“Run in such a way that you may win the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Perhaps the Apostle Paul was a runner or maybe all his missionary travels gave Paul an appreciation of race walking. Eckhard J Schnabel estimates that the Apostle Paul traveled some 8,700 miles over land and some 6,800 miles over sea in order to help start at least 14 churches. During these 15,000 miles Paul never exceeded the speed of the fastest horse. This great ancient traveler must have appreciated running for Paul often compares life to a running race. Listen to Paul’s analogies to racing and travel!
“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win the prize. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive perishable wreath, but we seek an unfading eternal reward. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26)
“When we stand before Christ, I can be happy because my work was not wasted. I ran in the race and won.” (Philippians 2:16)
“Physical fitness has some value, but spiritual fitness is essential both for this present life and for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8)
Jesus talks about course, trial, path, road, or perhaps a race route that each of us navigates every day, warning us to separate from the well-traveled popular path and take the narrow and more difficult route of discipleship: “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to (our soul’s) destruction” (Matthew 7:13). It is a sad fact that last year we saw some of the most talented, famous, and wealthiest athletes’ and artists’ lives end in the destructive power of drugs. Will we ever learn that artistic, athletic, academic or business success does not ensure the eternal values of peace, wisdom, courage, faith, hope and love?
The writer of Hebrews calls up images of an eternal stadium where Moses, Esther, Joshua, Ruth and Rahab root us on along life’s racecourse. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Jesus, who endured hostility from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
We focus on physical, intellectual, and economic fitness, and lately even our emotional health, but we often neglect our spiritual fitness. We exercise, study, diet, practice, and work at caring for our bodies and minds, or we know we should, but somehow we believe we can develop faith, hope, love, peace, clarity, character, moral courage, tranquility and wisdom without any effort or plan. Why is that? Do we think our souls do not matter or God does not care how we live?
Is Jesus your life coach? Is Jesus your goal, model and example? If so, realize Jesus took the necessary time to care for his soul in daily prayer and regular worship. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” Luke 5:16. “On the Sabbath day Jesus went into the synagogue, as was his custom” Luke 4:16. Do we think we can become the children of God without a spiritual fitness routine?
In a nation where depression, suicide, and substance abuse are on the rise while our overall mental health continues to decline, we need to invest in our spiritual fitness. We need to strengthen our hearts, minds and soul now so we can negotiate life’s rough terrain. Our young people need to exercise their spiritual muscles so that when they don’t make the team, an injury ends their career, they don’t make the cut, someone offers them drugs, someone dies, divorce comes, a job collapses, their health fails, or things just fall apart, their souls can weather and overcome the storm. We must build our lives in stronger stuff than grades, goals, or greenbacks. Let us anchor our souls in the eternal unchanging presence of God.
I think the church has forget that Jesus stands at Life’s finishing line handing out the medals (Romans 2:16). Yes, grace covers all our sins and faults but I want to do my best. I want to win the prize. I don’t want to say to everyone in heaven – “Oh, I just got in on grace”. Do you want to win the prize? I hope Jesus says, “Well done, good and faithful servant”, enter into the championship celebration feast! Matthew 25:21).
Our spiritual fitness matters- but how do we maintain it?
Around Lewis’ third birthday, Connie and I met our cousins in Gatlinburg for a few days of hiking. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, we left four children under the age of five at the hotel with grandparents and headed up the about 7 miles to the Mount LeConte log cabins built by the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. Caleb was still nursing, so before we left Connie contacted the La Leche League and rented a battery pack to power the Madela Lactation Pump. I drove down to Berry Hill to pick up the pump. The proprietor was an aging hippy grandmother with two wooly grey pigtails who greeted me in the driveway where she was chopping fire wood in a sundress. “Mr. Purdue, I presume, let’s go get that battery for your hiking trip!” She looked like an aged Pippy Longstocking. We went inside the shop and Pippy reached down and with both hands heaved up the battery from the floor, dropping it on the counter with a thud. I stared at the biggest one they rented, a black block 8x6x6 inches, the size of garden tractor battery. I would come to know well its weight of around 15 pounds. Wide-eyed I pondered the black monster as I wondered if she had a smaller model for rent. I expressed my dismay to no one in particular, “I am supposed to carry this battery up the mountain?” Granny Longstocking, eyes lit with a materialistic fire, growled “your wife carried your baby for nine months, so maybe you can carry this battery up the mountain for less than 9 miles.” She mentioned the forecast was below freezing cold and we had two nursing mothers so this was the best battery. I resisted any appeal, signed the check and lugged the massive beast to the car.
I was training for the one marathon I have run and mentioned a million times. I believed I could handle the extra 20 pounds of battery and lactation supplies in my pack! Near the LeConte Lodge, we stopped to enjoy a lunch feast of fruit, crackers, salami, fine cheese and even hot chocolate my cousin Tom cooked up on the camp stove. Tom poked, “Paul, what is the matter with you, you are dragging behind us all?” Before I could answer, Tom grabbed my backpack heaving it up on one shoulder- “Good Gravy man- What is in there?” I grumbled, “My wife carried our sweet babies for nine months, the least I can do is carry this lactation battery pack for less than 9 miles!”
What spiritual weights and burdens are you packing around every day?
We need to check our packs every day. Hebrews implores us to lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles us! Do you take a daily spiritual check-up or check-in to review your day with God? When do you unload life’s burdens and needless spiritual sidetracks? I know you may feel too busy, but when we lay aside sin’s entangling misdirection, our burdens grow much lighter. Jesus beckons us to exchange our loads for his easier yoke! “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) Without things like anger, bitterness, covet-ness, fear, phoniness, and the like, we have so much more time!
So what are you carrying around with you as you move down life’s path? What spiritual weights are you carrying around with you every day? Here is a little check list.
Lighten the load in your pack- walk in newness of life!
__ Fearfulness or __ Trust In God (Romans 8:14-39) (John 14:26-27) (Joshua 1:9)
__Lingering Un-forgiveness or __ Mercy (Luke 6:35-38)
__ Stressful Distraction or __The Peace of Christ (Matthew 6:19-33) (Philippians 4:4-9)
__Idolatry or __ Authentic Worship (Exodus 20:3) (Matthew 4:10)
__Shame and Remorse or __Hope and Transformation ( Romans 5:5)
__Indifference or __Kindness (Mark 3:1-6) ( 1 John 3:17)
__Anger or __Self-control (Ephesians 4:26)
__Unresolved Grief or __Strength (1 Peter 5:7) ( 1 Thessalonians 4:13)
__Strife, Dissension, Factions or __Compassion & Unity (Galatians 5:14-16) (Ephesians 4)
__ Ugly Speech or __Gracious Language (Colossians 4:6) ( Matthew 12:33-37)
__Greed or __Generosity ( Mark 7:20-23) (2 Corinthians 9:6)
__Selfishness or __Peace (2 Peter 1:1-9) (James 3:13-18)
__Legalism or __Freedom (2 Corinthians 3:6) ( Matthew 23:23-26) (Galatians 5)
__Envy, False Pride and Jealousy or __Joy (Philippians 2:1-11)
__Impurity, Lust, Coveting or __Honor, Respect and Contentment (Philippians 4) (Colossians 3:1-17)
__Phoniness, Substance Abuse or __Truth and Wholeness (Colossians 3:1-17) (Ephesians 5:15-20)
__Anything less than __Love ( 1 Corinthians 13) (1 John 4:8)
You may not need a formal list, but it is a simple way to mentally and spiritual unpack the day. Let’s just think about maybe 3 items we might pack around all the time.
Will you unload the paralyzing fear of everything that just keeps us stumbling into all sorts of messes? The answer to the numbing fear is trusting and walking with God! Romans 8:14-39 (fire extinguisher) “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God… and do not live in fear! (but) cry out to God, “Oh precious daddy… If God is for us, who can be against us? God who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will God not also give us all things? Who will bring any charge against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? No one, for we are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us! For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Let us let go of the heavy chains of un-forgiveness. I see so many stuck in old wounds, worrying about others. To choose mercy and grace goes against our cultural norms, but there is a lightness that settles into our souls when we release the judging, comparing, expecting to God! Let us walk with the lightness of mercy! “Love! Do good! Expect nothing in return! Be merciful! Do not judge! Do not condemn! Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A heaping helping, tightly packed, piled high and running over, will be given to you. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you!” Luke 6:35-38
Will we cast off the tangling cords of distraction and narrow your focus to the eternal? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will The Lord not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:26-34)
So every morning will you take a few minutes with a cup of coffee and your devices off or to check what you are carrying? Every night will you stop and check your pack, unloading the burdens and entangling sins that creep into our lives? Will you ask for God’s forgiveness and God’s guidance?
Will you develop a spiritual fitness routine? Will you get spiritually fit? John Wesley called this daily spiritual checking-in “spiritual breathing”. We exhale the dead sinful air and breathe in the healing presence of Christ. “But when we are born of God, born of the Spirit, the whole manner of our existence is changed… The Spirit of God is inspired in every soul. The breath of God breathed into the new-born soul. That same Spirit which comes from God, returns to God. It is continually received by faith, so it is continually rendered back by love, by prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving. Love, Praise and Prayer, are the breath of every soul that is truly born of God. And with this new sort of spiritual respiration, the spiritual life is not only sustained, but increased day by day. (This spiritual breathing) adds spiritual strength, and motion, and sensation; all the senses of the soul being now awake, and we become capable of discerning spiritual good and evil. …God’s breathing into the soul, and the soul’s breathing back what it receives from God; a continual action of God upon the soul, and a re-action of the soul upon God; an unceasing presence of God, the loving, pardoning God, manifested to the heart, and perceived by faith; and an unceasing return of love, praise, and prayer, offering up all the thoughts of our hearts, all the words of our tongues, all the works of our hands, all our body, soul, and spirit, to be a holy sacrifice, acceptable unto God in Christ Jesus.” The Privilege of the Children of God.
Friends, we will never become spiritually fit- we will never win the prize- if we do not check our pack everyday! Let us check the spiritual air that fills our lungs! Let us exhale Fear and breath in Trust, breathe out Un-forgiveness and allow Mercy to renew us, lose Distraction and walk in the Peace of Christ, see our Idolatry through authentic Worship, exhale our Shame and inhale Hope, exhale our Indifference and feel God’s soothing Kindness, blow out our Anger and taste Self-Control, let us lay aside unresolved Grief and pick up Strength, drop Strife and find Unity. Let us reject all Ugliness in our speech and speak Grace, let us cough up any Greed and breath the cleansing air of Generosity, let us lose our Selfishness and drink in Peace, let us unload Legalism and take up Freedom, drop any Envy and unleash Joy, let us exhale any Coveting and inhale Contentment, let us drop Phoniness and carry Truth. Let us exhale any vapor that is less than Love and breathe the healing love of God! Amen.