There are a few people who love working out. I have brothers who love to run. I am not one of those people. If exercise makes me feel better or gives me more energy, I am willing (although grudgingly) to do what it takes. I want to be healthy, but often the motivation is not there.
Likewise, there are people who seem to be born into a love of the liturgy, of studying the Scriptures, of hearing God’s Word and receiving His gifts in the Divine Service. (Obviously, this is not really the case, since we are all born sinful, but you know people who do seem to have a natural joy in the things of God.) Most people probably think pastors fall into this category, although there are plenty who follow every trend and fad in an attempt to be always relevant. I do love the liturgy and the things of God, but it did not come naturally; I was not born with it. I remember, specifically, a time when my parents were filling out a survey on worship at my home congregation, and I wanted them to check “contemporary music,” or some such thing, as their preference. (Thank God they didn’t listen to me!) But even now, the music on my computer and on my iPod are not what most people would call “church music.” It is as foreign to the Divine Service as the Divine Service is foreign to our culture. It takes work to come into the joy of the liturgy, just as it does for physical exercise.
For most people in our culture, especially those who did not grow up or are not comfortable with liturgy and structure in the Divine Service, these things do not come naturally. That fact is compounded by our individualistic preferences, which rule in every other area of life: we have thousands of television channels, dozens of choices at restaurants, and supermarkets, shopping malls, and internet sites full of choices. Whatever you want, you can find on Amazon, or iTunes, or ebay. And so when it comes to church, we want what we want, or we will go somewhere else. If it doesn’t fit our style, or desires, or time limits, or any number of other categories, we can easily find another church in the American religious marketplace.
But if we are serious about knowing Christ for us, and not just about Him; if we hunger and thirst for righteousness, rather than just the junk food of culture; if we want the Truth, rather than religious opinions; in short, if we want what God wants to give us, rather than what we think He should give us, then we have to do a little work to discipline our sinful flesh.
It is, in fact, a lot like exercise. The only difference is that with physical exercise, the only limit is your own body. Otherwise, if you work hard enough, you can get whatever results you want. Spiritual “exercise,” however, cannot take you all the way. It is not your salvation, nor can it please God in itself. But that does not mean that there are no benefits to expanding spiritual strength, spiritual endurance, spiritual lung capacity. While everyone is in a different place with regard to knowledge and wisdom, those who have been Christians since God claimed them in Holy Baptism, should, by the time they are adults, be eating solid theological meat, rather than still slurping superficial milk. We should pray that Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians does not apply to us: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2; see also Hebrews 5:12-14).
We do not ever move on from the basic and saving truth that Christ has taken all our sins on Himself and that He is our salvation, our righteousness, our holiness. But much like physical workouts, where we expand what we understand about how our bodies work and work muscles we never knew we had, so also in spiritual workouts, we should be expanding our knowledge of how Christ is for us in every aspect of our lives, how He is our life, what it means that Christ is our salvation, righteousness, holiness. This can happen only through the Word of God, whether that is in the preaching of the Divine Service, the study of the Scriptures with the other members of the Body of Christ, or individual reading, memorizing, and digesting of the Word of Christ at home and with our families. In fact, it is the Word that will work us out: the Word that will create true sorrow for sin; the Word that will create ever greater thirst for Christ; the Word that gives Him whom it promises.
Our choice is no choice at all: understand where the truth of God’s Word in Christ is spoken and given out without fail, and cling to it because our life depends on it. In this truth, we are exercised (maybe exorcised!) and He strengthens us in the knowledge and hope of His promises. There is nothing better or more worthwhile than that.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”