The New Year is a popular time to begin a new exercise regime and by now those who have done so are dealing with some sore muscles. In some ways it is gratifying to use muscles we haven’t used in a while. In other ways it’s a bit discouraging to find how quickly muscles can atrophy. We have so many different muscle groups and we might even be surprised to discover the places that hurt after going to the gym or taking up walking or running. We may be in pretty good shape for one activity but find another activity uses different muscles. Getting in shape is hard work, so hard in fact that many have already given up their resolution to exercise. But to those who stick with the new regime better health awaits.
The New Year is also a popular time to take up a new spiritual discipline. Some of the same challenges apply to this new activity, as we start exercising parts of our interior life that we have ignored for a while and find pain associated with the new practice. But generally people who begin a new spiritual practice quickly find some big rewards and feel a sense of excitement. They seem to have more energy, more time in the day, more clarity in their decisions, a new sense of peace and calm. Most anyone who takes up scripture reading, or journaling, or sitting quietly for 20 minutes, finds immediate insight and a more hopeful outlook on life.
With new spiritual practices, we usually feel pretty encouraged at first but at some point there will be some pain we will be invited to deal with. But, similar to the fact that gyms are much less crowded in February than they are in January, many times we choose not to deal with the pain and give up on our new spiritual exercise. What sort of pain might we expect if we choose to take on a new spiritual practice?
Boredom is perhaps the first struggle we might face. If we stick with a spiritual discipline long enough, after an initial sense of excitement and insight, eventually things calm down and it’s not all that exciting anymore. Those new aha moments fall away. After being exhilarated by our progress and coming to think that this new practice is going to result in steady growth, we hit a plateau. Things don’t seem brand new anymore. And then they even seem rather dull. If all we are after is excitement or entertainment or a sense of how well we are doing, we’re going to be in for some disappointment. When that happens, a question arises: will we continue to be faithful or will we quit? Too often we think a spiritual practice is just about us being happier or finding new answers. Expect some boredom. It’s a reminder of our immaturity and an invitation to deepen.
There is other pain that goes with any spiritual exercising. As we increase our awareness of ourselves and the world around us, we may experience guilt and sadness. To recognize how very self-centered we are, and how ungrateful we tend to be, brings about disappointment. Honesty with ourselves is hard. It takes seeing our sinfulness to know our need for help. It’s usually easier to pretend all is well than it is to admit there is something amiss inside. Be honest with who you are. It’s worth it.
A huge amount of pain results as we explore a spiritual discipline only to find we have more questions than answers. Most of us want ways to explain suffering or the confusing things in life. But spiritual exercise exposes the great immensity of God. The more we know God, the more we know there is to know. God is bigger than us or anything we can ever think about God. That’s not easy. It usually leads to a softening of some of the rules we have sought to apply to the rest of the world. There are fewer absolutes. Questions bring confusion and confusion forces us to withhold judgment. We have to learn to wait for things to turn out the way they will rather than forcing them to turn out the way we want them to. Spiritual exercise brings humility, not an altogether pleasant thing.
Other pain may come as we exercise these new muscles. We may grow angry with injustice. We may feel an uncomfortable compassion. Our hearts may take on the pain of the world. New muscles hurt as they are used but that, of course, is a sign of growth. The pain will guide us as we learn to care for our new muscles and we will become healthier spiritually.
It’s a good time start something new, physically and spiritually. Choose something and stick with it. Expect some pain. Know that Christ walks with you and will bear your pain with you. God invites us to grow in Christ.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.