I still remember the morning I found out I was pregnant with our first child. I worked a part-time job that I was mostly able to do remotely from our home, and it happened to be one of my days off. My husband had already gone to work for the day, and I didn’t want to tell him over the phone. I wanted to see his face, and I wanted to tell him in a more creative fashion than just blurting out the words. So my news was going to have to sit and percolate all day long.
A few minutes passed. I raced down the stairs to our kitchen. I talked to myself out loud about the idea that we were going to have a baby. I tried to settle down, but I was a jumpy bundle of energy. I absolutely wanted my husband to be the first to know, but I thought I was going to bust wide open if I didn’t tell someone soon. I looked at the clock and saw I had at least 9 hours to go before my husband would be home from work. So I did what any sensible woman would do. I ran into the garage, barreled into our dog Hitch, wrapped him in a bear hug, and spilled my secret. I remember his furry neck against my cheek, plush and warm against the bite of cold December air that frosted the garage. I remember pulling back and smiling at the quizzical look in Hitch’s eyes. He wasn’t sure what was going on that had induced our manic cuddle, but he knew it was something big. Hitch and I celebrated all day long, and having Hitch’s confidence buoyed me for the long wait until my husband arrived home that evening.
For a while now, I have been feeling this pressing urgency to share about God and His Word and the things He teaches me as we spend time together. In this season He has been leading me through the last 2 years, there has been this constant call to come away with Him and revel in my time with Him. It’s a deepening of our friendship—-marveling at His holiness, enjoying His beauty, pondering His ways, learning to see the world with His heart. It has been both discipline and delight. God tenderly reassures me of His love and encourages me with His precise attention to my struggles and hurts. He also persistently convicts me of my sin and the things I still hold more tightly than Him. I am utterly convinced that nothing is more important than the all-out pursuit of my Savior, and yet, this is only possible with great intention and deliberate focus. My flesh must be trained to respond to the heart God is building in me. Left to itself, my flesh will always take the easy way out.
I want Christ so much, and yet I am a slow learner. Nearly every day, I let the busyness and distractions of life tear me away from the Lover of my soul when I know that my rest, my life, my joy, and my satisfaction are in Him. It’s like eating junk food, skipping the gym, and then wondering why I don’t see a six-pack peeking back at me in my mirror. The pursuit of Christ isn’t possible without strict training.
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 someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. — I Corinthians 9:24-27
These verses bring to mind a Memorial Day backpack from several years ago. I was still single at the time, and one of my regular hiking buddies and I decided to do a 2-day backpack over the long weekend. We got a late start, so the first night out, we only had enough time to hike about 4 miles, climb the first big ridge, and pitch our tents. We cooked dinner by flashlight, sweating in the sultry evening heat. We went to bed with about 25 miles ahead of us, but plenty of time to cover them over the next 2 days.
I woke up early the next morning, and I was overcome for some strange reason with this incredible desire to knock off all 25 miles that day and be back in my own bed that night. Now I hiked regularly, but I rarely exceeded 15 miles in a day. But something inside was just pushing me to challenge myself. When my friend woke up, I excitedly pitched my idea, and he agreed to go for it. This particular circuit we were doing was shaped like a figure eight, with lots of lung-busting climbs up ridges and knee-busting descents down them. We were each carrying fully loaded backpacks of probably about 40 pounds. After eating a quick breakfast, we took off down the trail. After about 5 miles, our route actually passed right by the trailhead where we had started and where my Jeep was parked. As we hiked by, I glanced over. There it was just yards away from us, top down, vinyl seats baking in the rapidly building heat.
As we hiked past the lot, it occurred to my friend and me that we could very easily drop off our backpacks at the Jeep and do the remaining 20 miles carrying just a few pounds each in our daypacks. That thought lasted for about 10 seconds before we were both like, “Nah, let’s go for it fully loaded!” You might be thinking at this point that we were both a little off in the head, but if you’re a hiker at heart, there is great satisfaction in pushing yourself to see where your own two feet can take you. And anything you can do to up the ante just makes the whole experience that much sweeter. There is a bit of the masochist in every true hiker. So on we went with our heavy loads.
