Breaking A Good, Spiritual Sweat
How God uses trials, tribulations, and afflictions to train his people
Since June of 2002, I’ve been a personal fitness trainer in multiple settings; I’ve worked out of gyms, traveled to people’s homes and businesses, and even worked with athletes from various sports. Reflecting on that time in my career and the various trials I’ve encountered along the way, I’m realizing that God deals with us in a very similar method to how I’ve always viewed training clients and helping them reach their goals.
The hurdles and heavy weights of life can exhaust even the best, spiritually-fit Christian. In this fun study, I’m hoping to point us towards purely Biblical reasons for the hardships we endure. I’m prayerful that, through this, we’ll appreciate God’s methods a bit more and be able to comfortably endure regardless the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The Spiritual Goal Of Every Christian
Hopefully it doesn’t sound too conceited, but after several years, I feel I became very effective at training people. How much more effective is God at training us into the image of His Son? Just as my clients always had their fitness goals, God has goals for us and none is bigger than the goal of Romans 8:29 which tells us, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” If I’m looking at Jesus, who was sinless as 1 Peter 2:22 and countless other passages tell us, I realize I fall short – way short. In fact, since we’re talking about fitness, if I compare my spiritual fitness to Jesus’ spiritual fitness, he’s running a world record marathon and I’m huffing and puffing to and from the mailbox, while smoking cigarettes and eating cookie dough. A funny comparison, but I’ve got a long way to go before I get into Jesus shape – and I’ll bet you do, too.
Okay, so God, whom we’ll just refer to as the Ultimate Fitness Trainer, has a bunch of out-of-shape people on His hands, right? Yet, the Romans 8:29 verse says He wants us to be shaped into Jesus. What does God do? God does what any good trainer would do – He starts training us with the right volume and appropriate intensity. Of course, God doesn’t use weights and running or jumping, but He uses situations and circumstances to do His conditioning and training – the Bible usually refers to this as trials, tribulations, and even the furnace of affliction. In John 16:33, Jesus basically calls this life on earth a long, trying workout session as he remarks, “In the world you will have tribulation.” Wow, Jesus, I guess I should grab my sweat towel and water bottle, huh?
God Isn’t Some Cruel Trainer, Set On Pain
This idea of God bringing or allowing pain and heartache into our life is tough to swallow; we typically don’t think of the God of love in this way. I would urge you to view these trials and tribulations not as bad things, but as love. James puts it this way: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) If the idea of enjoying trials still doesn’t connect with you, let me speak as a fitness trainer again. I’ve put clients – especially the athletes – through workouts that were so challenging, so beyond their perceived physical and psychological abilities that they screamed and hollered just to finish the workout. From my heart, I wasn’t doing any of it to hurt or injure them, but to help them achieve their goals and accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
If my human heart wants what’s best for my clients, and I’ll even cause them short-term harm for their long-term gain, consider how much more God wants to mold us into a Christlike people for eternal purposes. We do have to remember those eternal purposes, don’t we? During the middle of those painful workouts, I always urged my clients to think of their goals so they wouldn’t become disheartened while doing those five minutes of walking lunges! Similarly, the apostle Paul tells us, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9) During the most adverse trials you face, keep in your mind that God hasn’t purposed you for wrath, but for eternity with Him.
No matter what it looks like, you are not suffering in vain. God is not a cruel trainer just fascinated with pain; his purpose is to make us “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
God’s Fitness Plan Is Guaranteed To Produce Results
In the fitness industry, it’s important to deliver results to the client. If a paying client is expecting me to transform his son into a better jumper on the basketball court, I can’t afford to make him bigger and slower. If I just took people’s money without producing results, it would be unethical, and I wouldn’t get their money for long! In God’s training plan for our salvation, the results are guaranteed. Romans 5:3-5 says this: “…but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Did you catch that? With God’s training program, at the end, there’ll be no shame, only results!
Within the world of exercise science, there are some exercises which don’t produce many results. Some of these movements look fancy, and the client may even feel themselves working while performing the exercise, but they really don’t progress the client towards their goal. When I make my people do these types of activities, it’s basically wasted time and energy – for both of us. God never puts us through useless pain like this for 1 Peter 1:7 says, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The result of God-appointed trials will always result in praise and glory and honor of Jesus, not exasperated statements like, “What was all that pain about, God? It didn’t do anything.”
