His Pain, Our Gain!

by Joanie Butman

After a few undisciplined years, this week I returned to an exercise studio that had been my second home for a long time. My extended sabbatical was prompted by some serious health issues. A couple of major surgeries forced me to concede that the class was too difficult for my recuperating body. A valid excuse at the time, but I milked it far too long and am carrying around the evidence to prove it.

You might think it was a newfound determination to rid myself of that evidence (or the five pounds of guacamole I consumed in Mexico) which motivated my decision to return, but it had less to do with those factors than the impending expiration of my glut of previously funded classes. I couldn’t justify not taking advantage of something for which I’d already paid.

So there I was like the prodigal son returning from years of a more relaxed (somewhat decadent) approach to fitness. It’s funny, during those years I kept waiting to lose weight before I reinstated my old exercise regimen because I was embarrassed by my weak and unfit physique. Plus, I wanted to avoid the quandary of ‘fit fat.’ The irony is that returning to class was exactly what I needed in order to remedy my current condition.

I’ll be honest about why I was afraid to resume those classes: 

  1. I suspected I was too weak to get through one.
  2. I knew it was going to hurt, which it did, and still does. 'No pain, no gain' isn't just a catchy slogan. 

However difficult it was though, the pain was assuaged by the warm welcome I received from the women I hadn’t seen for so long. It was definitely a homecoming of sorts. I reclaimed my coveted spot in the back corner by the window and, as class started, I fell easily into the familiar rhythm of the class, enjoying the camaraderie of shared pain with the other attendees, spurred on by the instructor’s gentle encouragement. Sounds a lot like my Bible Study class.

These exercise classes work out my mind as well as my body because I use the hour to do lots of thinking – anything to keep my brain distracted from what my body is doing. Does anyone actually like working out? I enjoy the way I feel after, but I definitely do it out of necessity not because I like it. I will exhaust my prepaid classes then decide if the more strenuous routine fits into my new kinder, gentler fitness mantra. Who knows, they might complement each other nicely. Much like life, it’s all about balance.

There are so many analogies between physical and spiritual training. First and foremost, both can be painful and strenuous. There is more to the adage, “No pain, no gain” than simply being Jane Fonda’s battle cry during the 80s and 90s. The staying power of the maxim lends to its veracity. It actually dates back to a 1650 poem by Robert Herrick, and in 1734 Benjamin Franklin stated, “There are no gains, without pains.” That motto is undeniably one of life’s enduring truths passed down from generation to generation. No one enjoys suffering, but trying to avoid pain is a sure path to stagnation in every aspect of life.

Anyway, during one of the exercises the teacher commented, “Stretching only happens when you completely surrender the muscle.” Any fitness guru will tell you if you try to muscle through a stretch, you are going to hurt yourself. Oddly, her statement mirrored one I had just shared with my friend that morning. It is only when we stop trying to muscle through life under our own power that our faith will be stretched to a new and deeper level. God can’t do His best work when we insist on relying on our own strength to drive the bus. There are times we have to completely surrender our minds, bodies, agendas, pride, hurts, habits, hardships, idols, fears and anxieties in order to experience the miracle of His grace. And it’s not a one-time event. It is an ongoing exercise.

I thought back to when I sheepishly walked into that studio doubting whether I’d be able to get through my first class. I laughed because my Freudian slip couldn’t have been more appropriate. Sheep are notoriously dimwitted animals. They’re slow and aren’t even particularly good followers. With no sense of direction, they tend to wander off and frequently get lost. No wonder Christ employed them so often to describe humans. We have a lot in common!

When I’m undisciplined in my spiritual life, I’m just as sheepish (if not more) to humbly come before God – as if a game of spiritual hide and seek is really going to help anything. After a lifetime of playing this childish game, I will share a few of the lessons I learned.

As ridiculous as waiting to lose weight before going to exercise class is, waiting to clean up your act before presenting yourself to Christ is even more absurd because:

  1. It will never happen.
  2. When you’re at your worst is when you need Him the most.
  3. When you are weak, that is exactly when you need to rely on His strength.
  4. Our weakness is precisely what makes His grace so amazing.
  5. Christ has prepaid the cost for our lack of discipline.

I chose to write about this topic on Easter because attempting to clean up our act or get in shape on our own negates what Christians celebrate today. Easter is the reason we no longer have to earn our worthiness. Christ's once-for-all sacrifice paid the price for our weaknesses. His pain is our gain. Like the classes I want to take advantage of before they expire, Easter might be a good time to consider choosing to take advantage of His payment made in full on our behalf before we expire.

I will leave you with one last thought. I’ve always been taught that mercy is giving someone what they need not what they deserve. I certainly don’t deserve forgiveness, but I need it infinitely more than a chocolate bunny. Redemption is the Easter gift I choose to open every morning. What's in your basket?

His Pain, Our Gain! Happy Easter!