Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change
Three excerpts at a time from the new book by Brian G. Hedges

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Excerpt 17 of 22

Banks Vaults and Movie Heroes

From his home the man had an unobstructed view of the new construction site. It appeared to be a commercial building of some kind. And though the work had begun normally enough, the man’s curiosity was soon aroused by something odd. With the help of a crane, a silver box was maneuvered into the center of the slab. It was the size of a large living room, and taller than any of the men. In the days that followed, as the crew began to frame the building and add drywall, the huge, glistening box was gradually hidden from view. Still curious, the man decided to walk over and ask what it was.

He learned that the building was to be a bank, and the silver box was its vault. The vault was not only large in size, it was central to everything the bank stood for. The building was therefore being constructed around it. The vault lay at the heart of the bank, defining its purpose, giving it value, and making it distinct from every other building in the area.

Discipleship is about building our lives around Jesus. He is our treasure and great reward. And like the construction of a bank around its vault, all the various parts of our lives should be built around Christ and the certain hope of eternal, unfading riches that are ours in him.

Why is it, then, that we who claim to follow Jesus so often fail to organize our lives around him? If he really holds the center of gravity in our souls, then our thoughts, habits, schedules, and routines should orbit around him. The spiritual disciplines enable us to center our lives on Jesus, becoming like him in his self-giving love. The disciplines are not the end themselves. They are practices that help us remember the gospel and apply it to our lives as we develop our relationship with God. They are also our focus of this chapter.

A Rocky Wannabe

As a boy, I had a powerful attachment to the Rocky movies. Sylvester Stallone’s character may have been an unlikely role model for a scrawny twelve-year-old kid living on a dusty farm in West Texas, but that didn’t stop me from making him an idol. I owned a scratchy tape recording of the first Rocky soundtrack, and I listened to it for inspiration as I did push-ups, strained through sit-ups, and sweated through jumping rope and lifting weights.

Why in the world was I doing this? Being twelve, I never got far enough in my thinking to have a clearly defined goal. If you had asked, I probably would have said, “I want to look like Rocky,” or, “I want to be the heavyweight champion of the world.” Needless to say, I never achieved either. Why? Probably lots of good reasons. But for our immediate purposes, I want to focus on just one: Apparently, two weeks isn’t long enough to transform a skinny weakling into a stallion, and that’s about as long as I stuck to my vague plan. I never became Rocky because I didn’t keep up the exercise routine.

Too often the same could be said of our spiritual lives. You hear a sermon, attend a conference, are inspired by a missionary, or read a stirring book. An image forms in your mind of who you could become. You envision yourself as a genuinely Christ-like person, a spiritual giant, marked by the depth of your love, the maturity of your faith, and your unruffled joy and peace. As the music rises in your soul, you resolve to get disciplined: read through the Bible in a year, memorize a verse of Scripture each day, pray thirty minutes every morning, fast every Thursday, increase your giving by 10 percent.

But before long, like a twelve-year-old briefly obsessed with body-building, you quickly lose steam and your new routines sputter to a halt. Consequently, you never become the spiritual giant you envisioned. Sound familiar?

If talk about spiritual disciplines is more intimidating than inviting, I understand.

Yet there is also something inside me that finds discipline attractive. I respect disciplined people who eat nutritious meals and exercise regularly. I also admire people who practice these calisthenics for the soul called spiritual disciplines – and I’ve slowly discovered how important these practices are to my ongoing spiritual transformation.

Training vs. Trying

Suppose you were to ask me to run with you in a marathon next week. I could say yes, and have every intention of doing so. But I would never make the finish line. My good intentions couldn’t possibly compensate for the lack of training. Now if you asked to me to run a marathon that is ten months away, I could do it – if I spent adequate time in training. But trying harder simply wouldn’t work because, as John Ortberg observes, “There is an immense difference between training to do something and trying to do something.”[i]

Respecting the distinction between training and merely trying is the key to transformation in every aspect of life. People sometimes think that learning how to play Bach at the keyboard by spending years practicing scales and chord progressions is the “hard” way. The truth is the other way around. Spending years practicing scales is the easy way to learn to play Bach. Imagine sitting down at a grand piano in front of a packed concert hall and having never practiced a moment in your life. That’s the hard way.[ii]

Living the Christian life is about training, not trying. But we often forget this. We try to be patient with our children, to show love to people who irritate us, to refrain from lust when confronted with sensuality, and to not feel anxious about difficult circumstances. But try as we will, we won’t succeed if we haven’t strengthened and shaped our souls through spiritual training.

Listen. You’ll never become like Christ by simply exerting more effort in trying harder to be a better person. You have to develop new capacities in your character. And that requires the power of the Spirit in forming your soul through disciplines. Spiritual disciplines, “those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth,”[iii] are the means God has given us for training to live as Jesus lived. These practices are called disciplines because they involve our deliberate participation in training for the purpose of godliness. They are called spiritual disciplines because their effectiveness depends on the gracious work of the Spirit of God.

So, the key word is train. As Paul says to Timothy, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7, NASB). The Greek word for “discipline” is gumnazo (our words gymnastics and gymnasium derive from its root). Translated “train” (ESV, NIV), “exercise” (KJV), and “discipline” (NASB), gumnazo was used to describe the intense discipline of athletes in first century Greco-Roman culture. Competitors in the Olympic or Isthmian games were so relentless in pursuit of a champion’s wreath that they trained in the nude, part of a strict environment that eliminated all non-essentials.

The New Testament urges us to adopt a similarly radical regimen in the spiritual life. We are called to discipline our bodies, keeping them under control as we pursue an imperishable crown (1 Cor. 9:24-27). We must strip off “every weight” and the “sin which clings so closely” and run the race set before us (Heb. 12:1). We should forget what is behind and strain forward to what lies ahead as we “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philip. 3:13-14). As we have learned, God’s ultimate goal is to glorify himself through transformed human beings. We further that goal as we deliberately engage in practices that train us for godliness. If we’re serious about this pursuit we will train with intensity, like an Olympic athlete.

[i] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002) 43. All of my thinking on training vs. trying, including the marathon illustration, is dependent on Ortberg. His book is a helpful and accessible introduction to spiritual disciplines.
[ii] Ibid., 44.
[iii] Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991) 15.