Thursday, June 20, 2019

Hating to Exercise, Loving to Have Exercised

Weights can't help to make us stronger until we pick them up.
More than 20 years ago, after my first trip to Europe where I walked for miles every day, I decided to continue my new habit by power-walking several times a week. Then, after my open-heart surgery in 2006, I resolved that if I came through the operation successfully, I would do everything my doctors recommended for recovery, including exercise.

Ever since, I’ve been engaging in regular cardio exercise and weight training programs, three to five times a week for at least 30 minutes each time. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I hate to exercise! From the minute I arrive, I’m looking forward to the moment I can stop. However, one other thing: I love to have exercised! (Yes, past tense.)

Some of the people I see working out at the Y seem to enjoy what they’re doing. But very few. And I have real concerns about their mental health. Most of us go about our workout routines somewhat grudgingly, knowing it’s good for us but convinced it’s even better when it’s over. Going through it is hard work, even a bit of a pain. But the sense of satisfaction in being able to say, “I exercised today,” and knowing it’s been beneficial physically, mentally and emotionally is substantial.

It's kind of the same with spiritual exercise – having to exercise our faith. Most of the time we don’t relish circumstances that necessitate having to put our faith into practice, but in retrospect we can see the benefits of having done so. Often, it’s through the eyes of faith in the midst of trials that we can best see the power, love, grace, mercy and faithfulness of God at work in our lives.

Recently I was part of a small group talking about this. We were looking at what the apostle James wrote, exhorting us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). Two words stuck out in our discussion: “joy” and “perseverance.”

Cardio equipment looks nice, but won't do us much
good if we don't actually use it.
We agreed joy is a very good thing. The more of it, the merrier. Except when it’s connected to adversity, struggles and suffering. Then, we’re inclined to wonder, where’s the joy in that? And yet the Scriptures tell us to consider it “pure joy” when we encounter all kinds of trials. Maybe it’s a misprint, or mistranslation?

Sorry, but no. Because we see the same teaching expressed in similar terms elsewhere in the Bible. For instance, 1 Peter 1:6-7, penned by another apostle, offers this view: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Many kinds of trials, intended to prove the genuineness of our faith – what’s up with that?

And then we have the words of a third apostle, Paul, sent to believers in ancient Rome: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Paul not only urges us to rejoice when we’re going through times of suffering, but also to recognize why – to develop perseverance, character, and hope.

Thinking back over my life, I recall a number of trials we didn’t really appreciate at the moment – a house that took months to sell after we had committed to buy another one (without a contingency); searching for new job opportunities when it became apparent it was time for me to move on from the old one; stressful medical diagnoses and treatment; times when we had too much month left at the end of our pay.

In the midst of those and other trials, it wasn’t fun. Just like going through a rigorous workout session. Grunting and groaning all the way, waiting expectantly for it to be over. Yet, with the glorious, perfect vision of hindsight, we could see how God graciously used those challenges for our good. To strengthen our faith. Teach us to persevere even when the end of the tunnel seemed dark. Enable us to learn more profoundly and deeply what it means to truly trust in the Lord with all our heart, without leaning on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).

So I’ve learned that while I might not like situations that require me to exercise my faith and put it to the test, I do love the outcome. Greater confidence in my Shepherd and Provider; ability to view future trials with greater hope and expectation, and an ever-growing body of evidence that proves indeed, the Lord will never leave me nor forsake me, as we’re assured in Hebrews 13:5. 

At the gym or YMCA, just looking at the exercise equipment and weights won’t get us into shape. We have to move into action. In a similar way, how can we truly understand what faith is all about until we’re forced to live it out in practical ways?

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