I was once in pretty good shape. I have always loved sports and exercise, and even played basketball at a highly ranked D-I university. Technically, I was just on an open team in the university’s rec center, but still.
I was in relatively good shape until Fall 2012, when stuff hit the fan. The last 18 months have been marked by chronic sinusitis, fibromyalgia and about a dozen small sicknesses, and to say the least, I am not in the shape of my life. (See my essay “The Last Twelve Months—A Memoir of 2013” for more.) About four months ago, I started regaining enough health and energy to get back in the gym regularly, and having lost 15 pounds from my already beanpole frame, putting on weight was my top priority. Within a few months, I was able to get back to bench pressing and squatting weights almost equivalent to my pre-sickness routine. But, in the hurry that I was in to put on muscle and weight, I entirely neglected core fitness—strengthening my heart and lungs through cardiovascular activity and my abdomen, lower back, buttocks and thighs through resistance training. By the end of the fall, I was having significant lower back pain and ended up in physical therapy. Immediately, my therapist (I like calling him that) ran me through a series of cardio and core fitness exercises that almost made me puke within ten minutes. “I had no idea you were in such bad shape,” he kept saying. “You look athletic and chiseled,” (that’s how I remember it) he continued, “but you can’t do the basic things that any human being should be able to do.” I could bench press a moderately impressive amount of weight for being so skinny I need skis in the shower (to not go down the drain, I know it’s not that funny), but I could barely endure five minutes of jogging or twenty slow sit-ups.
You couldn’t tell by looking at me, but the new activities exposed many deep flaws. My lengthy extremities were strong but I was wimpy where it really mattered—core fitness.
I once read a book by a prominent universalist theologian (that vocation actually exists, though I doubt it pays especially well) who spoke on the difference between “living from the exterior” versus “living from the center.” It was a very valid observation, based, I’m sure, on legitimate psychological research. He was ironically very weak on what was in the center, but the point was well made and makes perfect sense within Christian formation.
A man or woman can spend his whole life living from the exterior of his being and not even know it. The exterior or circumference of our life, and this is my version, is all that is readily visible to the outside world. My work, my income, my possessions, my reputation—these are activities and aspects of my life that function like arms and legs, they’re highly visible and get me from place to place. But the core of my life is my own soul, developing and deepening through the transformation of my mind, the practices and habits of my will, and my responses to the circumstances of my life. So a man could go on living as if his extremities were his core; he could base his entire identity, existence and affections on his status and such. We all know people like this, and have learned to rightly make fun of them when we see them drive by with their windows down or when they’re talking loudly on the phone in a quiet place. They may have the arms and legs of a bodybuilder, but they’d collapse in a heap of vomit if made to do a few simple core exercises.
Meanwhile, a man or woman living from her center may not seem all that impressive. There may not be anything fantastic about her at first glance, because she doesn’t busy herself promoting what she does or has. Her mind, will and life are set instead on who she is and who she’s becoming. This is living from the center, and needs little beyond the presence and love of God. This is core strength.
The thing about core fitness is that you’re often not sure how strong it is until you’re challenged there. In other words, if you haven’t done a wall sit in a while, you won’t know how long you’ll last until you actually do sit against a wall (at all right angles). So it is with spiritual core fitness. It often takes an external circumstance, even the loss of an extremity, to reveal what’s deep inside. How do you respond to a pay cut? What happens in your heart when a friend insults you? How much of your happiness is dependent upon your productivity, your outfit or the KC Royals’ success? All these things will fail you—some much sooner than others.
Like physical core fitness, spiritual core strength must be very intentionally and slowly developed over time—just like with physical exercise, that’s why most people neglect it! The results aren’t immediate; it’s as if you’re working tiny muscles and fibers hidden within your gut while your extremities aren’t changing in appearance at all.
So how do you strengthen your spiritual core? What daily habits slowly increase the fitness that truly matters?
I call these my core exercises because they are both essential to developing my spiritual core and because many spiritual disciplines are useful but practicing a select few are most important.
