Ah, January. From sales on treadmills and exercise equipment to late-night commercials hawking weight-loss schemes, the country, it seems, is determined to get in shape after indulging in too many Christmas cookies.
A personal trainer I once interviewed told me he sees the metamorphosis that takes place when people make a commitment to fitness. “Their posture and the way they carry themselves changes as they progress and get healthier,” he told me. “They walk a little taller — their shoulders are back a little further.”
And I wonder: What would happen if we worked as hard at our spiritual lives as we do at the gym?
Of course, the first thing necessary is to realize there’s a need for change. For me, the epiphany came via an offhand comment by a man at a party back in 2000. “When is your baby due?” he asked me. Um … I wasn’t pregnant. (Note to readers: Never ask a woman if she’s expecting!)
So how do we realize we’re out of shape spiritually? I would argue there are a few key symptoms. Number one, we’re under the illusion that we don’t sin and therefore have no need of regular, frequent confession. Number two, we don’t set aside time each day to give our hearts to God, to pray and ponder Scripture. Number three, fasting and almsgiving have no place in our lives.
That combination of symptoms in the spiritual life is akin to what a high-blood pressure, high-cholesterol, sedentary lifestyle does to the heart, and heart disease is a leading cause of death in our country. I would argue that spiritual heart disease is even more deadly.
What’s the best way to toughen up and get strong spiritually? It’s so basic: We have to want to do it. We have to desire it deeply, like the person sweating it out at the gym, pushing for that last rep with the barbell. St. Paul tells Timothy to “… be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2). He also exhorts him to man-up, as it were: “Bear your share of hardship along with me like a good soldier of Christ Jesus … an athlete cannot receive the winner’s crown except by competing according to the rules.”
And just like an athlete, growing spiritually strong takes sacrifice, commitment and playing by a set of rules.
Following Jesus requires a resolve that at times may seem beyond us. But the Lord tells us in Matthew 11:30, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” The first order of business then, is to submit to His yoke, to surrender our hearts and our lives completely to Christ and resolve to follow Him from this day forward, knowing that all is grace.
Here’s an easy first step toward growing stronger in Christ: subscribe to the daily email from the USCCB with the daily Scripture readings for the Mass. By setting aside 15 minutes each morning to pray and then read and reflect on God’s word, you’ll begin to see your life through the lens of truth that God loves you, has a plan for you and will never abandon you.
The second prescription takes a deeper commitment: Resolve to make regular confession part of your spiritual workout. There in the confessional we receive the palpable grace that fortifies us to fight temptation. The burden of sins is lifted with the words of absolution and we make peace with the past. We encounter the mercy of God and it begins to transform our lives in myriad ways.
Third, submit to Canon Law 1250 and abstain from meat on Fridays. If you do not eat meat, or if your physician insists you must, find another penitential act to perform. As with a grueling workout, there’s nothing like substantial penance to strengthen us.
May 2017 be a year of strength and growth in Christ Jesus for each of us and may we walk a little taller knowing that in Him, all things are possible.