Being overweight and usually wishing I wasn’t, I occasionally take note of exercise programmes that guarantee weight loss and trim figures. I must admit, I was intrigued but never really fooled by those exercise methods which promised firm muscles and instant fat loss without any sweat or physical exertion. You’ve seen it advertised I’m sure. Where you lay on some comfortable bed and these rollers and levers bend and stimulate your muscles without you having to do anything. Or where you lay on some comfortable bed and very mild electric current shock various muscles making them contract and supposedly exercise. These methods are not entirely painless, from what I hear, I have never tried them. But they are as it were, effort free. Don’t you just wish it was true?
Sometimes we view our spirituality this way. Why can’t being spiritual be a natural outcome of daily life? It shouldn’t be something we have to work at. We should just be who we are; just be ourselves, and we will grow into spiritual maturity. It is a myth of effortless spirituality. Just lie back on the comfortable bed of life and God will make you spiritual.
Well this passage from Philippians blows-up that whole idea. It uses words like: loss, gain, know, share, attain, press on, straining. These actions words are complimented with pictures of throwing things away, grasping, running a race, straining toward the finish line. All things which you and I are supposed to be doing as we eagerly await a Saviour from heaven who is coming to finish our spiritual fitness programme.
Let’s look at St. Paul’s three-step programme to spiritual fitness. Unfortunately, I the workout video is not available, so we will have to concentrate on the biblical text.
STEP ONE: SET A GOAL. You know the expression, ‘aim at nothing and you are sure to hit it’. To achieve spiritual maturity you have to have a vision of the goal, a vision of what is meant to be at the end of the process. Paul states the goal in rather stark terms: the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord; that I may gain Christ; I want to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead. To sum it up, the goal is to know Christ, and to know him fully.
One of the great themes of Paul’s theology is that through faith, through our baptism, and through the Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’. For Paul, the Christian life is a process of becoming more and more identified with Christ, of being transformed into the image of Christ. Knowledge or to knowas it is used in this context means to have a living understanding and experience of. So when Paul speaks of knowing Christ he is talking about growing into a deeper personal relationship with Christ. It is experiential knowledge, not just head knowledge.
Let me illustrate. I have lived with my wife Helen for thirty-six years. After all these years of marriage, I know almost everything there is to know about her. My knowledge of her comes through hours upon hours of talking and sharing our thoughts and feelings, our shared experiences, and our daily lives. But after 30 some years there is still more to know and to learn to love. When Paul speaks of knowing Christ, he means a knowledge that is deeper and more personal than my knowledge of my wife.
The first step in spiritual fitness is to set a goal. For St. Paul that goal is to be so identified with Christ, to be so in Christ, that we become Christ like. Paul’s spiritual fitness programme challenges us to evaluate all our spiritual goals into that one goal of KNOWING CHRIST.
STEP TWO: REALIZE THE RESOURCES.
I watched this programme about building the Shard, the tallest building in Europe. They had to organize a way to have all that steel and glass on site ready to use as the building got underway. We can dream all the dreams we want about what we would like to do, but those dreams have to be balanced by the resources available. It is the same for our spiritual fitness programme. We have to realize the resources that we have at our disposal so we can realize the goal of knowing Christ. One of the resources St. Paul says we have received is righteousness(read v9). But we usually object, don’t we, if anyone implies that we are righteous. After all we know ourselves only too well to know that we are hardly righteous. We know that we are not morally and ethically pure. But that’s just the problem; our understanding of righteousness is too limited. We envisage it only in moral and ethical terms. PAUL sees righteousness something more. This kind of righteousness is nothingwe can attain. Righteousness is what we have received through our faith in Christ. Righteousness is how God sees us on account of the love of Christ for us and on account of the saving passion and atonement of Christ on our behalf. Righteousness is our standing before God based on Christ’s work. It is how God sees us on account of Christ.
OK so how is this righteousness a resource in our spiritual fitness programme? It sounds a bit too abstract. What it means is that we have direct access to God. Righteousness must be understood in relational terms. To be righteous means we have permission to enter God’s presence freely. God dwells in pure light and holiness. Because we are seen as righteous, you and I have a pass-card which allows us directly inside the courts of heaven, the inner sanctuary where God dwells.
Direct access to God comes in several ways. Prayer is the most obvious. In prayer we tap into spiritual power and forces to help us in facing temptation, for healing and wholeness, for discovering we are loved by God, for discerning God’s will and ways. Prayer is not just asking, it is also sitting quietly in God’s presence and letting his blessed presence transform me. We also come into God’s presence through worship. God also comes to us as we read and study his word. God comes to us in our conversations and encounters with others. We have the resources we need through the gift of righteousness. We have God’s presence opened up to us in all of our life—unlimited, unfettered access to the holy, awesome God.
STEP THREE: RUN THE RACE. In St. Paul’s words, ‘straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me’. Spiritual fitness is not an easy programme. It is not lying on a comfortable bed and letting it happen to you. It requires some effort on our part.
In running the race, we need to reorient our value system. Our new value system means we look at life differently. Paul says, ‘Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ’. Paul looks at his credentials, human credentials, and says, in the big scheme of things what are these things worth. It is important that WE take stock. What is it that we put in our assets column? At the end of the day the royal family and the president of the USA will have to stand before God and be judged on the same criteria as you and I. At the end of the day, graduates from Cambridge and Oxford will have to stand before God and be asked the same questions as the man or woman or child who never set a day inside a school room.
In order to run the race we have to weigh up carefully the opportunities which come our way in life. There is nothing wrong with working hard to earn a promotion and better pay. But if that goal gets in the way of my knowing Christ, is it worth it?
In order to run the race, we not only need a Christ-like value system, we have to bring our spirituality under discipline. Paul gives us these images: I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me; This one thing I do, forgetting what is behind, I strain towards what is ahead; I press on toward the goal. Richard Foster in his book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, lists the great spiritual disciplines as these: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity of life, solitude, submission to authority, service, confession, worship, guidance and celebration. Read that list again. Some of these disciplines are private inner practices which no one will ever see. Some are outward disciplines which are evident in the way we live our daily lives, some are corporate disciplines which we do as part of the body of Christ.
These disciplines do not just happen. It takes an act of our will to make them happen. The image of pushing ourselves, of straining, provokes us to realize we have to do our best to become spiritually fit, to know Christ. But spiritual discipline is like a diet. Sometimes we blow it, but then we get back to eating right. The great saints of the past learned and passed on to us disciplines we can practice. We have to make the effort to make them work in our lives.
In conclusion, for now, we live in the present. The reading from Philippians calls us all to follow St. Paul’s steps to spiritual fitness. First, our goal is to come to know Christ fully. Second, we need to realize the resource of having free access to God through the righteousness Christ has clothed us with. Third, we must try to run the race, to reorient our personal values under the goal of knowing Christ and to discipline our spiritual life into the right patterns which produce authentic spiritual growth. This spiritual fitness programme is harder than any weight loss and exercise routine one might try. But the rewards are much greater. Let us join with St Paul and commit ourselves to these words: I WANT TO KNOW CHRIST.