Our mind, body and spirit all have one thing in common: they are only as strong as our life pushes them to be. The body displays this in the most tangible ways. For somebody like me who spends much of their week sitting behind a desk, it’s hard to notice a slow slide into out-of-shape-ed-ness, largely in part because my life style doesn’t demand I’m in better shape. I recently started exercising again and, while I knew I was out of shape, I was surprised at just how significantly out of shape I was.
I had no idea. Because my lifestyle made it easy to have no idea.
So I go for a job, and I hate it so much. I go for a swim and I tire out so quickly. I get bored. I want to go back to junk food and YouTube. And things I normally used to enjoy now become a burden. Where I once loved going out for a hike in the mountains around Grande Cache, I now have to really push and force myself to get out and do it. Sometimes we may invest money in exercise equipment, convinced that if we do, we’re guaranteed to get back into shape. But dust collects and we rarely, if ever, use it.
The spirit works in the same way. Its strength will always, over time, begin to match the lifestyle we lead. For many of us, we have a life that doesn’t demand a strong spirit – we are good at building a life that doesn’t really require us to exert ourselves spiritually, able to build safety around us. We sit at a spiritual desk, consuming spiritual junk food, and don’t really realize how weak we may have become. And so we try and exercise our spiritual muscles and we get bored, frustrated tired. We try and pray for more than 30 seconds and we just want to go back to YouTube and junk food. And the things we normally used to enjoy now become a burden. Where once we may have loved reaching out to people in hard times, or spending long periods in worship, or having deep spiritual conversations about ourselves with close friends, we now have to really push and force yourself to get out and do those things.
Have you ever bought Christian exercise equipment? A really nice new Bible, full of notes. A Bible study or a big book – stuff we buy to help us become more spiritual but never really use so, like the well meaning treadmill, they collect dust in the basement.
Spiritual fitness is really a life changing attribute. We have to learn to keep it strong in the good times so we have the endurance and joy following us into the bad times.
Over the next few months, we are going to look at a variety of spiritual disciplines together. These are aspects of the Christian faith – spiritual exercises if you will – that can help us grow closer in our connection to Christ and develop the strength that can give us the abundant life he calls us to live, no matter our circumstances.
One of the important things about growing in the Christian faith is really understanding the spiritual biology of it, to help gives us understanding of what it is we are doing, and why it can have power and meaning in our lives.
In Colossians 2-3, the apostle Paul does a great job of explaining to his readers the need of shifting their mental focus onto the right things.
Colossians was written during a time when people were trying to reconcile the Jewish law and the covenant of the Old Testament with the new spiritual realities that had found fulfillment in Christ. Paul tries to help them transition from a system of being driven by do’s and don’ts, to a system that is driven by the heart.
Read Colossians 2:6-23 paying special attention to the first few verses and the last few verses:
“6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh[b] was put off when you were circumcised by[c] Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins,14 having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
This is a long passage with a lot of different imagery being used, but Paul’s basic point is this: Our life’s foundation cannot be rooted in rules and traditions – it must be rooted in Christ.
This is not to say that rules and traditions are bad. They have value. They can help guide us and give us direction in times of uncertainty. But they ultimately lack the power to truly help us restrain from the things that are wrong – sensual indulgence as the NIV puts it.
The NLT says, “But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.”
The ESV says, “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
Or the CEV, “But they don’t really have any power over our desires.”
Why is that? Anyone reading this can probably think of a time in the past year when they broke a rule. We have cultural rules, societal rules, rules in education, work, clubs, etc… and people break them all the time. When we disagree with a rule or don’t understand the purpose of a rule, we play a game in our mind of potential payoff vs potential problems with breaking the rule. If breaking that rule gets us something we want more than our desire to keep the rule, we’ll almost always break it.
Spending our lives pursing righteousness through “rules” and external appearances is basically building our righteousness on a foundation of sand. It may look good. It may look strong. We can even spend years building it into something remarkable and beautiful to look at. But one wave and it all gets swept away.
Because of this, Paul is saying that a system of rules will never give us the power to achieve righteousness. At best it will be a shadow of what is good. He starts this section off with, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” (italics added)
It is important to know that Paul is not arguing for some sort of lawless world where everyone does whatever they feel like. There is right. There is wrong. There are things we do that are good. There are things we do that are bad. What Paul is trying to do is bring us into righteousness and faith that goes beyond what we may call a, “checklist morality” and into hearts that are truly righteous in and of themselves.
In chapter three we read, “5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.[b] 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander,and filthy language from your lips.”
Imagine having a heart free from lust, greed and idolatry? Imagine having a heart that doesn’t need to spend so much energy resisting temptation, because temptation has almost no hold on it? “Put to death…” he says! This is incredibly strong language. It’s not, “subdue” or “push off to the side.” Paul is saying we can actually kill off the parts of our hearts that lead us away when our lives are truly rooted in Christ.
A system based only around rules is a system based on will power. And a system based on will power will always fail.
The new life in Christ creates the death of our sin.
Rules help us know what not do to, but they don’t help us not do them. Paul himself gives a lot of rules and suggestions for holy living throughout his letters. But with each one comes a way to connect with Christ so we can not only understand why that is something we should do, but also have the power through the Spirit to carry it out.
Over the next three months we are going to look at thirteen separate spiritual disciplines that we have in the Christian faith to help us walk the path. These are things that can help us connect with Christ, give Him the opportunity to sear the sin from our hearts and give us the strength to pursue the love and devotion He longs for us to see: fasting, meditation, prayer, study, simplicity, solitude, service, submission, confession, worship, guidance, celebration, and obedience.
But even in these disciplines there are dangers. These, in and of themselves, can become idols and steer us down the wrong path. In John chapter 5, Jesus says this to the Pharisee, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.”
As we walk this path together, let’s remember that the practices of the Christian faith are not righteousness in and of themselves. They are tools. And not tools for us to use. Tools for God to use in our hearts, to build a foundation.
Like most things in life, we do best when we have accountability. While trying to get in shape, I have a friend coming out with me, and a wife that knows when to kick me out of my chair and tell me to get going. I encourage you this week, if you make a choice to get back in spiritual shape, find somebody to either do it with, or at least hold you to account.
I invite you to come with us on this journey, to cast off attitudes of spiritual apathy, and connect with the God who is Living and True.