Thursday, May 30, 2019

Utilizing the ‘MMA’ for Spiritual Growth

Are you familiar with MMA? If not, it stands for Mixed Martial Arts, a sport that includes boxing and a mix of other combative techniques. The reason I ask is because every day we are all involved a battle – spiritual in nature – and one way of achieving victory is through another type of MMA: Memorization, Meditation and Application.

Spiritual growth, I’ve discovered, isn’t a continual upward trajectory. Initially it might seem that way, but sooner or later everyone hits a plateau, maybe even slips back a bit. We and Jesus don’t just ride off into the sunset without ever looking back.

This can be disconcerting because we live in an instant, right-now society. We’d like to become spiritual giants immediately; we don’t want to go through the daily grind that maturing in our walk with Christ requires. But we don’t have any choice in the matter.

Many books have been written about the process of growing in our faith, so I won’t try to present a simple how-to here. But if we can get a handle on the importance of “spiritual MMA,” that would be a good start.

Years ago, The Navigators developed what they called the “Word Hand Illustration,” representing five methods for effectively taking in the Word of God. The five fingers represent hearing, reading, studying, memorizing and meditating. This have proved helpful for my own spiritual growth, and I’m going to focus briefly on the importance of Memorization and Meditation. But I think the “hand” might need a sixth finger - Application. Thus, the “MMA.”

Most of us have heard the Word preached and taught through sermons, or at conferences and retreats. Reading the Bible is an excellent habit some of us maintain on a daily basis. And the most industrious of us study the Scriptures, perhaps by reading slowly and thoughtfully or using supplemental tools like commentaries and concordances.

But when it comes to memorizing Scripture, or meditating on it, I suspect fewer of us are actively involved in these practices. And it’s to our detriment.

“I can’t memorize things!” people say. Really? We all know phone numbers, home addresses, names of family members and friends (sometimes even their birthdates), our Social Security number, and the days, times and channels our favorite TV shows come on. There are lots of other things we memorize. So the excuse, “I can’t memorize,” isn’t valid unless we have a true memory disability. It all comes down to this: If it’s important enough to remember, we can memorize it if necessary.

I used to fall into the “I can’t memorize Bible verses” camp myself, until I realized that through repetition I had learned passages like Psalm 1, Psalm 100 and Psalm 23 (“the shepherd’s psalm") even as a boy. That was when the Bible could still be read in public schools; too bad that’s no longer the case.

But as an adult, I still didn’t think Scripture memory was for me. Then my wife and I attended a marriage conference where the speakers said memorizing meaningful Bible verses would be helpful. They got us started by teaching 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.” That was it – three words. In short order I had succeeded in memorizing my first verse. 

Then I found an even easier verse that immediately preceded the one I had just learned: “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Wow! Two verses and five words launching my Scripture memory journey.

Soon afterward I got into a small group discipleship program that included learning a total of 65 verses over a period of two years. They weren’t all as simple as the first two I memorized, but this practice proved foundational for my spiritual growth early on. As King David wrote, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9,11).

That “hiding God’s Word in my heart” became real not only through rote memorization but also through meditation. No, I didn’t sit with legs crossed yoga-style, mumbling some mantra. But I did spend a lot of time pondering not just the words but also what they meant. This brought to mind a verse from one of those psalms I had memorized in my boyhood: “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2).

Preacher Charles H. Spurgeon used to explain that in reviewing Bible passages for his sermons, he would ask, “What does it say? What does it mean? What difference does it make?” This led me to the third part of MMA – application. In fact, I realized that sometimes the best way to memorize a verse or Bible passage, particularly one that was long and complicated, was to put it into practice. 

One of the verses I found especially helpful in this regard was 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Pondering this verse I concluded that the Word of God is not only inspired by Him through His Spirit, but it’s also intended for practical use in our everyday life.

There’s much more I could say about this, but I’d like to close by asking: Are you taking advantage of “MMA” for the spiritual battles we face each day? 

In the sixth chapter of Ephesians, we read about the “armor of God,” and the one offensive weapon of this armor is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). Without striving for mastery of God’s Word, it’s like going to war with guns but no bullets. Is it time you got your ammunition?

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