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The Spiritual Gym

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Over 55 million people in the United States hold a membership in a gym. Millions more find other ways to stay fit – walking, jogging, bicycling, etc. As a nation, we are aware of the benefits of a physically active lifestyle. Exercise can help prevent heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and certain kinds of cancer.

There is another kind of exercise that is even more beneficial – the personal exercise of spiritual discipline. The Apostle Paul counseled his young protégée Timothy: “train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7b-8)

The word “train” in this passage is a translation of the Greek word gymnazo from which we derive the English word “gymnasium.” It can also be translated “exercise” (KJV) or “discipline” (NASB). John MacArthur says, “[T]he word meant to exercise, or to train yourself in an athletic endeavor, which means rigorous strenuous self-sacrificing kind of training.”

It is interesting that Paul would use such a word to describe the way that Christians grow spiritually. There is a tendency to mystify spiritual growth – to view it as an esoteric change that secretly happens in a person’s life as the Holy Spirit works without their knowing. But the Apostle told Timothy that godliness is the result of a personal choice to engage in practices that are, in some sense, analogous to doing push-ups every morning.

These practices are often referred to as “spiritual disciplines” or “means of grace.” Primarily they involve the reading and hearing of God’s Word, prayer, and participation in corporate worship. They can also include practices such as: fasting, Bible memorization, meditation on Scripture, spiritual journaling, silence and solitude, acts of service, stewardship, etc.

Spiritual disciplines have long been considered a vital part of the Christian life. Pastor Donald S. Whitney wrote, “In my own pastoral and personal Christian experience, I can say that I’ve never known a man or woman who came to spiritual maturity except through discipline. Godliness comes through discipline.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism goes as far as to assert that the diligent engagement in Scripture, in prayer, and in the sacraments is required by God (along with faith in Christ and repentance unto life) if we are to “escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin.”

How do spiritual disciplines work? Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith teaches that people eventually become like whatever they truly love, and that what we love is the result of the on-going, physical, communal habits in which we engage. Spend a lifetime visiting a shopping mall once a week, and you will begin to love all that is valued by our consumerist culture. Spend a lifetime gathering to worship Christ once a week, and you will begin to love the King of kings. Your habits will shape your love. Your love will determine your character.

Smith writes, “Acquiring virtue takes practice. Such moral, kingdom-reflecting dispositions are inscribed into your character through rhythms and routines and rituals, enacted over and over again…. It’s like we have moral muscles that are trained in the same way our biological muscles are trained when we practice a golf swing or piano scales.”

On Sunday, September 9, we will begin a five-week sermon series at ACC on the spiritual disciplines. Many of our Community Groups will study this topic in greater depth at their weekly meetings. We will be talking about subjects such as: personal in-take of Scripture; meaningful daily prayer; the importance of corporate worship; and, the stewardship of personal resources.

Sermons on spiritual disciplines are a great opportunity to make people feel guilty. This is certainly not our goal! Our desire is to see all of us empowered to embrace wholesome lifestyle choices that will lead to greater joy in the Holy Spirit. We hope you will join us.