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! 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.
!! Pray Regularly
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.
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.
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.
!! Pray Responsibly
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.”
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?)
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?
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