Sunday Talk: Exercising Our Spiritual Muscles

About a year ago, I decided to finally start doing something about getting in better shape. Not just from a “I shouldn’t weigh as much as I do now” perspective, but from an “actually lift weights and try to alter my physical shape to be less blob-like” stance. And for a while, I did a good job. I’d lift weights each day at lunch, and I could see the improvements. Then my body decided to remind me one day that I’m over 40, and that the days of easily pushing it to the limits are more behind me than I’d like to admit. I injured my shoulder, and I’ve had to dial it back a few notches or five.

But in those six months of weight lifting, something became very clear to me. Weight lifting is not difficult. Well, it’s difficult, but strictly from a repetition and manual labor standpoint. If you see someone with rippling muscles, they either got them with steroids, or they got them through hard work. Lift the same weight over and over enough times, and your muscles get bulkier. It’s a sign of dedication to a single objective, or a sign of repeated experience with a certain task.

In a way, it’s a sign that someone’s found a formula and followed that formula over and over.

Today we have bodybuilding competitions. Men and women who devote an inordinate amount of time to strengthening, toning, and perfecting every individual muscle. And while I can certainly appreciate the discipline required to get to that point, I can’t help but wonder what it all amounts to beyond winning competitions. In fact, in many cases those bodies are toned to a point that I personally no longer find attractive. They’ve taken devotion to an ideal too far, until that ideal is an end in and of itself, instead of an asset.

So what does all of this have to do with the Gospel?

In his talk, “Exercising Our Spiritual Muscles,” Elder Juan Pablo Villar of the Seventy discusses the need to apply the gospel principles we learn in life so that they can grow. If we want to be able to withstand the challenges that inevitably lie in store for each of us in this life, we need to take the time now to strengthen our spiritual muscles, not so we can win some sort of eternal bodybuilding championship, but so that we can stand up when emotional and spiritual burdens are placed upon our shoulders, and continue to move forward.

The other day I was working out in the yard on a project. My six-year-old daughter was with me, eager to help. I needed something from the garage, and I asked her to bring it to me. It probably weighed about ten pounds, and in my focus to get the job done, I forgot about the relative strength of a six-year-old. In a few minutes, I saw her come up to me, huffing and puffing with exertion as she brought me the desired bag. “That was heavy!” she exclaimed. I nodded and assured her it was, then took it with one hand and went back to work.

I remember being in her shoes. Continually amazed at just how capable adults were at getting things done. Whether it was doing a 1,000 piece puzzle, beating me handily at video games, or being able to lift very heavy objects, it always seemed adults had an unfair advantage at everything. But they weren’t born with that advantage. It’s something they came to over time as they practiced and exercised their bodies and their minds.

I had the same experience as a missionary. I remember talking to the Elders and Sisters when I was a young adult, and I was always impressed with how many cool stories and experiences they’d had. One of the big reasons I wanted to go on a mission is that I wanted to have those same sort of cool stories and experiences myself. Of course, when I actually went out on my mission, I discovered the accumulation of those kind of experiences is much more difficult than it first sounds. Like gaining physical strength, spiritual strength comes through hard work.

If you want to get physically strong, there are two basic approaches. The first is to be involved in a job that calls for physical exertion, day in and day out. The closest I’ve come to that is back during my gas meter reading days in Utah. I didn’t have to lift heavy loads, but I was walking miles each day, zig zagging through backyards and around fences. Just by the repeated, daily exercise that was part of my job, I gained a lot of endurance.

Spiritually, this isn’t always possible. I’d compare it to the tough times we go through in life. The challenges that spring up, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, that test our faith and our commitment to Gospel principles. As we deal with those challenges, our faith can increase, and our spiritual muscles can grow. The only problem with that approach is that it’s also dangerous. When you go from no exertion to too much, over night, your body starts to rebel. I decided to run a 5k one day, pretty much out of nowhere. I looked up how far the distance would be on Google Maps, and I went outside and started jogging. I wasn’t able to jog the whole way–there were plenty of stretches of just plain walking and stumbling involved–but I forced myself to complete it. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I felt terrible afterward. I couldn’t breathe. My legs hurt for days from shin splints. I had pushed myself way too hard, too fast. The same thing will happen to our spirits if we haven’t built up the endurance levels to be able to handle trials when they arise.

So how do we do that? With our physical bodies, we accomplish it through regular daily exercise. Push ups. Sit ups. Smaller runs. Yoga. Playing tennis. Anything to get our pulse rate up, build endurance, and get in better physical shape. When it comes to spiritual muscles, we have to use another approach.

I remember when I was growing up in the church, I would sometimes complain that the talks and the lessons were always focused on the same basic principles. I wanted something flashier. Give me a good discussion about the signs of the times, or about the nooks and crannies of the Gospel. Anything but another discussion on prayer. But as I’ve lived longer in the Gospel, I’ve come to see the importance of those repeated lessons and topics. First, they’re repeated because we just haven’t figured out how to do them yet. Remember, we’re to learn line upon line. What’s God supposed to do when His children just can’t get one line down? Repeat it until they do, clearly. I know that I still haven’t mastered any of the basic fundamental building blocks of the Gospel. I try to pray every day, but do I pray each day with real intent, as an active discussion with God? I follow the bare minimum of the Word of Wisdom, avoiding smoking, illegal drugs, coffee, tea, and the like, but do I pay any attention to the rest of it? Do I eat meat sparingly, for example? Do I take the proper care of my body that God would have me do?

