old one (a circumcision of the heart, Rom. 2:29) and replacing it with something brand-new. Our carnal heart has an unlimited capacity for self-deceit (Jer. 17:9), for ignoring our problems and failings and justifying our actions to ourselves and others. But that never works on God. “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind,” He says (Jer. 17:10). The instruction manual He has given us for this life is no different, but acts as “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
The fact we like to ignore whenever possible is that the heart characteristics we’re supposed to be cultivating—mercy, humility, faithfulness, peace, perseverance, and many more—are best developed through tests and trials. If you ask any runner, they will tell you that one of the most important components of building cardiovascular strength is high-intensity interval training. To make sure they have what it takes to finish a race, their training includes periods of super intense work such as running up steep hills or sprinting as fast as they can for a certain time period. They push their heart, lungs, and muscles to the limit to increase overall endurance, increase their limits, and build mental toughness.
Our spiritual development is much the same. Periods of trial are critical in our conversion process—it doesn’t matter whether God allows them, Satan causes them, or (as is often the case) we bring them on ourselves. Only through these difficult tests can we (and God) know for sure that our relationship with Him is real and permanent. II Corinthians 13:5 tells us we must examine and test ourselves to make sure we haven’t been disqualified, and James talks at length about trials and how they produce patience. “Blessed is the man who endures temptation,” he says, “for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life” (James 1:12).
It’s easy to lose sight of the benefits of this kind of high-intensity work when it’s actually happening. But Paul encourages the Corinthians regarding trials and perseverance, saying:
“We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (II Cor. 4:8-9, 16).
When we’re in the middle of a long trial or perhaps just struggling to change something in our lives, we sometimes lose perspective and get discouraged. We begin to wonder if the trial will ever be over and doubt the choices that led to it. Paul wrote to the Galatians to not “grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal. 6:9). Doubt is one of the most effective weapons against the heart—both physically and spiritually. If a runner begins to doubt that he will have enough strength to make it to the finish line, then ultimately that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Satan uses this tool against our hearts very effectively, and that’s where resistance training comes in.
Resistance training – building strength with repetition
There’s an old saying that people will judge you by your actions, not your intentions. In other words “you are what you do, not what you say”. Thoughts become actions, actions become habits, and habits become who we are. When you first learn to drive, you have to think about everything, from using your turn signal to yielding to oncoming traffic. After doing these hundreds of times, though, these actions become automatic—muscle memory. It takes consistency over time to form or break a habit, especially a habit like regular exercise. The word “exercise” is interesting itself, because it means to train or discipline. It’s no accident that it’s used in the bible when speaking of things like self-control, judgment, and patience, because these qualities take practice and repetition.
We learn to obey God and live His way by following a set of actions that become habits. Eventually we do it because we love Him and believe in Him (which is from the heart), but we come to that through repetitious, specific actions—keeping the Sabbath, bible study, prayer, avoiding unclean meats, shunning pagan festivals, rejecting sins such as lying and adultery. When a runner’s heart is fatigued at mile 20 of a marathon and they struggle to keep going, it is the strength and muscle memory built up through resistance training that keeps them moving forward—one step, then another and another. Similarly, we can make a hard choice or persevere through a terrible trial even when our heart is fatigued or compromised (an emotional reaction) because we have practiced and thought about making those right choices before.
People get the misguided idea that since God looks on the heart, it doesn’t really matter what they do. But the heart manifests itself in actions, not emotions. We are practicing in this life for our future roles as kings and priests in God’s kingdom, and members of God’s eternal family. Like the parable of the talents (Matt. 25), we will be held accountable for what we did with what we were given. We should be reading, discussing, learning, thinking, and challenging each other. Paul tells Timothy to “exercise yourself toward godliness” (I Tim. 4:7). This is an active verb—you can’t “exercise toward” something by just sitting in a pew every Sabbath and listening to someone talk. It requires action on our part.
Sometimes this means challenging ourselves and pushing our limits to keep from plateauing spiritually. Trials can be the equivalent of maxing out on the bench press. God does not allow our trials to be more than we can bear (I Cor. 10:13), but sometimes our muscles will be trembling so hard that we’ll need some help getting the bar back up. Paul tells the Ephesians that they must put on the armor of God in order to resist the devil (Eph. 6:11-17). The thing about armor is that it was heavy and the weapons were difficult to wield. It took a lot of conditioning and training for a soldier to be able to carry a shield, wear chain mail, and swing a sword. Satan is circling us constantly, looking for our weaknesses—is our shield arm tired or our sword swing sloppy? Did we leave a part of ourselves unguarded because the armor felt too heavy to put on this morning?
By consistent obedience of God’s laws we build strength and muscle memory that will serve us well when tribulation comes. But we can’t forget where that strength comes from. While we have to pull our weight in this relationship, the bible continually reminds us that the Lord is our strength, and we “can of ourselves do nothing” (John 5:30). When we try to do everything on our own, we will inevitably grow tired and fail; only in leaning on God can we finish this race. Isaiah tells us that “those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Is. 40:31).
