Spiritual Athletics To Strengthen Your Relationship With Jesus

During the fourth century, hundreds of ascetics sought to escape temptation by punishing their bodies and living as hermits. The extremes they endured in order to deny the gratification of their “physical lusts” seem incredible.

St. Ascepsimas wore so many chains that he was forced to crawl around on his hands and knees. Besarion, a monk, would not give in to his body’s desire for restful sleep—for forty years he refused to lie down while sleeping. Macarius the Younger sat naked in a swamp for six months until mosquito bites made him look like a leper. St. Maron spent eleven years in a hollowed-out tree trunk. Others lived in caves, dens of beasts, dry wells—even tombs.

The most celebrated ascetic, though, was Simeon the Stylite of Syria. He spent 37 years living on different pillars, each one higher and narrower than the last. His final pillar stood 66 feet high.

Whenever anyone mentions “spiritual disciplines” to me, the aforementioned images come to mind. Perhaps my distaste for them results from the ulcer I once developed while going on an extended fast.

Recently, while researching the meaning of Lent for church, I ran across some online articles explaining that Lent usually involves different spiritual disciplines (like fasting, prayer, silence) that help us keep our sinful nature in check.

Ughh, I thought to myself. Please…you can keep your hair shirt!

But then the realization occurred to me: more than keeping our sinful nature in check, Lent is about connecting to God. For 40 days, we make a concerted effort to deepen our relationship with our Maker. Mortifying the flesh, while important, doesn’t occur by focusing all of our energies on mortifying our flesh. Any recovering alcoholic will tell you that focusing all their energies on not drinking only drives them further toward the bottle.

Drinking deeply of Jesus, though, makes any other substitute seem like a poor knock-off.

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Interestingly enough, those well-known people who mortified their flesh are called “ascetics.” You know what English word comes from “ascetic”? Athletics. Through the spiritual disciplines we engage in spiritual “athletics” that strengthen our relationship with God.

This Lenten season, if you choose to choose to practice a spiritual discipline, focus on Jesus—not your sin.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1–2

Disciplines of Abstinence:

  • Solitude
  • Silence
  • Fasting
  • Frugality
  • Chastity
  • Secrecy
  • Sacrifice

Disciplines of Engagement:

  • Study
  • Worship
  • Celebration
  • Service
  • Prayer
  • Fellowship
  • Confession
  • Submission

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Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church with Eugene Scott in Littleton, Colorado.


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6 responses to “Spiritual Athletics To Strengthen Your Relationship With Jesus

  1. Georgie-ann

    Good morning and Happy Lent!

    Very early in my Christian walk / spiritual search, I encountered a group to whom these early saints and their ascetic practices were familiar and admired. I owe a lot to them in many ways. As a group we practiced “silence” in our daily doings. I would say that this was our most consistently “successful” effort, but we also “lived a fasted life” in general, and attempted many others things from time to time — nothing remotely similar to sitting on a pillar, but a lot of simple back-to-nature stuff — being willing to “sacrifice” excess comforts, indulgences and luxuries, (which we hardly missed to tell the truth).

    There was an aspect of this that was just so wonderful, coming as a welcome contrast to our already overly complex “modernized” lives — (which, even so, were nothing on a par with today’s modern challenges and demands!). But the effort to simplify does create an opportunity to experience life on another level.

    However, after many assiduous years of this, one’s perceptions change / grow. For one thing, it is just “all too human” under such circumstances to create the self-exalted and self-important “silence police,” for instance. Sure, that enforces that the atmosphere is maintained, but to what purpose? Strong and prideful outer controls ultimately erode personal initiative, personal self-discipline, personal self-discovery, and create a lot of robots instead! At this point, nobody is going anywhere, spiritually or otherwise.

    So, my conclusion, eventually, was that a season of intense ascetic efforts of whatever form, does have an important place in spiritual self-discovery and development and understanding. Sometimes this is likened to “putting a stick in the wheel” of our automatic functioning, our habits, long enough to get a glimpse of what it is and how much it is in control of us usually, and also to open up to a vision of something more — deeper, higher — spiritual, than our usual. But the danger comes in exalting the practices themselves, or the practitioner, on this basis,…and then you’re just “back to square one” in a different form. Talk about “ugh!”

    Spiritual growth and understanding has beginning stages and “disciplines of the flesh” that should lead to a freedom and blossoming and maturity and fruit in the realm of the Spirit:

    Galatians 5: 13-26, (Life by the Spirit):

    13 “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

    16 “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

    19 “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

    22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

    I do believe that there is a call to a level of prayer and sacrifice that one can make / offer unto God — as also in “spiritual warfare” — in intercession for various needs and situations. I’m not a “spiritual director,” but I think that care is needed not go overboard in a prideful ambition in these things, and in general to seek a gentler way, especially early in one’s walk with the Lord.

  2. I agree with you, Georgie-ann. When the spiritual discipline becomes the focus, then it’s a waste of time. If I try on a spiritual discipline in order to “stick a spoke in the wheel” (great word picture, by the way) and draw closer to Christ, then the effort will likely be productive.

    Personally, I need regular periods of stillness and silence. As I continue to struggle against an addiction to work, I need to stop everything and bring my world to a halt. As an extrovert, I need “alone time” so I can acclimate to silence. Those two disciplines never get stale.

  3. Georgie-ann

    Alone time = God time, with stillness and silence. I consider these necessities to a spiritual walk,…and a blessing.

  4. I so needed to hear this, Mike! Focus on Jesus…not the sin! I know recently I’ve had some great shifts in my times with Him in just waiting and not TRYING so hard to make something happen. More peace as a result and more focus on what HE wants to do rather than me rattling off complaints, requests and such. Why I get out of that mode, I don’t know, but I’m happy the shift is taking place and these times with Him are “coming back around” to more of a contemplative time of listening…of healing! God bless!

  5. Georgie-ann

    Sometimes I wonder if some people are truly “workaholics” within themselves,…or if many of us just don’t experience way too much pressurized complexity “on our plates” these days, that we feel obligated / driven to accomplish. A sense of working together on life issues — (or “sharing the load” as family or community) — was much more common in the “old days,” as opposed to overloading each lone “responsible” individual with myriad tasks and goals and expectations.

    This emphasis has become extremely out of balance with the way most humans can function comfortably for the long haul, and is another example of the ways that the modern worldview has pushed conformity with unwise paradigms.

    Romans 1:21-22

    21 “because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools,…”

    Returning our hearts to God could be a cure for a lot of the things that assail us in this demanding modern life.

    James 4:8 “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”

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