We get the same lessons over and over because those are the things we need to focus on to make sure our spiritual muscles are up to the challenges that lie ahead of each of us. Challenges that are tailor made to test us and make us even stronger, if we can come through them. I’ve been through some of those already in my life, and speaking from experience, what’s gotten me to the other side of each of them has never been my knowledge of the signs of the times, or of the intricacies of getting your calling and election made sure. What’s gotten me through has been my faith that God exists. That I can be forgiven of my sins through repentance. That I need to love my neighbor as myself. Knowledge and experience of the Gospel that came through years of daily practice.

Regular exercise is a lifestyle change. It’s not enough to approach it as a diet. When you go on a diet, the assumption is that sooner or later, you will no longer be on a diet. If you want to stop dieting, you have to fundamentally change who you decide you are. For the bulk of my life, I always thought of myself as a large eater. I wasn’t fat–not in my head, at least–but I was . . . husky, let’s say. Big boned. This all came to a point when I got on the scale one morning and discovered I’d officially broken into the area doctors classify as “obese.” For me, that was a bridge too far. It was no longer really possible to excuse my brownie binging and my love of Iceberg Drive-in milkshakes.

But it still took me ten years or so to get my weight down to a point that’s classified as “normal,” at least from a medical BMI standpoint. And it took even longer to get where I am today. And though I’ve worked at this for years, I still have decades of experience living as a husky guy, and I’ve discovered those instincts run deep. When I’m stressed, I turn to food. When I’m at a party, it just doesn’t feel like I’m having a good time unless I’m eating too much. The real difference these days is how I feel after that party. It’s a constant reminder that eating that much junk food makes me feel terrible for the next few days.

And yet I still do it. I’m still trying to change the way I think about myself from “I’m a guy who eats a lot” to “I’m a guy who eats a sensible diet.” Some of it is because I took great pride in my ability to pack in a large pizza at a single sitting. I also love to bake, and it’s just not as much fun to bake when you can inhale all the goodies you baked after you bake them.

Spiritually speaking, we sometimes need to let go of the person we used to be, to embrace the person God would have us become. I grew up an avid video gamer. I still play some games now and then, but there came a point when I realized I couldn’t do all the things I needed to get done. Something had to go, and video games fell by the wayside, even though they’d once been very important to me. You get to a point in your life where you decide you need to jettison things that are no longer mission critical. Thankfully, by the time you reach that point, those things have long since lost their central place in your life, though I will say that sometimes we need to be willing to shift things around in importance. I’m certainly capable of going back to my gaming days. I still have my agency, after all. But I choose not to, because that person is no longer the person I want to be.

But there’s a danger in all of this, as well. We can never get to the point where the exercising of these spiritual muscles be becomes an end in and of itself, instead of an asset. You can dive into the scriptures and become a veritable scriptorial ninja, capable of quoting passages and identifying references at the drop of a hat, but what use is an encyclopedic knowledge of the scriptures, if the scriptorian walks right past the sick and afflicted without a second thought? The Pharisees in the New Testament were masters of scriptural knowledge, and yet Christ said they “outwardly appear[ed] righteous unto men, but within [were] full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” Again, we must change who we really are, not just who we appear to be.

Exercise is not something we can do for other people. That would be awesome, wouldn’t it? If I could just pay someone to exercise for me, I guarantee you I would look a lot better, run further, and be able to eat a whole lot more without putting on weight. But you can’t buy exercise. You can hire someone to train you, but you need to be the one lifting the weights and running the miles. And while you can theoretically be in favor of exercise, you can’t honestly say you are until you’re actively doing it.

This process of change is difficult. I don’t mean to imply it’s something we just choose to do and then sit back and make it happen, as if by magic. It’s something that happens over time, with a lot of hard work. With God’s help, we go through our lives bit by bit, identifying the areas where are our spiritual muscles are weak and developing exercises that will strengthen them.

Remember Ether 12:27–”27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

We have a promise from God that as we work on the things where we are weak, He will help us. I’ve found in my life that the best way to get better at something is to practice. First off, you need to recognize where you are weak, and where you should focus your efforts. Once you’ve done that, ask God for help showing you what to do to become stronger in those areas.

My wife and I have been participating in the Finance Management Self Reliance course through the church. Each week, we get together with a few other members to go over the lesson of the week for two hours. This past week, one of the focuses was on goal setting. I found myself breezing through the lesson, mainly because these days, I consider myself quite adept at setting goals, but it wasn’t always that way. The first time I heard about goals and was encouraged to set them in my life was the Missionary Training Center. I remember thinking it was one of the most useless things to do I could think of. I knew what I wanted to do. Why did I need to set some sort of artificial hoop to jump through to make sure I did it?

