The devilish machine staring back at me from its usual spot in the corner of the physical therapy clinic looked deceptively harmless and innocent, but I knew better. This cold, mechanical device had sadistic tendencies. Its little electronic circuits harbored a secret hatred for me and got some kind of twisted pleasure in knowing that my joints were pleading with me not to subject them to its torturous manipulations yet again. But another engagement with it was inevitable, so I gathered up my resolve, breathed a heavy sigh, and reminded myself of a comment one of the physical therapists had made. Following one of my complaints about the evil device, she said, “Look, if what we’re doing in here feels good, it probably ain’t working. We want you to feel good, but the path to feeling good in a way that’s lasting and healthy is almost always kind of rough.”
At Least Make It Fun, Right? ~
There’s a spiritual counterpart to all this, and I’ve probably been about as anxious to engage in that exercise as I was to climb aboard the innocuous sounding “new step” therapy machine. Yielding to inertia and gravitating toward things that are less demanding is part of our fallen human nature. We love the fantasy that physical prowess might be available in a pill we swallow, or some concoction we drink, or the result of some miraculous new diet we discovered. If we have to resort to physical exercise, we want it to be “fun.” We want video screens attached to our stationary bikes with beautiful human specimens encouraging us with lies about how they can transform us into people who look like them. And shouldn’t our exercise regimen be flexible enough to fit into our overloaded schedule and accommodate our erratic routines and mood swings?
On the spiritual side of things, we love exhilarating worship services. We want them to be led by incredibly talented singers and musicians reinforced by high-tech sound equipment and carefully choreographed lighting. And of course we want to experience them in comfortable, climate-controlled surroundings that also include free beverages. We want to leave feeling better than we did when we came, and that is absolutely understandable. Unfortunately, God may have some different objectives in mind.
Maybe God moonlights as a physical therapist once in a while. It could be that when He sees us struggling with a persistent sin issue or complaining about a difficult task He gave us to do, He says something like, “Look, if what I’m trying to accomplish in you right now feels good, it probably ain’t working.” God really does want us to get to those spiritually healthy “feel good” places, but the path to them is almost always tougher than our human nature wants to undertake. Like it or not, my physical therapist knows more about what is needed for me to adjust to my new joint implants than I do.
Strengthening Our Implants from God ~
Clearly, the same thing is true in our relationship with God. He knows more than we do about gaining strength and what it takes to adapt to the new things He has “implanted” in us. Jesus made it clear that a new life and a fresh beginning is available without material cost and there is no demand for physical exertion. Salvation comes through simple faith alone, but simple doesn’t always mean easy, and there’s a caveat or two involved in Jesus’ invitation to follow Him. For instance, the One who said, Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28, NKJV), also said:
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. Matthew 10:34-39 (NKJV)
The popular culture that loves to make physical transformation look fun and easy also promotes the same false view in the spiritual realm. “Joining a church” or “converting” to Christianity in many, if not most, instances seems quick, easy, and most importantly, painless. But even that initial step demands more than may be apparent in a superficial observation. The repentance that Jesus made mandatory (Luke 13:3-5) represents a radical turnaround. If one is heading due north, for instance, there is no more radical change possible on the compass than the opposite due south direction. God doesn’t call us “northbound” sinners to swerve slightly eastward. He calls us to a 180 degree change in our life’s direction. If that kind of change seems easy, then we’re misconstruing it altogether.
The Apostle Paul, arguably God’s powerful instrument in spreading the New Testament Church, repeatedly wrote about the “feel good” part of following Jesus (see Romans 14:17; Philippians 1:18, 4:1; and I Thessalonians 2:19), but his overflowing joy did not come without cost, because he also wrote this:
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ. Philippians 3:7-8 (NKJV)
A Paradoxical Struggle ~
Attaining spiritual strength is paradoxical. It is not gained by physical exertion or trying harder to be good. Growing spiritually definitely demands a struggle, but it’s the awful struggle involved in coming to the end of ourselves. Growth involves the exhausting fight against giving up the fantasy that our lives belong to us. We are challenged to do what we cannot do, to maintain standards we can’t maintain, and Jesus planned it that way. He sent us His Spirit to provide the power needed to carry out His mission, but His Spirit cannot do what He came to do if constantly hampered by our determined efforts to do it all on our own.
So… astounding things are possible, but not in our own strength. You might say that we are called to surrender our way to success. God used Paul to say it this way:
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us. Ephesians 3:20 (NKJV)
“TWEETABLES” ~ Click to Tweet & Share from the pull quotes below. Each quote links directly back to this article through Twitter.
- “Maybe when (God) sees us struggling with a persistent sin issue or complaining about a difficult task He gave us to do, He says something like, “Look, if what I’m trying to accomplish in you right now feels good, it probably ain’t working.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Salvation comes through simple faith alone, but simple doesn’t always mean easy, and there’s a caveat or two involved in Jesus’ invitation to follow Him.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “God doesn’t call us “northbound” sinners to swerve slightly eastward. He calls us to a 180 degree change in our life’s direction. If that kind of change seems easy, then we’re misconstruing it altogether.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Growth involves the exhausting fight against giving up the fantasy that our lives belong to us. We are challenged to do what we cannot do, to maintain standards we can’t maintain, and Jesus planned it that way.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
Check out Ron’s book, “Right Side Up Thinking in an Upside Down World ~ Looking at the World through the Lens of Biblical Truth.”
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