Core Discipline #1: Bible Meditation
Bible meditation is the first and most basic core exercise of the soul. As I practice it, Bible meditation is reading through a small passage of Scripture very prayerfully. It is the intersection of reading and praying. It is reading: whether the passage is a single verse or several chapters, the mind is fully engaged in the power and subtleties of the text. What is the author saying? Why did the Spirit inspire this particular message? How does it fit with the overall flow and rhythms of the Scriptures? But it is also prayer: the heart is fully engaged and responsive; I’m expecting to “get something out of” the reading. I’m praying the words back to God as my own. Often with the Psalms, I’ll put the song or poem into my own words. (That’s a bad idea with Bible translation but a life-giving exercise with Bible meditation.)
It’s not simple devotional reading—some deep and thorough attention is required. It’s not a technical Bible study—commentaries and maps have their place here but shouldn’t take the majority of your attention. It’s not copious Bible reading—working through the entire Bible in a year is a great practice that I would recommend in addition to deep, slow Bible meditation. You may want to read three or four chapters but focus in on just a few key verses or themes. It’s not Eastern meditation—where the goal is an empty mind; the goal in Bible meditation is a mind fully alive to the Word of God and a heart fully engaged by the Spirit of God. It’s not reading then praying—this is probably the biggest error. Too often, when I’m tired, lazy or spiritually disconnected, I’ll read a short passage and then move onto praying for things I need or planning my day. These are good things to do, but the goal is not to read and then do something; the practice is a deep, spiritual, prayerful reading.
Bible meditation strengthens your soul in the love and power of God like nothing else. You’ll find yourself praising God with Psalm 150, repenting with David in Psalm 51, sweating and crying with Jesus in the Garden, being surprised and overwhelmed by the prophetic images of Revelation, and, over and over again, finding your own soul and story in the soul and story of the Gospel.
Core Discipline #2: Heart at Rest Prayer
There are many different forms of communion with God described in the Scriptures: meditating on the Word, singing laments, asking for provision, interceding for others, seeking the Kingdom, and so on. But the core discipline I’m talking about here is what Tim Keller (nickname: The Prodigal Godfather) calls “heart at rest prayer” in his small group Studies in Prayer. Just as prayerful meditation is not the only way to read the Bible, so heart at rest prayer is not the only way to commune with God. But I want to suggest that it will strengthen the core of your being like no other form of prayer.
Heart at rest prayer will soon get its own essay, so I won’t go too far here. Here’s the quick and dirty: in heart at rest prayer, I am seeking a heart at rest. Why do I want my heart to be at rest? Because it’s usually not! The Bible describes the heart as the source of emotional life (the mind is the source of intellectual life and the soul is the source of spiritual life), and my emotions are usually raging, even though I remain stoic in appearance. (I only have one facial expression and my three favorite colors are light, medium and dark grey. What can I say? As the son of a dentist, I was tragically born without the ability to express my emotions.) I’m often a tangled web of angry, relationally tired, impatient and sad. To make matters worse, I am hungry most of the time and happen to like introspective indie/emo crap like Sigur Ros, Bon Iver and Iron & Wine, so if I listen to my heart too much, I spiral into a deep dark place where everyone wears skinny jeans and there isn’t a potato chip in sight. To be sure, I need to set my attention on God’s presence to gain a heart at rest.
How does a heart find its rest? In the words of old Saint Augustine, “our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” Only in the presence of God, in all his majesty, stability and sweetness, do I find a peacefulness of experience. Heart at rest prayer is cousin to Bible meditation, as I often have some Psalm or prayer of Jesus open while praying, but here my objective is not to be filled with God’s Word as much as it is to pour out my heart in God’s presence. I share my fears, needs, desires and often fill the pages of my journal with sarcasm and cursing. It’s in there, so it might as well come out before my Father, who considers me his beloved Son and doesn’t ever seemed to surprised by my prayers.
These two practices, Bible meditation and heart at rest prayer, are ideally practiced fairly early in the day, before the world’s challenges and busyness make it more difficult later on. I can always feel a certain difference in my spiritual and emotional well-being throughout the day when I’ve skipped one or both. I usually go about living from the circumference—viewing myself through the lens of what I’ve done or failed to do—rather than living peacefully from my core.
