I'm not proud of that. I've been in a slump for longer than I want to admit. I'm not "out of shape," exactly, so no one would ever know the difference. But I'm not "in shape," either, and I can feel the difference. And I know better... I know I should be doing the diet and exercise thing, just like everybody else in the world. But there's more to it than that. It's not just a physical thing. I find myself feeling a non-specific sense of shame when the fitness buffs in my church post photos of themselves on Facebook. And I'm still telling stories from my Army days to keep feeling tough about going through boot camp at age 17. The truth is, that was a long time ago, and I hate working out. Most of all, I hate starting again after I've stopped for a while.
Previous <<< Starting Where I'm At: Depression and Christianity (Part One)
I hate it because it's not really optional for me. See, I've lived with depression for most of my life, and physical wellness is a huge component of mental/emotional health. It's a well-known connection, that whole mind-body-spirit thing. Living with depression, I have to remain conscious about that, because it just so happens, if I get too lax, I'll spiral and self-destruct, with or without anyone noticing.
So discipline goes a long way in this girl's book, and spiritual discipline gets to the heart issues beneath all the mind and body stuff. Now, no amount of discipline in the world is going to cure or prevent depression. This isn't a "just try harder" thing, so don't even go there. But there is a certain discipline to the kind of decision management which means the difference between "struggling with depression" and "living with depression." In consideration of spiritual discipline, depression may be a clinical condition, but let's call sin a sin: depression feeds on gluttony and sloth, neither of which has much appreciation for discipline.
Here's the thing. When you deal with depression, you have to deal with it all the time—good days and bad days—and some days, you get tired of dealing with it. You start feeling sorry for yourself because you have to think about so many little things that other people don't ever have to think about. And when you're feeling sorry for yourself, it gets really easy to start skipping little things and making little exceptions and not really acknowledging all the little cumulative effects. Then all of a sudden, it's two months later and you notice you feel like crap all the time (again) and you can't bring yourself to do anything about it (again) and you can't believe you let it get this bad (again).
What does any of this have to do with working out? Well, diet and exercise don't cure depression, either, but they sure do help with the self-defeating cycles that make it worse.
The problem is, having dealt with depression for most of my life, I know I can't get away with that for very long. Life is a process of decision making. Pretty much every move I make, I have a choice between regular maintenance and wreaking havoc. By nature, I'm a person of extremes. I can wash the dishes after dinner, or I can let everything pile up until my life is an overwhelming mess that I can't bring myself to face in the morning. I can go to bed on time and get up on time, or I can spike erratically between emotional extremes all day because I'm overly tired and overly sensitive. I can eat basically decently, sticking to my fresh meats and fruits and veggies, or I can pollute my body with sugars and stimulants that drag me into hyperactivity, irritability, and exhaustion. I can continue setting goals and focusing on intentional contributions that encourage in me the sense of purpose in Christ that depression seeks to destroy, or I can squander my time mindlessly and obsess about my indecision and insecurities while the world spins on without me. I can stay rooted in the Word and active in prayer and present with the Lord, or I can perish apart from Him in the course of a day. It's all a matter of decision making. I have the freedom to fail, and I have the freedom to get off my rear—physically and spiritually.
Interestingly, in the New Testament, in letters instructing the early church about faith, we find frequent physical fitness analogies that describe spiritual perseverance.
- "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." (I Corinthians 9:24)
- "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13-14)
- "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." (Hebrews 12:1)
The analogy is all over Scripture. Physical endurance is the closest thing we can compare to spiritual perseverance. And physical fitness is a universal struggle for us, isn't it? Most of our wants and weaknesses, after all, are related to our physical, worldly being—the "flesh," as the apostle Paul calls the sin nature. It's no accident that most spiritual disciplines are, practically speaking, physical in nature.
