It struck me the next day that there are many, many parallels between striving for spiritual fitness and striving for physical fitness.
Lately at the YMCA I have been hitting the treadmills pretty hard. I have never been a graceful runner, and running long distances has always eluded me. Sometime around 40 -- so a few years ago -- I started trying to run again. It has not come easy. Seems like I always need to run a short distance (maybe half a mile) and then walk for a while. Over time, if I'm consistent in my running discipline, that ability slowly, slowly gets better. Lately I've been working toward the ability to run two miles without having to stop to walk. For weeks I have had that goal in mind, and I have failed consistently. I'll get a mile, or a mile and a half, and then need to quit. (NOTE to those of you who routinely compete in half marathons: Don't say anything.) I can see I'm getting more capable each week, but that two mile goal has still eluded me. From one point of view, I have failed over and over again to reach my goal of running two miles non-stop.
Until Monday. That day I ran 2.25 miles before I had to pull back to a walk. It felt good. And immediately I started thinking to myself, "I wonder how long it will take before I can run three miles without stopping?"
Spiritual conditioning is very similar, but most of us don't understand it and so we don't do the hard work of improving our spiritual skills. I hear people say all the time, "I could never talk to someone about Jesus," or "I could never pray out loud" or "I could never lead a study / teach a Bible class / preach a sermon." And I could never run three miles without stopping.
Here's the secret to improvement: Failure. If you do not push yourself to the point of failure again and again and again, your ability never grows, and the point of failure stays where it always has been. But if you try to do things you're not capable of doing, over and over and over again, your ability will grow.
So find the intermediate goal that is still beyond your abilities. Feel like maybe God's Spirit is nudging you toward public speaking? Try speaking out within a small group of friends. Find a context where you can teach a simple topic to half a dozen people. Offer to share your personal testimony within a church service. Do something small that pushes you beyond what you think you're capable of doing. Push yourself until you fail. Then push yourself again. Once you achieve one goal, start in on the next.
Part of the reason this concept stood out so clearly to me was that I have the privilege of working with this amazing Philippines team. Each individual member of the team is biting off more than they can chew in order to make this trip a success. Each one is sensing the nudging of the Holy Spirit pushing them beyond what they thought was possible. For some it's been discomfort asking for financial support. For others it's public speaking, or the idea of leaving home and family to travel across the world. There are lots of things that take these remarkable individuals beyond their personal limits. And they keep stepping up and trying and trying and preparing and working. I have no doubt that whatever this group is called to do, we will be able to do it. It's an amazing privilege to watch and be part of this process!
Take a look at 2 Corinthians 9:24-27 or Hebrews 12:1-13 for more on this idea.