We climbed very steeply, coming to a burn area just around midday. The grade steepened as we made our way over, around, and through charred trees. I felt like my head was a piece of popcorn that had been nuked in the microwave too long. It throbbed in time with my staccato-beating heart, cooking in the unrelenting sun. I was sure it must be steaming. Any moment, it was going to explode into a blackened, burnt puff. I glared at the damaged forest and wished for just one scraggly sapling to cast the slightest thread of shade. When we reached the top of the ridge, a leafy canopy of unburned trees beckoned us onward.
And that’s how the rest of the day went, climbing and descending ridge after ridge, until finally we found ourselves down low again, walking through the forest on a fairly gentle grade, just a few miles from the Jeep. We came to a stream crossing where there were some large flat boulders. Without really talking much (conversation had long since died out), we each dumped our packs and sprawled on a boulder, relishing the cool draft of the water and the airy lightness of empty backs. We lay there for an hour. My feet slowly stopped throbbing, and I remember thinking that I really could just sleep on that boulder all night. I didn’t need dinner or water or a tent. I just wasn’t going to move until morning.
At this point, we only had about 2 miles left. But the effort it took to push ourselves off those boulders, strap on our packs, and finish was greater than any of the preceding 23 miles–miles that had been much more physically demanding. Those last 2 miles were excruciating. I hiked them by sheer will and discipline. There was no enjoyment. I’m not even sure I had a coherent thought. But all the years of doing long, hard hikes just kicked in and drove my muscles home.
See, I woke up that morning with an incredibly great desire to hike 25 miles with a full backpack. That desire was an important part of actually doing it, but by itself, it wasn’t enough. It took all the training and discipline of years of hiking and the strength and endurance it had built in me to actually finish.
Walking with Christ in an intimate fashion is the same. The Spirit ignites in us a great desire for Christ, but we must let Him train that love into purposeful obedience. Discipline without passion is legalistic bondage. Passion without discipline is spiritual hype.
Pursuing Christ doesn’t mean that we strive harder. Striving harder is not only a guarantee of failure, but it makes you a moving target when what God wants is a still subject whose soul is at rest in Him. God does not want to chase us through a maze of distractions, busyness, and personal pursuits, no matter how well intentioned some of them may seem. He will come after us, but how much better to be found running toward Him than running around in circles, hoping He catches us?
Pursuing Christ means making an intentional choice over and over each day to submit our time, our activities, our relationships, our very selves to living IN Him. We put ourselves in a position of surrender, so He can train us. Only Christ can grow His heart in us, so we want what He desires. Only He can build the muscles of our faith, so we will have the strength and endurance to follow where His desires lead us. All good athletic training involves some degree of pain. The same is true of God’s spiritual training–suffering is a key element. But what was good for Christ is good for us.
Recently, I was reading two very different passages in the Bible, but they so aptly describe what I’ve been feeling inside as God trains me in this difficult season. After the resurrection, two disciples are making their way to Emmaus, and Jesus walks with them. During most of the conversation, they are unaware of who is talking to them until their eyes are opened as He breaks bread with them.
They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” — Luke 24:32
Oh, how God has made my heart burn as He has broken bread with me in the stillness of morning before my children awake! How He has opened His Word to me in such intimate, ministering fashion if I come before Him without distraction and care clouding my heart.
In that sweet time of personal training comes the transformation Jeremiah described. As a prophet who suffered greatly for speaking God’s Word to his people, Jeremiah bitterly complained to God about the reproach that had come to him for faithfully proclaiming God’s message. He didn’t want to be the target of his people’s hatred for uttering God’s judgment. He was weary of the scorn it brought him, and yet here was his conclusion:
But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. — Jeremiah 20:9
When our hearts are taken with Christ, we cannot hold Him in. He will come out in our lives not because we are trying to show others Christ, but because we cannot keep our lives from speaking, our mouths from declaring what He has trained into us. Training tells. A heart set on fire by God must burn, and like any good fire, it must spread. And it will not matter what the flames cost us.
But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge. I will tell of all your deeds. — Psalms 73:28