Usually, by the grace of God, I decide to stay (more or less) disciplined. Sometimes, there are exceptions. Sometimes, there are seasons of life that come with more ups and downs than others. Other times, I do just give up on life for a day (or two or three or whatever). Because depression also teaches me that no matter how "good" I'm doing, I am not in control. God is in control. In my own power, I can do everything right all day and tank anyway. I can eat right and exercise right and sleep right and still spend an afternoon feeling helplessly immobile. I am very well educated about my condition; I do not always handle it gracefully.
There are rhythms to the thing. Over the years, I've learned to adjust to the rhythms and balance the ups and downs. A lot of the ups and downs are predictable. Some of the triggers are incomprehensible and demoralizing. Especially for those lives exacerbated by anxiety, trauma, or addiction, discipline is no fail-safe against depression. Discipline just lets me continue living with depression. Spiritual perseverance means believing God instead of believing myself. After I get off track, I know how to get back.
Not gonna lie, the regular exercise part is always where I struggle the most. But the Spirit has a way of repeating Himself in my areas of struggle, and I've heard some recurring themes lately that have helped turn defeat into victory this past week.
For one thing, my church has been working through a sermon series called "Becoming the Body," drawn from the apostle Paul's letters to the early Corinthian church. Early in the series, my lead pastor pointed out that obedience to the Lord is a matter of "decision management." Sound familiar? It's still around the beginning of the year, and naturally, my pastor used the example of people making and breaking their New Year's resolutions. He pointed out that we tend to also make big declarations about becoming Christians and then expect everything to change overnight. Realistically, faith is a process of decision management. "It's making a decision, followed by other decisions to keep that decision."
At the same time, on the ordination track, I've been taking a Wesleyan History and Polity class online. That class ends today. It's the last of my licensing requirements. One step closer to ordained ministry. Speaking of discipline... in the last couple of weeks, while revisiting the Discipline of my denomination, I've been reminded that as a member of my local Wesleyan church, wellness is one of my membership commitments. Paragraph 410:4 of the Discipline discusses "Care of the Body," stating, "The Wesleyan Church encourages its members to practice self-discipline and temperance in matters of proper eating, exercise, and rest." That whole mind-body-spirit thing again. As a member, as a volunteer, as a group leader, as a mentor, as a ministerial student, I'm committing to be a healthy example. I have a responsibility to my body of believers to model what it means to regard my body as a temple dedicated to the Lord (I Corinthians 6:19). The Word points out we're not all called to teach, but if we're teaching, we better darn well be walking the talk (James 3:1; I Timothy 3:2; Titus 2:7). And there's a cloud of witnesses reminding me it can be done, in the Spirit of strength--especially when it's hard and I don't want to. Especially in the things no one would notice if I didn't.
In other related news, my lead pastor, who's in his late 50s, just ended up in the heart hospital a couple of months ago. As he shared with our congregation, it was a big scare and a big eye-opener. He's always been pretty good about staying in shape and eating right, but now he's being extremely disciplined about diet and exercise and tackling the stress issues that could've killed him. Now he's looking and feeling awesome and making all kinds of physical fitness analogies during Sunday sermons. As if the recurring messages weren't already enough to get to me, as a friend and pastor, the man is personally inspiring me in ways I can't argue. He's almost twice my age and just had heart-related surgery, and he's in better shape than ever. It's enough to leave a relatively healthy, relatively young gal like me feeling pretty silly, really.
Also along the way, a dear friend of mine has been getting more and more serious about exercise. She's focused especially determinedly on becoming a runner—an aspiration I can only dream about sharing one day. Recently, due to a health matter, my friend was told she couldn't run or work out for six weeks. Like the totally selfless friend I am (yeah, right), I confessed how I was so down in the dumps that I couldn't even think about working out at the time. My friend, who has been working through her own set of anxiety-related factors for the better part of a year, shared, "Working out is the only thing keeping me going right now." About a week and a half ago, she was back out running again, ahead of schedule. I joked that she might inspire me to go run around the block one of these days. Without missing a beat, she told me she's doing a relay team for a marathon in May. Dang... well, I probably won't go run a marathon, but I'll be there cheering for my friend while she runs hers.
