Summary: As runners must train extensively for competition, we must work out our souls in order to successfully receive God.
This is a world of soul building. Life is a race, from here to eternity (to infinity and beyond). We are the runners; each one of us is an entrant in the contest. This is a win-loss situation, and what’s on the line is everything!
So…how’s your training going? You are training, aren’t you? Because our preparations will impact our results. We train to improve the outcome of our race. Without training, we never improve, and may get worse. The definition of insanity: Doing the same thing and expecting different results.
Preparation requires discipline. Running a race requires training. No one but a lunatic goes to the Boston Marathon and stands at the front of the pack and rushes out at a 6-minute mile pace unless he’s trained for it. No soul receives God like the ocean catching the rain, unless he has prepared his soul to be so receptive. The unprepared soul is like a window that lets through a drop or two of water, and that only in a driving rain.
Michael Phelps, 14-time Olympic gold medalist, is perhaps not the best—not even a good—role model in many regards, yet his intensive training is legendary. He trains six hours a day, six days a week, even on Christmas. He swims 50 miles a week (I don’t even commute to work that far). The man sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, to allow him to recover more quickly, as at higher altitude in, say, Colorado Springs.
He does all of this to win a crown that is perishable, one that will not last. Probably the only reason my dad could come up with Phelps’ name is the drinking and driving “issues” that Phelps had here in Salisbury. Who here remembers the contenders of the past: Ian Thorpe, Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Johnny Weissmuller? How about in another 10 years? Long after the gold medals these men won have tarnished, our souls will yet be reaping according to what we have or have not sown in them.
Training is strict (1 Cor. 9:25). What kind of training does our soul deserve? Let’s use Phelps for a comparison. More? Less? The same? “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Mt. 16:26).
We cannot accept excellence in one part and consent to degeneration and atrophy in another. Our training must be holistic. The runner not only strengthens his legs, but also his back, chest and arms. A butterfly swimmer must have strong arms and shoulders, yet cannot compete with weak legs.
We must master our bodily passions and physical needs. We must control our emotions and desires. We must command our thoughts and words. A well-trained athlete does not allow his emotions to distract his thoughts, nor does he allow hunger to divert his focus. The well-trained soul, likewise, manages thoughts, feelings, words, and actions, all to achieve one end. It doesn’t start the competition, only to turn aside, shouting, “Squirrel!”
“Strict training” is literally translated, “all abstinence.” Training requires giving up. The serious athlete does not stay up till 2 AM. He doesn’t gorge himself on candy and junk food. He doesn’t play video games when it’s workout time. Training also requires adding to. The athlete makes a habit of exercise. He searches for things to give him an edge. He creates and then follows routines.
Training the soul requires excluding harmful ways—the acts of the sinful nature. “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9,10). If going to happy hour after work means falling into temptation to get drunk, don’t go. When driving to church leads to fits of road rage, give someone else the wheel. If following politics or sports leads to delaying or cutting off short time in the Word, let it go. “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Mt. 5:29).
Also, building the soul requires adding beneficial habits. “Goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love” (2 Pe. 1:5–7). Set apart (consecrate) time each day for prayer, and to read and meditate on the Word (not just one or the other). Speak plainly and openly about the Faith, and about your faith. You don’t know who may be listening or watching. Last month, I was at lunch with a colleague, and we bowed our heads and said grace together. Afterward, the waitress expressed how uplifting (and, sadly, rare) it was for her to see Christians unashamed to return thanks. There are many other disciplines beyond prayer: meditation, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration, to use Richard Foster’s excellent list.