Our churches have been richly blessed with freedom and abundance and in many ways it is ‘easy’ to be a Christian in this time and place. I would not wish for an end to these blessings. But the Bible does warn of the dangers of abundance and ease, and we are seeing some of the negative effects that those blessings seem to be having on the vitality of our churches and the faith of many people. What can we do to keep faith strong while on this ‘easy road?’
Paul’s answer is that we are to ‘exercise’ our faith. In I Timothy 4:7 he said, “Exercise thyself unto godliness.” This is a helpful image for us to keep in mind as we attempt to ‘keep the faith’ in times of abundance and ease.
Physical exercise is big business these days, with health clubs, exercise videos, fitness trainers, and all the rest. However, a century ago an exercise club or a book about jogging would have been quite unnecessary. Back then people got plenty of exercise carrying water, chopping and hauling wood, walking behind a plow over 160 acres, milking cows by hand, and doing the wash by scrubbing each item of clothing over a washboard. The march of progress has been a march toward making things easier. My grandfather used to show me how far he had to walk to go to school. It was about three miles one way. The only similar thing I can tell my grandchildren is that when I was a child I had to walk all the way over to the television to change the channel. Now we don’t even have to do that anymore. Life has become easier, but keeping healthy has become more difficult. For most people, staying in shape doesn’t happen automatically anymore as a result of their daily work. If we want to stay in shape, we have to challenge ourselves, making a special effort to do something extra in our schedule in order to get some exercise.
It is the same in our spiritual life. In other times and places people had to sacrifice for their faith. For some, every worship service was a risk. For others, it was a sacrifice to build and maintain the old country church when no one had any money. And in some places today, getting one’s own copy of the Bible is a life long dream, and can be had only with great effort and expense. When the Christian life is hard, it becomes meaningful, or it is left alone. When the road to worship is difficult, you have to always be exercising your faith, sacrificing and risking and praying for safety even as you worship. But when the spiritual path becomes smooth and easy, faith can become soft and flabby, and God’s Word can be neglected. It happens all the time. What can we do?
We must exercise, Paul says, ‘exercise ourselves unto godliness.’ We know how this works with our bodies. We must, if we want to stay in shape, set aside special times and places to run or walk or swim or lift weights in order to stay healthy. In the same way we must seek exercise to keep our spiritual being strong and solid, and we must discipline ourselves to set aside times and places to do certain things like pray and worship, and do so regularly. In our spiritual life we must resist the push towards making things easier. In fact, we might even say ‘Don’t take it easy.’ We often say to each other, ‘take it easy’ and sometimes that’s good advice. But when it comes to tending to our faith, it would be better to say, ‘don’t take it easy.’ Take the hard way. Take the way of obedience, discipline, prayer every day, worship every week, commitment, values, honesty, and fidelity. Don’t take it easy. Take the hard way.
Yes, it is hard to worship every single week, especially when so many families are on the go so much. But make the effort and find a way to do it. Take the hard way. Yes, it is hard to fit one more thing into the daily schedule. But do it anyway, taking the time to read your Bible and say your prayers every day (these EmailMeditations provide an opportunity for that). The hardest part is disciplining ourselves to do these things on a regular basis. But as we know, physical exercise does little good if it is done inconsistently and infrequently. It is the same with spiritual exercises, as the greatest blessings and effectiveness comes with consistent prayer and worship.
This is not what earns our salvation. Salvation is not earned by what we do, but is God’s freely given gift in Christ Jesus. But God has told us to do these things, and as we exercise our faith in these ways we add strength to our spirit. The Holy Spirit has promised to guide us and we need to give the Spirit those opportunities to work in us that God has provided, by obediently praying and worshiping. This is not always easy, but the easy road becomes traveled less and less. The hard road does not earn salvation, but it will keep us from turning our backs on faith and abandoning the God who has given us everything.
In I Tim. 4:7-8 Paul wrote, “Train yourselves to be godly, for physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things.” Our culture, like Paul’s, puts great emphasis on physical training and appearance. Paul admits that has some value. It is nice to look good and important to feel good, but you don’t have to read the Bible to know that all benefits gained by physical training are of only temporary value. In time, even the strongest and most beautiful bodies will age, wrinkle, whither, get sick, and die. So Paul encourages us to put more emphasis on spiritual training which has value both now and forever. The strong, confident, brilliant, faithful Paul said that he too needed to train and to exercise his faith. We too must be serious enough about our faith to sacrifice for it.
I Timothy 4:7 — Exercise thyself unto godliness…
I Tim. 4:7-8 — Train yourselves to be godly, for physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things.
I Corinthians 9:24-27 — Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it a slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified from the prize.
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer