How to Avoid Spiritual Obesity

Today’s post is the latest in a series of guest posts centered around my churchs annual theme ofHealthy Hearts”. This month’s contributor is Preston Cottrell. His full bio is at the bottom of the post, but here’s a brief intro…

I met Preston through a mutual friend a couple of years ago. He later asked me to make a video (which I really hope has been destroyed!!) for a youth rally his church held. I really appreciate the perspective Preston brings to Scripture as he merges his interests in art and theology. Too often our expression of faith and worship takes a logical, rational form that marginalises our emotional and imaginative characteristics. This article isn’t about art, but it does provide an excellent challenge for us to keep our hearts healthy.

“Anyone who hears and obeys these teachings of mine is like a wise person who built a house on solid rock.”

(Matthew 7:24)

At the end of what we refer to as “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus instructs people to hear his words and put them into practice just as a wise person will build a house on a solid foundation (Matthew 7:24ff). He could have ended his talk many different ways, but I think Jesus was fully aware that one human tendency is to not practice the things we hear despite a compelling message. Probably many people still went away from his challenges amazed at his teaching, but also content to live a blah life. I know the same condition exists in pockets of our own churches and in my own life. It is an issue of the heart.

Physical & Spiritual Obesity

I started to realize this temptation of lethargic spirituality in an unlikely way. A few months ago ago I started doing the things that I know I should have been doing all my life: maintaining a properly portioned diet and an adequate exercise program. But because I know myself too well, I came to the realization that I could not simply stumble into a healthy lifestyle. There was no way I could resist a slice of chocolate cake, glorious mounds of pasta, or just one more cookie. There was no way I could go everyday exercising with no excuse (and there are many). Now don’t get me wrong, I was in pretty good shape; however, I knew if I wanted to get into great shape, I needed some structure, consistency, and passion in what I was doing.

So I began a process to increase my physical health and better my daily stamina. I was not interested in gimmicks or enticements; I was ready for a life change. It promised to be a major sacrifice of time, convenience, pain, and money. Simply put, it was filled with two four-letter words, “diet” and “work” (aka “exercise”). This plan was straightforward, but effective. As a result, my new lifestyle affected every aspect of my health.

My physical transformation naturally allowed me to think about spiritual transformation. Even Paul used training and athletic metaphors to illustrate the physical/spiritual connection (e.g. Phil. 2:16; Gal. 2:2, 5:7; 2 Tim. 4:7). He recognized that like having a healthy physical heart, having a healthy spiritual heart is about true devotion. He was not referring to devotion that is cheap, sentimental, or blind. He spoke of devotion that means sacrifice. Devotion is not about attendance, self-inflation, or gratification; it is conscious effort to glorify God through serving, lifting others above myself, and asking others to check the progress. Just like an athlete never really ends training, so too a Christian must continue growing, learning, and changing.

When I look over my spiritual life, I also realized that growth in Christ involves much of the same discipline. I represent one sliver of a generation that yearns for every aspect of life sacrificed to God. Give me a life that says my hours each day will be for the betterment of our human community. Let me pursue conversion rather than convenience; Let me learn how to embrace spiritual yearning, struggling, and pain as the martyrs of the first few centuries of Christianity boldly assumed their place among the heavenly angels. The plan is simple, but few Christians really, truly, and completely follow it — all too often, including myself. At times I am amazed at the teaching of Jesus, but when it comes to really practicing faith, I relate to the sandy foundation of the crowds on the mountainside. Some Christians give money in such a way to have a “safety net” instead of relying upon God to walk each and every day with a renewed sense of dependency. Some rationalize time, energy, and focus just hoping that at the end of the day, the good deeds outweigh the bad. Some place family time over personal growth instead of leading the family to truly know God and live as his wonderful disciples. Despite the desire to truly follow God, it is so easy to slip into spiritual obesity.

Having a healthy spiritual heart is not just about ridding our lives of sin. While sin-ridding comes with it, healthy living involves experiencing an “inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). For Jesus, faith was conceptually pretty easy: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27). It is so tempting to respond like the expert in the Law and try to clarify some points to justify myself; in a similar way I struggled to change my physical lifestyle to get in better shape. This is practically a tough road. The tough part about Jesus’ command is not the concept, but the practice, the devotion. I speak for a lot of young Christians who are ready to work. We are beyond the stages of feeling guilt to come to worship a few set times during the week. We don’t want the hooks and gimmicks; We don’t want ease; We don’t want just to be nice people so that we can get a mansion in heaven. Sometimes we will fail . . . but that is life. We are all called to make a difference in the world, to allow Christ to shine in every dimension of our being. In other words, we are ready for the rigorous diet and exercise of our faith. There is tremendous fulfillment as we discover what it means to live as new creations. So are you ready for that journey?

5 Beginning Practical Steps Forward (For Physical and Spiritual Renewal):

 1)  Surround yourself with supporters: You know the naysayers, critics, and negative people. Their attitudes are toxic. Criticism and conflict can keep you on track, but make sure you discern the difference between constructive and obstructive criticism.

2)  As growth occurs, the lifestyle is easier: Progress may be slow, but slow triumphs feel great and challenge new areas of focus. Don’t get so bogged down in the complex practicality that you miss the ease of the concept.

3)  Keep records: Knowing where you came from provides motivation for future endeavors.

4)  Rid yourself of fear and guilt: Somewhere along the way, the short-term gains of these two words twisted the methodology of church evangelism. This works about as well as doctors telling people to diet and exercise in a world of cheeseburgers, fries, and busy schedules. It is easy to loose traction with each failed attempt, but the worst outcome is to give up on the pursuit.

5)  Don’t hyperextend the connection: Since the late nineteenth century, proponents of muscular Christianity have perhaps placed too rigorous emphasis on the connection between physical stamina and spiritual well-being. While I believe in some connection, spiritual and physical health are complicated to fully understand; Excellence in one area is not necessarily a measure of competency in the other.

Bio: Preston graduated from the Harding School of Theology (Memphis, TN) with a M.A. in Historical Theology. Currently, he is the Youth Minister at the Manchester Church of Christ in New Hampshire helping teens and adults to grow each day closer to God. He also serves carrots to the teens during hangout times (and they look forward to them!) On the side, he has a great interest in the integration of art and faith, which is the focus of his blog entitled, “Faithful Aesthetics” (www.prestoncottrell.wordpress.com).

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