Push-Ups: A Parable of Spiritual Growth
With the start of a new year, the pressure to begin a new diet or exercise routine is great. Most years I ignore all of the options laid before me via email and social media, choosing to eat and to move the way I always have. One year, however, was different.
On January 1, 2013, our family of four committed to the “push-up challenge.” It’s a simple concept. You begin by doing one push-up on January 1, continue with two push-ups on January 2, do a whopping three push-ups on January 3 and so forth, with the goal of continuing throughout the year, adding one push-up per day through December 31st.
Four of us began this challenge, but only one of us finished it: our son Houston. Reflecting on his success (and our failures), I see a three-fold strategy of intentionality, discipline, and perseverance; it’s the “strict training” that Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
#1 – Intentionality
Each of us made a decision to begin the push-up challenge. We all began enthusiastically on January 1st with one push-up. The first week–well, that wasn’t so bad. Anyone can do a handful of push-ups, right?
By January 10th, however, I caught a cold and put the challenge on hold. Not surprisingly, this week-long pause turned into a year-long break. (Yep. I quit, citing mom privileges to do what I want.) Our daughter, Emma, also stopped by week two, noting that she got hours of exercise each week in dance classes. (True.) My husband, David, stopped by the end of the month, claiming exemption due to a bad shoulder from college sports. (Also true. It’s a testament to his commitment to our family that he even started in the first place.)
Intentionality was a good place to start, but it wasn’t enough.
#2 – Discipline
Despite being surrounded by three quitters, our son Houston, who was only 12 years old, continued. By March he was doing 60 or more push-ups a day; by July he was doing close to 200 push-ups a day, and by October he was doing almost 300 push-ups a day. Once he was doing hundreds of push-ups daily, he couldn’t do them all at one time. He had to carefully plan his day to spread out the groups of 50 or 100 push-ups. He had to do them in the morning, after lunch, and at night.
He had to do them when the push-ups felt good to his muscles and when his muscles hurt. He needed daily, sometimes even hourly, discipline.
#3 – Perseverance
However, after months of pushing his body without the advice of a trainer, the inevitable happened. In mid-October, Houston injured his shoulder. The doctor recommended a rest of 7-10 days to allow time for his shoulder to heal. Frustrated, but determined to persevere, Houston figured how many push-ups he’d need to do to “catch up” once his shoulder felt better, so he could truly and totally complete the year’s challenge. (It was about 3,000 extra push-ups, if you’re wondering.)
And he did.
Adding in a hundred or so extra push-ups a day and spreading out the repetitions, Houston was able to persevere toward his goal. By December 31st he had done a cumulative total of 66,795 push-ups for the year!
The transformation in our son was striking. His boyish body had grown strong and lean over the course of 12 months. With the kind of “strict training” Paul describes, he transformed from a boy to a man before our very eyes, not figuratively, but literally. We admired his intentionality, discipline, and perseverance (and all three of us wanted his abs!), but, alas, we didn’t want to do the work.
Spiritual Intentionality, Discipline, and Perseverance
If I’m honest with myself, this is true for me many more times than I’d like, not just physically but also spiritually. When I think of the men and women I admire the most in my Christian community, when I see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, I want what they have. I just don’t want to do the “push-ups” to get it. I want the abs without the work.
This kind of laziness has ramifications in the physical realm, yes, but the stakes are even greater in the spiritual realm. James puts it this way:
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says…the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22, 25).
So, with the start of a new year and in an attempt to be more intentional about our spiritual growth, my husband and I have committed to a spiritual version of the Push-Up Challenge of 2013. We will be working our way through Richard Foster’s classic work, Celebration of Discipline.
Because we are doing this together, we can hold each accountable for our good intentions. We’ll share the discipline of practicing things like meditation, simplicity, and confession. And, by God’s grace, we’ll persevere throughout the year, even when the spiritual disciplines feel awkward or hard or when busyness tempts us to quit.
Unlike the push-up challenge, though, we are not solely responsible for our growth or strength or success.
The spiritual disciplines will place us on the “path of disciplined grace” as Foster calls it. That’s our part. Yet once we get on the path, by grace God will work in us “to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).
Intentionality. Discipline. Perseverance. It’s daunting and exciting all at once, but I know from my son’s push-up success in 2013, it’ll be worth it.