I used to run only when chased.
When I finally started getting in shape, I began looking for an efficient cardiovascular exercise, and I was pulled to running. I’d never been even a mediocre runner, and never enjoyed it in any capacity. But running seemed the most time-effective calorie burner and cardio endurance builder. With a small daughter at home and a son on the way, everything had to be time effective. So I ran.
I hated it. I felt old, weak, and slow: My knees and back ached, I sweated buckets, and I smelled like a dead skunk. At another point in life, I’d have quit. But this time, I had a compelling and continuing motivation—I loved my family and wanted to be healthy for them.
So I didn’t quit, but I also didn’t keep running in a way that was obviously not working. I talked to experienced runners; I read about running; I learned how to run better.
First, my knees and back stopped aching, then I was able to run farther, and a little faster. I still sweated a lot, but it bothered me less. Also, it got easier as I lost weight and became better built for running. It took a long time, but I eventually came to like running, and now, when I can’t do it, I miss it. (But as my wife can attest, I still smell bad afterward. There’s really no getting away from that.)
Motivation for Spiritual Discipline
Disciplining ourselves for Jesus is the same. There will be parts we don’t mind; some we even like; disciplines in which we have natural talent; but there will also be areas of struggle, hardship, and failure. If we are honest, there are even parts we hate.
It’s easy to focus on aspects of the godly life we enjoy (or are at least not a constant struggle), but any neglected area of spiritual development leaves us vulnerable, weak, and selfish. And as long as we are motivated by selfishness, we will become discouraged and ultimately give up.
Our motivation toward spiritual disciplines should be love. Our God left heaven for earth to die for us. He didn’t wait until we were lovable, or even acceptable; he came when we were rebellious, angry sinners. He didn’t die a simple, quiet death, but was painfully murdered before a sneering crowd. And he suffered mentally for us as well, crushed under the sin of all men, hidden from the face of God.
There was no relief while he hung on the cross—it was all suffering. And it was all for us—he was separated from God so we would not have to be. He took the penalty for our sin, so we could stand before God and be counted clean. And then he defeated death, so he could show us what awaits those who love him. He rescued us.
Disciplined for the Love of Christ
So the pursuit of a godly life is not from selfishness, duty, or guilt. And we do not practice righteousness to earn our salvation—Jesus did it all, there is nothing left to earn. We live for Jesus every day because we love him, and we love him because he first loved us. We fight sin; we stand against evil; we resist temptation because we adore him. He gave the gift of himself to us, so we also give ourselves, and chasing after a holy life helps present the best possible gift of ourselves.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
While the habits of a righteous life are a sign of our faith in Jesus, they have no power to save in themselves. Neither do spiritual disciplines directly produce good works, but they empower us to do our work with greater strength, energy, and utility.
A spiritually obese believer is still saved, and their faith will produce works, even if such acts leave them exhausted. The daily practices of a life with Jesus increase our endurance and resilience for God. They also increase our love for him, because we enter into a deeper, fuller relationship with him when we practice his righteousness.
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)
Disciplined by the Holy Spirit
Spiritual disciplines are not binding, they are freeing. Christ frees us to love the race we are running with him, even when we are tired and sore.
And we do not run alone. Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to live inside us and propel us in our every day with God. When we are weak, the Spirit carries us; when we are tired, he refreshes us; when we are in anguish, he comforts us. If not for the Spirit, all our efforts would be vanity; with the Spirit our efforts are given guidance and purpose.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
We pursue spiritual fitness for love of Christ, through the help of the Spirit, to prepare for God’s kingdom. When we practice a life for God now, we prepare for a life with God then. We train for the life we will live for all eternity. Those devotions that seem a hardship now will be a joy in the kingdom.
And this training makes us more capable of enjoying the riches of heaven—riches that reside completely within Jesus Christ.