Interlude: Silence and Solitude
It can perhaps be thought of as a separate excerise (more on that later), but I’m recommending that these two practices, Bible meditation and heart at rest prayer, be done quietly and alone. In silence and solitude, I’m taking a bit of time during the day to pull away from its trials, demands and voices to quiet my soul before the Lord. A great example is Psalm 131, where David, one of the most prolific and accomplished men of all history, says that his eyes are not high and lifted up, but that he is satisfied in the presence of God like a weaned child with his mother. Having two children who are thankfully no longer breastfeeding, the image is clear: a weaned child can finally sit with its mother without making demands. He’s content to simply be with her. Breastfeeding babies always want just a little bit more milk, like adults do with money and possessions, until they burp up the excess they weren’t meant to have. (Lovely image, right?)
Silence is essential for the human soul. I’m surrounded by noise all day and night. At home, with my two boys (four and two), there is never a moment longer than a few seconds without noise. Then I go to work and talk to people for a living. I work in a shared office with two other staff leaders, receive dozens if not hundreds of emails daily, do a good bit of member care and far too many ministry meetings, and am even surrounded by music in the car and the office. Even in the middle of the night, one of our boys will inevitably get up and find their way into our room for a drink, to get help sleeping or to ask why some helicopters don’t need tail rotors for stabilization. When a moment of total silence finally crosses my path, it’s quite alarming.
My friend Kevin Jamison (nickname: The Sultan of Sling—because he slings the gospel and because he once flipped an ATV on himself, broke his collarbone and had to wear a sling for a few weeks) recently pointed out that in biblical times, people weren’t as surrounded by noise and media in part because they had to walk everywhere. I had never thought about that. For long parts of the day, they were alone, walking quietly to work, getting exercise and having plenty of time to process the day’s happenings. I wonder how much better I would do spiritually and relationally if I spent an hour daily in exercise, fresh air and thought—and it was totally normal.
To say the least, we need to restore the rhythm of silence and solitude like no people and culture before us. What’s the point of time management and productivity if it doesn’t produce free time in our schedules for quietude and reflection?
Core Discipline #3: Spiritual Friendship
Wait, I thought these were spiritual practices: what is friendship doing here? And I thought we were talking about daily rhythms? What the deal, Linneman?
By spiritual friendships, I mean any relationship that involves a shared love for Christ and one another. It’s a helpful way to think about Christian community and fellowship in general. Friendship may seem like an essential relational structure for teenagers, but fully formed adults? Who needs friends when you have spouses, kids, colleagues, acquaintances and enemies? But friendship is one of the most important lifelong relationships and the Bible has an immense amount to say about it—the Proverbs in particular.
Spiritual friendships include the deep relationships of marriage, parenting and church membership. How might your marriage look different if you understood it as your most intimate and essential spiritual relationship (once married, that is)? Do you ever stop and realize that your kids will be real human beings one day, and that you may have an eternal spiritual friendship with them in the new creation? And membership isn’t just a roll for churches to keep track of their attendees’ giving. Church membership is a powerful commitment of New Testament Christianity, a completely counter-cultural fidelity to God, people and place. Within church membership, we find ourselves wholeheartedly committed to people completely unlike us—different ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, income levels, social skilledness, talents, etc. These relationships, this whole organism and organization called church, would never work about from the Holy Spirit, and that’s exactly why these friendships are so personally forming.
What I’m suggesting is that careful cultivation of these spiritual friendships is just as important as the formation of your habits of Bible meditation and prayer. Especially as I grow older (and I recently found a grey hair so I am no longer a young man), I’m seeing more and more how God shapes my character, personality and life journey through relationships. Bible reading and prayer is still essential, but when I’m reflecting on most years, what stands out most in my personal formation isn’t what I read or how often I prayed, but how God brought certain individuals and challenges into my life to form me more into the likeness of his Son—who after all, was the Master of spiritual relationships and discipleship. With only a few important exceptions for retreat, Jesus invested in his spiritual friends every single day. For us today, it may include church attendance and community group participation, but also making simple phone calls, sending encouraging messages, checking your friends’ new pictures on social media and praying for those the Lord has brought into your life.
By developing these three daily routines, I deeply believe that our spiritual strength is built where it counts most. We are formed and shaped spiritually by the things we do—just like we’re built physically by what we do—so investing in these three activities will produce long term, though often hidden, fitness.
What does it look like to have a well-developed spiritual core? To be strong where it matters, regardless of the appearance of things? To have a hidden resource of fitness to endure trials and bless others?
