Training for More Joy (Part 1)- How spiritual disciplines impact living in freedom

Michael Phelps has won more Olympic medals than anyone in the history of the world for his success in swimming. Standing six foot four, with a wingspan of six foot seven, and a size fourteen shoe, his physique makes him a natural in the water (Team USA). His stature is incredible, but what makes him exceptionally elite is his training regimen. He works out 30-36 hours every week, which includes swimming 50 miles and three days of weight lifting. To maintain these exhausting disciplines Michael eats 12,000 calories per day; six times the recommended amount for an average adult (Muscle Prodigy). This radical training has produced championship results.

By no means is Michael Phelps the perfect example. He struggled when he got distracted and even battled with drugs for a season, but when he trained to win he saw results. God encourages us to look at the training regimine of athletes like Michael Phelps as examples to follow in our spiritual lives. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27a). Most great athletes train in pursuit of medals and fame that will pass away when they do, but we are training for a prize that doesn’t fade with time.

The Christian life has massive rewards at the end of our race. Intimacy with God. Eternal life. Infinite joy. Endless pleasure. It is also one that requires ample discipline. If we are going to stay the course and finish the race God has set before us of following Jesus until the end, we will not just be able to coast in neutral; it’s going to take discipline.  Jocko Willink, a former US Marine, says, “Discipline is the pathway to freedom.”

We have already established that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2), but saving faith will always materialize into a life that looks more and more like Jesus. This takes training. One author said, “You are a new creation; therefore, create new habits.” 

INTIMACY IS NOT INSTANT

One of the best examples of what this looks like is marriage.

As the rustic barn doors opened on that chilly January evening, my heart started to pound with great expectation as hundreds of our family and friends turned their heads towards her. My eyes welled up with tears as I saw my gorgeous bride gliding down the aisle. This was the moment we had waited so long for. My life was about to change forever.
We listened intently as the pastor eloquently expounded upon the beautiful meaning of marriage. We read our vows to each other as authentically as a person possibly can with hundreds of people watching and hanging on your every word. “I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.” I was elated as we left the venue to begin our new life together.
Immediately, we were in a covenant. Her last name was legally changed, we moved in together, and even our tax status changed. Our position changed instantly, but I’ve since learned that intimacy is not instant; it takes work. Thousands of married people all over the world are positionally married, but living completely separate lives, missing the marital bliss of intimacy.
When you placed your faith in Jesus, you were instantly in an eternal covenant with God. Because of what Jesus has done on your behalf you are perfect in position with God. Your sin is forgiven and you are a new creation, but the point of our relationship with God isn’t just right standing with God; it’s about intimacy. It’s about drinking deeply of Him. This intimacy takes grace-inspired effort. Just like how my wife and I must intentionally pursue each other by spending time together, communicating, and going on date nights, God desires us to pursue Him as He pursues us. If you have truly been saved, your position with God will never change, but your intimacy can fluctuate. Just like in marriage, the work to pursue intimacy with God is always worth it.

SPIRITUAL TRAINING

Paul says, “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7b-8). There have been many books written on how to train for godliness, so I will just give a brief summary of a few spiritual disciplines that have led me to experience more joy in God, rather than giving an exhaustive list. Applying these training exercises in your daily life will grow you in godliness and allow you to experience more joy in God.

1- Prayer

One of the first things I experienced after arriving at rehab was prayer. We started and ended most meetings with the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer. We quickly learned to recite these without any effort, but we rarely thought about what we were saying or who we were talking to. Some of my mentors encouraged me to spend time praying every morning and every night, so I began hitting my knees right when I woke up and right before closing my eyes at night. This was when I really began to contemplate the real purpose of prayer and experience the benefits.

Prayer is simply talking to God. Jesus teaches us to view Him as our Daddy when we pray, “Our Father…” Rather than reciting empty phrases, prayer is an intimate conversation with a close Friend who never gets tired of us. God actually encourages us to pray all the time (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This doesn’t have to be a well structured, eloquent discourse, but rather a real conversation with a real God, who is eager to hear from you.