Every exercise program starts with diet – what are you eating?
Cardio and strength training, while critical, will amount to nothing without proper diet. If a marathon runner trains every day but eats only Twinkies and Diet Coke, they will never have the energy to finish a race. They carefully plan not only their training regimen, but also what meals will give them the most energy and endurance. God’s laws include instruction on physical foods to avoid, and indicates that we should be careful about what we ingest spiritually as well.
A balanced spiritual diet starts with the bread of Christ, and we should make sure that every day we are asking for our “daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). Jesus told His followers, “I am the bread of life…whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:48, 54). Christ was the Word of God made flesh, and we must devour God’s words (the bible) until they become a part of us.
Our diet should also incorporate both the “meat” and “milk” of the word, as both are important for nourishing our spiritual development. Milk builds strong bones (the skeleton that holds us upright) while meat helps build muscle (which we strengthen through resistance training). Peter tells us to put away envy and other unrighteous attitudes and, “as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow” (I Pet. 2:2). This pure milk constitutes the “elementary principles” or foundational basics of God’s way (Heb. 6:1). We never outgrow the need for this in our lives, but Paul tells us we shouldn’t stick to a milk-only diet—like humans, this won’t satisfy us or help us to grow. He chastises the scattered Hebrews about their need for milk when they should have progressed to being teachers in their own right. “For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe,” says Paul. “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:12-14).
We also have to take care to choose our spiritual food wisely, much like reading the nutrition facts on food labels. It is good to read, listen to, and discuss a multitude of topics and points of view, including ones that challenge your existing paradigms. But while prevailing wisdom tells us that all opinions are valid, we have to make sure we are grounded enough in God’s word that we are able to “test all things” and “hold fast what is good” (I Thes. 5:21).
When and how often we eat is just as important as what we eat. Marathon runners often carry nourishment with them during a race so that when their energy flags they have something to fuel the last leg of the race. We also have to keep our spiritual food on-hand, to sustain us when we need it. If we only eat once a week on the Sabbath, we won’t stand a chance of having the energy a few days later to go toe-to-toe with Satan. As humans we have to eat every day, and our spiritual dietary needs are no different.
The Intangibles – Motivation, Rest, and Discipline
There are other important and less tangible components to a successful training program.
Rest – If you exhaust yourself every day and never take a day off, you will wear down and your muscles and immune systems will be compromised. God gives us the Sabbath every week, which makes us take a break from the daily grind and sets aside time for us to reflect, rest up, and renew our strength.
Motivation – Runners have different forms of motivation. For some it’s music that pumps them up, for others it’s a friend to run with and encourage them or a vision of themselves crossing the finish line. These are significant factors in our spiritual race’s success as well. We must have an unwavering vision of the kingdom of God, brethren with whom we can share burdens and be “iron sharpening iron” (Prov. 27:17), and even music as a form of worship to uplift and inspire us.
Discipline – No one can train for a marathon by running just one day per week. Likewise, we will never be spiritually in-shape enough to finish our race if the only day we think about God’s way, study His word, or pray is the Sabbath.
Work on Weaknesses – Any athlete has weaknesses, and the best athletes specifically look for their weaknesses in order to eliminate them. As humans we naturally want to stay in our comfort zone and ignore our flaws, but that’s not the life we are called to as Christians. Just like a triathlete will do extra squats if his legs are wobbly or strengthen his ankles if they’re weak, we should look for areas that need improving in our own lives—bad habits that have formed, regular practices we’ve compromised, study topics that wouldn’t normally interest us so we grow in understanding.
Looking at our walk as a training regimen
In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells of four scenarios that happen when people hear the word of God. In the first, the person has no chance to respond before Satan snatches it away, and in the last, the word grows and is fruitful. But the middle two hear and respond, but don’t have what it takes to endure—the cares of the world, deceitfulness of riches, worries of life, or trial and persecution cause them to stumble and turn away (Mark 4). They are given an incredible opportunity and initially recognize it, but don’t have the spiritual endurance to finish the race. We must be careful that we don’t fall into this trap as well. In His messages to the seven churches, Christ constantly exhorted the churches to endure and warned them that it was possible for them to ultimately lose everything, even though they’d been given the truth. To Thyatira He said, “but hold fast what you have til I come,” to Sardis, “hold fast and repent,” even to faithful Philadelphia, “hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” (Rev. 2 & 3).
Like the marathon runner picturing the finish line, we must always keep the vision of the kingdom foremost in our minds. Paul reminds us of all God’s faithful who have gone before us—some who endured trials we can barely even imagine—and says, “Therefore…since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). We are assured that “if we endure, we shall also reign with Him” (II Tim. 2:12).
Why do we go to all this trouble, reshaping our lives and pushing our limits? Ultimately, we do it so that when our time is up in this physical life we can say with confidence, as Paul did, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim. 4:7). What an exhilarating feeling that would be.