Spiritual Fitness 1 “Prayer-obics” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 It’s...
Spiritual Fitness #1
1 Thessalonians 5:17
It’s time for New Year’s resolutions, and among the most popular are family (spend more time with), finances (spend less and invest more), and fitness (eat less and exercise more). With that third one, health clubs and diet programs see a big increase in business right after the holiday season—at least for a week or so!
The truth is that people don’t have to spend a lot of money joining a gym or health club or purchasing expensive equipment. Most experts recommend 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise three or four days a week, along with two or three days of weight-bearing, resistance exercise (such as weight lifting). Add to that a balanced diet and we are well on our way to living happier, healthier, and perhaps longer lives.
Many Christians want to become stronger in their faith in the new year. What can we do about getting more spiritually fit? I think we can learn important principles from physical fitness that translate into the spiritual realm, and over the next few weeks I’d like to explore those together.
The first activity recommended for physical fitness is aerobics. The term itself (which literally means, “with oxygen”) was coined in the late 1960’s by Air Force physiologist Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper. He began measuring sustained physical performance in terms of a person’s ability to use oxygen. His groundbreaking book, Aerobics, was published in 1968, and included scientific exercise programs using running, walking, swimming and bicycling—activities that “get the blood pumping.” The increased oxygen use in the body leads to increased metabolism and better health.
I believe a spiritual corollary to this is prayer. John MacArthur writes,
For Christians prayer is like breathing. You don’t have to think to breathe because the atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs and forces you to breathe. That’s why it is more difficult to hold your breath than it is to breathe. Similarly, when you’re born into the family of God, you enter into a spiritual atmosphere wherein God’s presence and grace exert pressure, or influence, on your life. Prayer is the normal response to that pressure. As believers we have all entered the divine atmosphere to breathe the air of prayer. Only then can we survive in the darkness of the world.
Just as aerobics increases our capacity to use oxygen and thus helps us to be more physically fit, so prayer-obics (yes, I made up a new word) increases our awareness of God in our lives and helps us to be more physically fit.
The first principle of prayer-obics is that we need to pray regularly. When a person begins a physical fitness regimen, he or she might think that it requires hours per day—hours they probably don’t have! But (as previously mentioned) aerobic exercise need only take 30-60 minutes three or four days a week. That’s doable!
Unfortunately, most people (especially in our society) do not get regular exercise. Many of our jobs are less physical than in years past, and we get busy doing so many things that we don’t invest the time to do what it takes to stay in shape. The same can be said for most Christians in their prayer lives. A recent study suggests that the average Christian spends less than two minutes a day in prayer. Less than two minutes! Twenty-eight percent of pastors spend less than 10 minutes per day in prayer. In light of this John Stott writes,
I sometimes wonder if the comparatively slow progress towards world peace, world equity and world evangelization is not due, more than anything else, to the prayerlessness of the people of God.
My purpose is not to bog us down with a load of guilt, but to find ways to correct the problem. Let’s turn to the Scriptures to find encouragement for the regular exercise of prayer.
In Luke 18:1 we read, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” Here we find an important concept for good fitness (physical and spiritual): persistence. It’s one thing to begin well, it’s quite another to keep it going. As Howard Hendricks puts it, “Some people go up like a rocket and come down like a rock!” If we want to see better health, we’ve got to stick to it!
Our Lord certainly practiced what He preached on the subject. MacArthur notes,
Jesus’ earthly ministry was remarkably brief, barely three years long. Yet in those three years, as must have been true in His earlier life, He spent a great amount of time in prayer. The Gospels report that Jesus habitually rose early in the morning, often before daybreak, to commune with His Father. In the evening He would frequently go to the Mount of Olives or some other quiet spot to pray, usually alone. Prayer was the spiritual air that Jesus breathed every day of His life. He practiced an unending communion between Himself and the Father.
“Sure,” you might say, “Jesus could do that—He was God! We can’t be expected to live up to the same standard, can we?”
Well, Paul wrote to Christians in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray continually,” or, in the King James Version, “pray without ceasing.” Concerning this verse Billy Graham states, “This should be the motto of every follower of Jesus Christ. Never stop praying no matter how dark and hopeless it may seem.” But is this realistic? Can we really pull this off? Warren Wiersbe writes,
“Pray without ceasing” does not mean we must always be mumbling prayers. The word means “constantly recurring,” not continuously occurring. We are to “keep the receiver off the hook” and be in touch with God so that our praying is part of a long conversation that is not broken.
Like a two-way radio that doesn’t need to be dialed or doesn’t need to ring, our prayer lives should be such that we can go to God at any moment. We don’t have to close our eyes, fold our hands, kneel down, say any special words in order for our prayers to be heard.
One last word about praying regularly: it doesn’t come naturally or easily. Paul writes in Colossians 4:2 “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” Notice the word “devote”? Just like exercise routines take devotion and dedication to succeed, so our prayer lives need commitment to stick with it.
The second principle of prayer-obics that we must pray responsibly. By that I mean that our prayer life must be matched by our practice. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:8, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” Stott comments,
The reference to ‘holy hands’ reminds us of Psalm 24, in which those who wish to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place must have ‘clean hands and a pure heart’. Here too Paul uses ‘the outward sign for the inward reality, for our hands indicate a pure heart’ (Calvin). So it is useless to spread out our hands to God in prayer if they are defiled with sin.
This is underscored by David in Psalm 66:18-20,
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer. Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!
