The Olympics are coming. Indeed, this Friday (6 July) the Olympic torch comes to Chelmsford, and there is much excitement.
Were the Apostle Paul to have been a Chelmsfordian, he too would have shared in the excitement. For he was fascinated by sport: within his letters there are some fifty sporting references. Not that Paul himself was a great sportsman. We know from his letters that he had pretty poor eyesight (see Gal 6.11); and tradition tells us that he was bowlegged and hunchbacked. Physically he was far from being ideal sporting material. Nonetheless had he been alive today he would have subscribed to Sky Sport!
Yet unlike many of our contemporaries, sport wasn’t his ultimate interest in life. He was above all concerned to win the ultimate prize – “God’s call through Jesus Christ to the life above” (Phil 3.14). In pursuit of this prize, spiritual fitness was key. As he wrote to Timothy, “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is valuable in every way, because it promises life both for the present and for the future” (1 Tim 4.8). With this in mind he said to Timothy: “Keep yourself in training for a godly life” (1 Tim 4.76).
How do we keep fit as Christians? One way in which we keep fit is by eating properly. Jesus College, the Cambridge College where I was a student years ago, prided itself on its Boat Club. Although the College had teams that played sports such as rugby, football, and hockey, the supreme sporting activity was rowing. No group in the College was given more attention than members of the Boat Club. When they were in training, they didn’t have breakfast with us ordinary mortals. Rather they were ushered to a small dining hall upstairs, where they were given special body-building foods. Their diet included gallons of milk, lots of eggs, and oodles of honey. They needed to be strong oarsmen if they were to be head of the river.
If we as Christians are to keep fit, then we in turn need to eat properly, we need to be on a body- building diet. In this regard Paul says to Timothy “feed yourself spiritually on the words of faith and of the true teaching which you have followed” (1 Tim 4.6). In the first place this surely means that we need to feed on the Word of God (see 1 Peter 2.2). Sadly in my experience most Christians fail to root their lives in the Scriptures. Sadly it is a minority of Christians who follow regularly any system of Bible reading. But along with reading the Scriptures, there is also a place for reading books about the Christian faith. We need to feed not just our souls, but also our minds. In certain traditions there is the custom of using Lent to read a Christian book. Personally I think the summer is the easiest time to read. Make sure when you go away on holiday your Kindle is stocked not just with escapist thrillers, but also with a Christian book of substance.
Along with eating properly, we also need to discipline ourselves. To return to my College Boat College, when its members were in training they were not allowed to drink any alcohol – and for oarsmen that is some sacrifice. They had to go to bed early – not least because they had to be on the river early the next morning. They had to disciplined themselves in their use of time – if they were to row as well as to work, then they had to limit their social activities.
Similarly, if we are to keep fit in the Christian life, then we must discipline ourselves. There is, for instance, the discipline of weekly Christian worship – I am amazed by the number of ‘twicers’ in my church, i.e. those who come to worship just twice a month. There is the discipline of giving generously to God’s work – in these days of austerity it is tempting to give less, but the reality is that in giving more we learn to become more dependent upon God. There is too the discipline of the tongue: the fact is that where there is no control of the tongue our “religion is worthless” (James 1.27). There is also the discipline of encouragement: instead of indulging in typical British negativity, we need to adopt the discipline of finding at least one person a day whom we can affirm and encourage and so help one another (see 1 Thess 5.11).
Yes, spiritual fitness involves effort. But the prize surely makes all the effort more than worthwhile!