Just how my marriage would be cold and distant if I never spoke to my wife, our relationship with God will grow cold if we never speak to Him from our hearts. When my wife and I communicate regularly and talk about everything, we feel closer and our love for each other grows. As we learn to come to God to just talk, listen, adore, intercede, thank, and ask, we will find our hearts growing more in love with Him and we will experience greater depths of freedom.

Not only do we fall more in love with Him, but He also actually answers us when we pray. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you… These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:7, 11). Jesus is inviting us to get alone and begin training for more joy by spending time with God in prayer.

2- Bible

When one of my first mentors recommended I begin reading the Bible, I never thought it would become one of the sweetest treasures in my life. I viewed the Bible as an outdated book without relevance in today’s world, but it’s exactly the opposite. As I began reading it on a regular basis, I found myself not just reading words on a page, but communing with God. Bill Johnson often says, “The Bible is Jesus in print.” We can’t love Jesus without loving His Word.

Just as prayer is the way to talk to God, the Bible is one of the main ways God talks to us. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible is literally God’s Words to us. God spoke the universe into existence by His Word, and it still holds that much power today. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). As we read it, we experience His life and breath into our souls.

I’ve learned to love it like King David, 

“The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
    making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
    enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
    and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
    and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:7-10).

David viewed the Word of God as more valuable than millions of dollars and sweeter than his favorite dessert. We should approach it with this same value. Matt Chandler encourages, “Don’t read the Bible likes it’s an old newspaper; read it like you’re on a date!” Enjoy it. As we discipline ourselves to spend intentional time reading and meditating on God’s Word every day, we will find our minds being renewed, our souls being refreshed, and we’ll have a clearer understanding of the narrow pathway that leads to life. This may be the most essential training exercise of all.

3- Gratitude

A few months into my freedom journey, I heard a message on the topic of gratitude that radically transformed my life. The speaker pointed to the Bible passage that teaches that gratitude is the pathway to the presence of God. “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!” (Psalm 100:4). From that point on, whenever I was feeling ungrateful and irritable, I would write a gratitude list. As I wrote, I thanked God for each of the underserved blessings in my life, and joy filled my heart. Rather than saying, “I have to go to work today,” I started saying, “I get to go to work today.” This small mindset shift changed my perspective in every aspect of life. This discipline is a constant fight, but is one of the most powerful tools that remains in my toolbelt to this day. Whenever you are feeling distant from God or entitled, write a gratitude list and watch how God changes your perspective and fills you with joy!

4- Private Worship

Throughout Christian history, one of the main ways people have experienced God is through singing. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing” (Psalm 100:1-2)! We obviously do this regularly when we gather with other Christians at church services, but I also love worshipping God in private. My voice is pretty terrible, but there is something very intimate about singing loudly to God when no one else is around. Genuine worship has immense power. 

In Acts 16, after Paul and Silas were put in prison for casting a demon out of a slave girl, they began to pray and sing in their jail cell. “Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened” (verse 26). Not only do we get to experience God when we sing, but the chains of our addiction are broken when we worship God in private. Make it a discipline to sing to God with all your heart in the best of times and the worst of times.

IN SECRET

There are many other spiritual disciplines we could go into great depth on; silence and solitude, sabbath, fasting, and many more, but the ones aforementioned are a great place to start. Jesus says you should do these in secret, trusting that God will reward you. It’s been said, “Who you are when nobody's looking is who you really are.” If you fill the secret places of your life with devotion to Jesus, the public parts of your life will follow suit. By God’s grace, chase after these spiritual disciplines with the intensity that you pursued drugs and alcohol, and you will find your heart, mind, and body changing to look more like Jesus.

Application:

  1. Take some time to reflect on the Gospel and what Jesus has done to make you into a new creation. Reflect on the phrase, “You are a new creation; therefore, create new habits.” 

  2. Take some time to evaluate your spiritual training regimine. What next step is God leading you into as a result of what you just read?

  3. What is one way you can start reading the Bible every day? What time of day is best for this? What book of the Bible are you going to start in? (If you’re unsure, I’d carve out an hour in the morning for prayer and reading, starting in the book of John).