There’s this great C. S. Lewis article (I promise I won’t exclusively quote Lewis gems like most amateur Christian writers) where he imagines what it must be like to be quite deep spiritually. He wonders if people can see it in one another immediately, and I think he’s probably right. Just like two weak-middle body builders recognize each other in the gym at first glance, so the core fitness folks know one another instinctually as well—they’re the lean men and women doing vigorous ab routines on the mats in the corner while sweating only enough to justify wearing trendy active gear. I’m pretty sure spiritual giants, secure in Christ and in themselves, can identify one another even at a distance, and it must be quite fun. They can talk to one another without needing the other’s approval, and they can end conversations without promise of another even more significant one quite soon. How fun it must be, indeed.
I want to hope that there are at least these three results of spiritual core fitness.
Core Result #1: Peacefulness
A spiritually fit individual must certainly be full of peace. The biblical picture of peace is much fuller; the Hebrew writers used the word “Shalom” to denote a holistic flourishing of human life.
I’m tempted to say that the whole point of human life is to dwell in God’s peace. Think about it: have you heard Christians debating whether the point of life is growing closer to Christ or making more disciples for him? Which one is more important: spiritual growth or evangelism/missionalism?, the question goes. Well, I want to respond: is human flourishing the result of personal depth or of the gospel advancing? The answer of course is “Yes/Both/And.”
When I officiate weddings, I love to quote the line from Song of Songs, where in 6:13, the groom calls his bride “Shulammite,” which literally means (as far as Hebrew scholars can tell) “my Shalom girl.” I love it. “You are the one that brings me peace,” the young man is saying. Intimacy in marriage brings a deep sense of peacefulness, rest and wholeness. This is just a snapshot of the spiritual intimacy available in Christ: in relationship with God, true and eternal flourishing awaits us. My personal experience has taught me that I’m far more at peace and rest when I’m daily practicing these three core disciplines.
Core Result #2: Sticktoitiveness
I sometimes wonder if more profoundly spiritual people are made to suffer more deeply or at least more publicly. It seems quite certain that pastors must bear all sorts of trials and burdens so that their congregations know how to suffer well (2 Corinthians repeatedly hits this theme). Charles Spurgeon wholly believed so—his “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” describes his own longtime struggle with chronic sickness and depression. But must all spiritually mature folk be made to suffer more than others? Much of life’s suffering is a result of sin (like loneliness that results from a lifetime of rejecting close relationships) but there seems also to be an increase in suffering for the holiest of holies, too. I’m often tempted to live in the foggy in-between of neither great holiness nor total debauchery in order to totally avoid pain, but I’m pretty sure this is a deeply flawed tendency of my immature self.
There is definitely a correlation between spiritual fitness and sticktoitiveness in suffering. That may not be a real word, but it should be. Fit people stick to it. Whether spiritually mature people know how to endure much suffering, or suffering produces maturity in normal people, or a combination of the both, I am not definitively sure. But spiritually deep people can weather the fiercest storms of life like those trendy workout warriors can survive the artificial inclines imposed upon them by their exercise bike.
Sticktoitiveness in hard times is probably what really beautiful people recognize in each other right away. Never believe a woman whose eyes have never known tears. Never trust a man who walks without a limp.
Core Result #3: Love for Others
Finally, spiritually fit people are a loving blessing to others. Think of the most spiritually mature, fit-where-it-matters men and women you know. How do they relate to others? They don’t need them; they love them. They don’t use them; they serve them. They don’t place heavy demands on them; they share in their burdens. I have a handful of spiritually fit, deeply caring individuals pictured in my mind now, and they are such wonderful souls to be around. Their presence itself has an uncommon warmth and invitation. They exude satisfaction and hope, and as a result, needy and broken people typically surround them to pick from the fallen apples. Some of them are old, but age doesn’t seem to be the factor in steadily increasing wisdom and character that I once thought it was.
It may be that spiritual fitness isn’t about many of the extremities at all—age, ministry responsibility, status in the church, theological accuracy—but rather about the regular, Spirit-filled practices of Bible mediation, heart at rest prayer, silence and solitude, and spiritual friendships.
One day, I hope to be in really good shape.