Finally, there came the turning point: I took a challenge from my husband this past Sunday. We were sitting together in church, listening to a few more of our lead pastor's all-new exercise analogies during the latest installment of our "Becoming the Body" series. Our pastor was sharing about how difficult it's been for him to commit to the disciplines of diet and exercise since his surgery. He shared about how he goes into his core strengthening exercises praying, "Oh, God, I hate this..." So there I was, laughing in the pew because that's me any time I start any kind of exercise. And then our pastor started tuning in to his main point about "core strength" in terms of spiritual discipline. And that grabbed me by the guts because I know more than I want to know about my need for discipline and strengthening exercises.
So I leaned over and wrote a note, half joking, on my husband's bulletin: Church workout club? He took the pen and wrote a note back: You first.
Even in jest, that note really spoke to me. It was a God moment. I could feel the Spirit sitting there looking at me and saying, "Well?"
I sat back and thought about all the times in the last week alone that I'd said something like "I'm going to start doing pilates again one of these days" or "I kinda wanna run a 5k again sometime this year" or "Someday, I'm going to get back on that stupid elliptical." Then and there, sitting in the pew on Sunday morning, I shrugged and said to God, So be it.
That Sunday night, I started working out again. Then I worked out again on Monday morning. Then I worked out again every other day this week (and twice yesterday). I'm about to go work out again right now, as soon as I finish telling you about it.
And guess what? I feel incredible, and I'm actually enjoying it when I do it—I'm actually looking forward to it instead of dreading it—and it hasn't been that big of a deal. I don't have to announce a bunch of New Year's resolutions or post any "before" or "after" photos on social media or go running out to buy new food or new exercise clothes. Most of us are really great at starting and not so great at following through. God asks us to follow through. I've made it a week and a day so far. It's the little things that count—one little thing after another. It's about making the decision and then making all of the other decisions to keep that decision.
Even if it starts with dragging myself through the workout in the morning before I get in the shower. Then deciding ahead of time what I'm going to eat for lunch today. Taking the three flights of stairs up to my work area. Getting a plain black coffee instead of a cappuccino. Then drinking a bottle of water when I really just want another cup of coffee. Picking up some extra fruits and veggies when I'm out grocery shopping anyway. Cutting portion sizes while enjoying the foods my family likes. Spending the time on the exercise machine before I go to bed. Finding out how much better I sleep at night that way. Feeling so much more ready to start it all again the next morning. Waking up with praise and thanksgiving because the Lord gives me the strength to do the things I can't bring myself to do alone. And getting to tell people they've been a part of God speaking into my life in ways they didn't even know.
I'm called to honor the Lord with whatever I've got. And if the only thing I've got to offer the Lord at the moment is the body He put me in, then so be it. When the first decision is to honor the Lord, then all of the other decisions start falling into place.
It might not seem like much on a day-to-day basis. Following Christ is more consistency than epiphany. In a past life, I was all about doing something "big" with my time. I'm still learning it's the "little" things, done well over time, that add up to the "big" thing in the end.
This counts in spirit, mind, and body. It counts at church, at home, at work, at play. Every Christian is called to be a leader in our own life. We lead in our attitudes and in our actions. That means being the one to go first. We lead by being the first to volunteer, the first to lower ourselves, the first to sacrifice, the first to reach out, the first to pray, the first to relent, the first to forgive, the first to encourage, the first to praise. We do this not to show that we are first, but that Jesus is first. Many of us have yearned to make a difference in the world. We make a difference by showing people around us that they can make a difference. Our lives gain meaning and purpose as we demonstrate that any of us—yes, even us—can find meaning and purpose. We are the living proof. In God’s hands, our failures become His tools. In our weakness, He is strong. He is my core strength.
He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me... for when I am weak, then I am strong." (II Corinthians 12:9-10)
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing." (1 Thessalonians 5:11)