“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.
They do it to get a crown that will not last,
but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
(1 Corinthians 9:25)
I’ve tended to be reasonably capable of maintaining self-discipline. (Of course, my decision to skip the last two days of reflection-writing shows that I, too, face days when being disciplined is just a little too much). But especially when it comes to the spiritual life, today’s New Testament lesson (1 Corinthians 9:19-27) reminds me that there can be a big difference between the discipline of training hard — and the discipline of trying hard. As Pastor John Ortberg suggests in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, his excellent book on spiritual discipline:
Right now, you cannot run a marathon. (Blogger’s note: Unless, of course, you’re a marathon runner.) More to the point, you cannot run a marathon even if you try really hard. Trying hard can only accomplish so much. If you are serious about this, you will have to enter into a life of training. You must arrange your life around certain practices that will enable you to do what you cannot do now by willpower alone.
The Life You’ve Always Wanted, Zondervan (1997), p. 46.
Naturally, this raises the question of how we figure out which “practices” — or which “disciplines” — need to become part of our training. And Ortberg goes on to offer some excellent guidance:
- “First, we must understand clearly what it means to live in the kingdom of God. Jesus spent much of his time helping people see what true spirituality looks like.” (As an aside, I will note that today’s New Testament lesson reminds us that ‘true spirituality’ is focused not just on ourselves but on others.)
- “Second, we must learn what particular barriers keep us from living this kind of life.”
- “Third, we must discover what particular practices, experiences, or relationships can help us overcome these barriers.”
To show this process at work, Ortberg offers the following example: “For instance, we know that we are called to be loving. One thing I discovered when I spent a day trying to live in a loving fashion is that love requires an enormous amount of energy. And I was just too tired to give it. So I realized that–as unspiritual as it sounds–if I was serious about becoming a more loving person, I was going to have to get more sleep.” (There! Aren’t you glad to know that ‘sleeping’ can be a spiritual discipline?!)
Of course, Ortberg notes that even our well-intentioned efforts can run aground when we allow our “training” to be determined by what we think we “ought” to do based on somebody else’s life — rather than what we “need” to do based on the Spirit’s work in our life. Wise training, he suggests, will respect our unique temperament and gifts, will take into account our season of life, and will respect the inevitability of troughs and peaks.
But perhaps most of all, wise training will always begin with a clear decision. As another writer reminds us, “We do not slip into discipleship.”
What kind of training do you need to do in order to pursue that crown that lasts forever?
May God grant us a compelling vision of the life that we’re promised in Christ, so that we can “win the prize” for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14).