I tried to make guarantees to many of my clients, but I often fell short due to many reasons out of my control. For example, perhaps the client would eat high-calorie fast food after each workout, which would cause weight gain. Or maybe the athlete would stay up all night playing video games, failing to get the proper rest required to notice strength gains. However, a totally sovereign God can get the results He wants, one way or another. In Daniel 4:35, God declares through the previously unwilling Nebuchadnezzar, “All the inhabitants of the earth are counted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”
Knowing Our Abilities And Weaknesses, God Design’s A Plan For Us
As a full-time trainer, a typical day would find me working out with a middle-aged banker in the morning that wanted to be more active with his kids, followed by a senior citizen at lunch who feared falling down her stairs, and in the afternoon I’d workout with a high school basketball player who was fielding athletic scholarship offers from several colleges. Each of these people have very different goals and require unique training programs to reach those specific goals. As a veteran trainer, I took pride in giving each client the right exercises – in the right amount – at the right time.
Consider these two Psalms: “For you knitted my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:13-14) “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14) These passages tell us that God has carefully crafted us together; He knows what makes us strong and what makes us weak. Also consider in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25, each servant was expected to produce according to what he’d been given – not everyone had the same requirements. God puts only certain trials and tribulations on you, and certain ones on me, all in the right amount, at the right time, for the right duration.
No one truly knows the ‘talents’ we’ve been given, except for God. Therefore, He truly knows our potential like no other. Another Psalm notes, “You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.” (139:3) I believe one mark of a good trainer is being able to discern a client’s abilities on a given day. Frequently, I would watch someone workout and think to myself, “They’re capable of one more set,” and other times I would think, “I believe they’ve had enough today.” How much more intimately does God know us? How much more effective can God be training us?
You Won’t Regret God’s Results
In the fitness world, I never met a client, no matter who they were, that wasn’t happy with results; no one ever looked at their smaller waistline, improved strength, or better vertical leap and wished they hadn’t gone through the pain. No, they didn’t quite have that attitude during the brutal workouts, but afterwards, they certainly were grateful and even motivated to do more.
For instance, David remarked, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.” (Psalm 119:67) If you know your Bible, you’ll remember that David wasn’t happy when he was afflicted as Saul chased him into caves, seeking to kill him. However, after it’s all done, after the challenging trials, David can say, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” (Psalm 119:71)
There’s also Peter, who must have suffered greatly when he denied the Lord three times on the night before the crucifixion. Can you imagine letting Jesus down in such a crucial moment? I frequently think of my most blatant, defiant sins and relate to how Peter felt. Even still, poor afflicted Peter could recognize the benefits to his sufferings, as he said, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10)
As I mentioned of my training clients earlier, a common reaction to success is the desire for more success – success always motivated them. I think this sentiment is found in 2 Corinthians 3:18 when Paul makes the statement, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.” No, none of us have enjoyed the trials we’ve endured, the spiritual battles we’ve fought, but as we look back, just as my fitness clients look back, we can appreciate where we were and where we are now. Simply put, we’re pleased with God’s results as He moves us from glory to glory.
It’s taking me a long time to view this life as more of a training session than a stroll through the park. Most days, to be honest, I really don’t want God’s training, I want the quick-fix into Christlikeness, which is exactly what many people have said to me over the years as a fitness trainer! They’ll ask “How do I get a flat stomach and toned muscles without exercise?” Truthfully, that’s not possible and I’m beginning to see it’s the same way with our transformation into Jesus – it can’t be done without afflictions, trials, and tribulations. Knowing that Jesus was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” as Isaiah 53:3 explains, can we really expect to be shaped into Jesus without the same type of training he endured?
Many times, when exercises were challenging or simply didn’t make sense to the client, I had to say, “Trust me, I’ve done this before!” I asked my people to trust me, but how much more should we trust God? Job struggled as God allowed suffering and trials to wear on him, but he still trusted God’s training ability, announcing, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him…” (Job 13:15) Friend, we can trust Him with the fitness of our heart and soul.
“The Lord gets his best soldiers out of the highlands of affliction.” (Charles Spurgeon)