3 Spiritual Lessons from Lifting

scene from a weight room

I have been an avid weight lifter for close to 30 years now. While I’ve never participated at any sort of competitive level (or even had a desire to), I think that my many years in the weight room has engrained within me a few lessons that are relevant to the church in the United States today. 

Before moving into those lessons, I would note that these hold true regardless of what is happening in politics. Changes in the political realm certainly require the church to adapt, to consider what it means to embody a faithful witness in a new cultural moment, and to address new issues that may arise within public conversations. Yet, the church’s mission doesn’t change. We are to proclaim (in word and deed) what it means to live in a fallen world as members of God’s kingdom. We are not aloof and apart but lights in the darkness.

My deepest desire is to see God’s people united in powerful, prayerful, worshipful, truthful testimony to God in the world. Now … on to the lessons.

Lesson 1: Progressive Overload Builds Strength

I started deadlifting in early 2020. It is a lift that I had not really done seriously before last year. Since starting to deadlift more regularly, I’ve been able to build strength relatively quickly over time. Whereas I was only doing 385 lbs in June, just a couple of weeks ago, I was able to deadlift 405 lbs. 

While I still consider that a pretty modest weight for someone my size, the point is not to set new records, but to keep building strength safely and consistently. To do that, I have to progressively stress the muscles involved in the lift. So whether I add more weight, do more reps, change the arrangement of my exercises, etc., I have to make it harder if I’m going to see any gains in strength. 

We stand up under whatever challenges we face by allowing God’s power to be made evident in our weakness.

Stress can have negative results if we don’t have sufficient resilience and strength to handle the pressure. When weight training, I have a fair amount of control over the stress I can put on my body. I also have a reasonable understanding of how much stress I can handle. In life, we have less control over the “weights” that are put on the bar. At times, we may feel that we are stuck under loads we simply cannot lift. That is true; yet, as Christians, we are not limited by our own abilities. We do not stand up under whatever challenges we face by our own strength, but by allowing God’s power to be made evident in our weakness. 

I’m not suggesting that Christians should look forward to suffering. At the same time, we must remember what James teaches us: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

Lesson 2: Work Around Injuries

I’ve had a number of different injuries throughout my lifting career. Some were lifting related (e.g. the impingement syndrome in my right shoulder), whereas others happened outside the gym (e.g. my herniated disc, a few broken bones, a concussion, etc.). Either way, allowing an injury to keep me out of the gym completely was never really an option. 

Get back to the work of the gospel.

For instance, right now, I’m on a hiatus from pressing exercises due to a shoulder injury. I’m not doing military press, bench, or snatches while I’m rehabbing my shoulder. That doesn’t mean I’m not working out. I’ve been doing a lot more back, triceps, legs, and core work. The injury is a hindrance, but it isn’t a dealbreaker. 

I’d like to suggest that Christians think about the challenges they face in a similar way. Instead of succumbing to a sense of despair or hopelessness, take a step back, assess the situation, and get back to the work of the gospel. Don’t get too focused on what we can’t change. The world is full of opportunities to practice “religion that is pure and undefiled” (James 1:27). Focusing on a particular “injury” will only hold you back from opportunities (blessings) that might be found elsewhere.

Lesson 3: Music Matters

In my experience, there is a difference between getting psyched up for a big lift while listening to “Invincible” by Skillet and throwing on “Love of a Lifetime” by Firehouse. There is just something about the fast moving, quasi-angry music in the background that boosts my energy.

The “music” of the gospel reminds us of our need for God.

When dealing with “big lifts” outside the weight room, the “background music” has a similar effect. If you are listening to commentators who are only underscoring how corrupt or crucial a particular election or decision may be, you will probably get psyched up in that direction. What Christians have to start grappling with is that what we see in the media is not reality. It is the selective and interpreted presentation of reality. That doesn’t mean it is somehow inherently evil or untrue, but it does mean that we have to be more discerning and do the hard work of theology. We have to recognize where the media (Christian or otherwise) is asking us to buy into a narrative that is not complete and is shaping us in ways that keep us from conforming more closely to the image of Christ.

The “music” we need to be listening to (what we always want playing in the background to pump us up for a big lift) is music that is in accord with the scriptures. It is the “music” of the gospel that reminds us of our propensity to distort reality. It is the music that reminds us of our need for God and of the safety and freedoms we have as we live for him. 

As we work in constantly changing cultural moments and through the inevitable difficulties we face in our daily lives, let’s keep in mind what we are to do as the body of Christ. As I suggested in “Making Decisions. Being Disciples.,” “Christians are to be a distinct people within the world confronting the challenges we face not with overwhelming competence or unassailable wisdom, but with ‘a peace that surpasses all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7).”

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JAMES SPENCER, PHD is Vice President and COO of Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind. He also writes a regular blog at nextgenchristians.com.

Photo credit: Victor Freitas