Does this mean that we must be perfectly sinless in order to pray responsibly? Not at all! (Good thing, right?) Wiersbe explains,
The verb “regard” means “to recognize and to cherish, to be unwilling to confess and forsake known sins.” It means approving that which God condemns. When we recognize sin in our hearts, we must immediately judge it, confess it, and forsake it; otherwise, the Lord can’t work on our behalf. To cover sin is to invite trouble and discipline.
A good practice is to begin our prayers with a time of introspection and confession. Don’t just pray, “Forgive me of all my sins,” for this doesn’t accept responsibility for our individual actions. Instead, adopt the attitude of Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Allow the Holy Spirit to point out those areas that are offensive so that we can take care of them.
This won’t happen quickly. We will have to invest some time and effort if we want to pray responsibly. I’m not suggesting that we have to do this every time we pray, but we should set aside some time each day for some introspection.
Another principle of praying responsibly is seen in James 4:1-3,
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
Not only must we be responsible in our actions but also in our attitudes. Notice the bad attitudes James lists: animosity, envy, jealousy, independence from God, and selfishness. The biggest reason why we don’t have what God wants us to have is that we don’t ask—we don’t think we need help, or we think that our needs are unimportant to God. The next biggest reason is that when we do ask, we’re often selfish in our motives for prayer.
And this leads to the final principle of prayer-obics, to pray reverently. Our attitude toward God is paramount in our prayer lives. MacArthur points out,
The essence of prayer is simply talking to God as you would to a beloved friend—without pretense or flippancy. Yet it is in that very attitude toward prayer so many believers have trouble.
Jesus addressed the appropriate attitude of prayer in Matthew 6:5-13,
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
While all of that passage deals with praying reverently, I would like to pull one phrase that, in my mind, epitomizes the proper posture of prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Every prayer we pray should encompass this approach. Stott writes,
…this qualifying clause throws light on both the purpose and the character of prayer, on why and how Christians should pray. The purpose of prayer is emphatically not to bend God’s will to ours, but rather to align our will to his. The promise that our prayers will be answered is conditional on our asking ‘according to his will.’ Consequently every prayer we pray should be a variation on the theme, ‘Your will be done.’ What about the character of prayer? Some people tell us, in spite of Paul’s earlier statement that ‘we do not know what we ought to pray for,’ that we should always be precise, specific and confident in what we pray for, and that to add ‘if it be your will’ is a cop-out and incompatible with faith. In response, we need to distinguish between the general and the particular will of God. Since God has revealed his general will for all his people in Scripture (e.g. that we should control ourselves and become like Christ), we should indeed pray with definiteness and assurance about these things. But God’s particular will for each of us (e.g. regarding a life work and a life partner) has not been revealed in Scripture, so that, in praying for guidance, it is right to add ‘by God’s will’. If Jesus himself did this in the garden of Gethsemane (‘Not my will, but yours be done’), and if Paul did it twice in his letter to the Romans, we should do it too. It is not unbelief, but a proper humility.
As alluded to, Jesus practiced what He preached in the Sermon on the Mount. In Mark 14:35-36, as Jesus anticipates His arrest, abuse, and ultimate death we read,
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Note that Jesus did not tell the Father what to do; He had perfect confidence in God’s will. Three times He prayed about the matter, and each time He yielded to the Father’s will in loving surrender.
The apostle Paul also provides an example of how to pray reverently. He writes in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10,
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
We might be tempted to think that if anyone could “get his way with God” it would be Paul. After all, who had more faith than him? If you listen to many of the televangelists these days (and I hope you don’t!) you’d be convinced that it is every Christian’s right to tell God what we want and expect Him to deliver. But this is not faith; this is presumption. This is the equivalent of rubbing a magic lamp and having a genie appear who is bound to fulfill our every desire. But that is not how God operates.
This point is made in an excellent article on prayer in the Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics:
A discussion of prayer must begin with the point that prayer is to be sharply distinguished from magic. The practitioner of magic is concerned to manipulate nonhuman and superhuman forces to bring about his own will. The praying person is concerned to do the will of God. Prayer is not a device for ensuring that God does what we want; it is a means of bringing us into conformity with what God wants. A curious feature of much modern praying is that in the instance in which we get what we have asked for, we speak of “answered prayer.” If we do not gain our request, we have the problem of “unanswered prayer.” But “No” is just as much an answer as is “Yes.” Real prayer is more concerned to bring the worshiper into line with God’s purpose than to secure what the worshiper wants.
Allow me to give one last example, this time from our nation’s history. Before becoming the first President of the United States, George Washington led the Continental Army in its improbable quest for independence from the mighty British empire. At one point in this struggle he prayed,
And now, Almighty Father, if it is Thy holy will that we shall obtain a place and name among the nations of the earth, grant that we may be enabled to show our gratitude for Thy goodness by our endeavors to fear and obey Thee. Bless us with Thy wisdom in our counsels, success in battle, and let all our victories be tempered with humanity. Endow, also, our enemies with enlightened minds, that they become sensible of their injustice, and willing to restore our liberty and peace. Grant the petition of Thy servant, for the sake of Him whom Thou hast called Thy beloved Son; nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done (emphasis added).
Once again we have a good example of praying reverently. Washington’s prayer was specific, it was consistent with the general will of God as revealed in Scripture, but on two separate occasions he deferred to the power and prerogative of Providence in how the prayer would be answered.
And so we see the first activity toward spiritual fitness. Just as aerobic exercise “gets the blood pumping” and increases the body’s ability to use oxygen, so “prayer-obics” keeps us in touch with our spiritual lifeline. The basic principles are simple:
When we do this, we will see spiritual maturity in our lives, and we will be better equipped to serve God and one another.