And yet today, I set goals for practically everything in my life. How often I want to read the scriptures. How many books I want to read each year. How often I exercise and for how long. Goals have become an integral part of my daily and weekly routine, mainly because I’ve found the advantages they bring. They allow me to set priorities in my life and then work on those priorities effectively and efficiently. I got from where I began–having no real concept of how goals might help me–to where I am now–using them for almost everything I do–by repeated practice and experimentation with them. By applying them in different ways and finding out what works best for me.

I believe if we’re being honest with ourselves, and we’re actively trying to live the Gospel, we already know a few areas where we are weak. The problem is we’d really rather work on other areas of our lives, rather than the weak ones that need the most attention. Remember Luke 18: 18 And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

19 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.

20 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.

21 And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up.

22 Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.

23 And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.

“Yet lackest thou one thing.” That’s something the Spirit is always ready to tell us, if we’re truly asking and ready to hear. But like the rich young man, the answer isn’t always an easy one. It’s more fun to look around at other people and cherry pick the areas we’re strong and they’re weak, thus justifying how good we are at living the Gospel. It reminds me of a Seinfeld episode a long time ago. Kramer, Seinfeld’s goofy neighbor, keeps bragging to his friends about how he’s started taking Karate lessons. It was hard at first. He was scared, but he reached deep inside himself, found courage, and fought to the point that he began to “dominate the dojo.” His courage then inspires some of his friends to also make tough decisions and take risks.

Of course, that all falls apart when they discover he enrolled in a Karate class for nine year olds.

It’s a funny sequence, and we laugh, but how many of us choose to “dominate the dojo” in areas where we’re already strong, shying away from the areas of our life where “yet lackest thou one thing”? Someone might never have smoked a cigarette in his life, and so it’s easy for him to look around at the people who come to church smelling of nicotine and feel superior. They could go to the Savior and say “All these have I kept from my youth up,” but rest assured, there are areas we all must improve. Where we all need to exercise new spiritual muscles. Christ didn’t tell the young man to stop obeying the commandments. The Gospel is always additive. You learn line upon line, but you need to keep adding those lines, or it’s no use.

But the story of the rich young man doesn’t end there. Verse 24:

24 And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

25 For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

26 And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved?

27 And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.

The things which are impossible with men are possible with God. The things we can’t do on our own, we can do with His help. But we need to have our spiritual muscles in fighting condition if we’re going to hope to get them done.

Elder Villar says, “Thanks to the Restoration of the gospel, we can come to understand how our Heavenly Father helps us develop spiritual gifts. It is more likely that He will give us opportunities to develop those gifts rather than just granting them to us without spiritual and physical effort. If we are in tune with His Spirit, we will learn to identify those opportunities and then act upon them.

If we seek more patience, we may find ourselves needing to practice it while waiting for a response. If we want to have more love for our neighbor, we can foster it by sitting next to a new face at church. With faith it is similar: when doubts come to our minds, trusting in the Lord’s promises will be required to move forward. In this way, we are exercising spiritual muscles and developing them into sources of strength in our lives.”

This process is often painful. Uncomfortable. Confusing. In his book, Mere Christianity, CS Lewis has a wonderful way of describing it. “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

God sees me as a palace, and instead of drawing inspiration from that vision and striving to achieve it with his help, I’m stuck insisting I’m nothing more than a cottage or a townhouse. Not because I don’t like palaces, but because it’s so comfortable being cozy. I love the known and the expected. I think I would have made a terrible pioneer. There are times when I start to feel frustrated that each day is exactly like the last, but all it takes is for me to have a bit of an upset in my routine–a week or two of massive hours or intense stress–and I find myself longing for that coziness again.

But we don’t grow when we’re comfortable. Just as muscles don’t grow unless they’re repeatedly stressed, so our spirits don’t grow without challenges. That’s why we came to Earth in the first place. One of the criticisms I hear most often from people who doubt God’s existence is how He could allow so much evil in the world. Why do good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people?

When this life is viewed in isolation, it becomes almost impossible to justifiably answer those questions. But this life isn’t the beginning, middle, and end of the story. It’s a brief Act Two in an infinite three act play. It’s the Fireswamp in The Princess Bride. The cave on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. Game three of the World Series. If you were to tune into a World Series with no knowledge of the previous two games, would it seem fair to you if one team was already down two games in the series?

The choices we made in the preexistence helped make us who we are today, influencing what sort of challenges we’d need to face to be able to become what God knows we can be. The things He asks us to do and the experiences we go through aren’t mean spirited or capricious. They’re necessary parts of the maturation process.

Brothers and sisters, faith will not stop trials from coming. It will not make life easier. It doesn’t make us immune to sickness or tragedy. But what it does do is make us stronger. It gives us the explanation that provides context to those trials. It fills in the rest of the movie, or the rest of the World Series. That context doesn’t change the trial itself, but for me it makes it so much more endurable. More than that, being spiritually fit lets us more easily get guidance for God to make sure we navigate those trials the right way. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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