At the End, Joy

***

The first few minutes of running suck. It starts to suck, in fact, before i’ve even begun. Perhaps the hardest part about exercising for me is getting up the motivation to go. My typical exercise session (and yes, i have actually gone enough recently to call it “typical”) is comprised of four minutes of jogging/running at six-seven MPH, followed by four minutes of walking up a 7-8% incline as fast as I can walk, which usually ends up being just under four MPH, and then repeating that cycle three-four times. Now you might be immediately inclined, unless you do much of this type of exercise yourself, to think that the last cycle is the toughest. But strangely enough, as i have already said, i don’t find this to be true. It is, in fact, the first two or three minutes when my body protests the loudest: muscles that have lain dormant all day (and let’s be honest: for years before this) are now suddenly enlisted to the front lines of action, pressed into strenuous and exacting duty. A few minutes in, though, there seems to be a threshold i pass after which my body starts easing into the work, and somehow the second cycle is much less demanding, and very nearly enjoyable.

The same phenomenon is observable in macro: the first few days and weeks of beginning an exercise regimen are horrid, especially after doing nothing for years but languishing in idleness and indulgence. But now that i have a few regular weeks behind me, i actually look forward (sometimes) to going, knowing that it is accomplishing for me what it needs to: chiefly, making me have more and better time with my wife and with others around me (that is, as much as control of such matters lies within my grasp). The point is, being able to see the end result, the fruit, enables me to appreciate the journey.

It isn’t hard to see where i am going with this, especially since this is hardly the only example from the world around us. Stepping into a hot shower, the skin actually burns and reddens in response. A few minutes later, the sensation is soothing rather than painful. Entering a room that is utterly dark and flipping on a bright light can actually cause us to wince, as if under attack by the sudden influx of protons. Yet after our pupils have adjusted, light is not only not an attack but actually an improvement over darkness: seeing our way through the room keeps us from stumbling over the dog’s half eaten chew toy and face planting on the floor. I think, too, of Isaiah 9:2, a familiar quotation that points to the birth of Christ. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

What would it actually be like if, as in John 9, we had walked in darkness all our lives and suddenly had our eyes opened? We all, going from utter blackness to the brightest light of them all, would be blinded, stunned, shocked. We might have no idea how to distinguish depth, color, shape, motion. It would be a radical process of adjustment. The occipital lobe would, like my feeble legs, be arrested up into immediate action, having sat largely unused for many years.

There is a reason this verse points to Christ: this is precisely what an encounter with Him is like. When He enters our life it is as if we see light for the first time. And though we typically think of this verse in Isaiah as an expression of great joy, which is certainly is, it is also a proclamation that where we were previously blind, we will now see, but this takes tremendous healing and adaptation. In fact, our personal encounters with Him can be quite demanding, painful, blinding even, and it may seem at first as though we were worse off than before. Think of how many times the Israelites, after clamoring to be free from slavery in Egypt, bemoaned their new fate and expressed a wish that they had simply died in Egypt.

i have been there many times, and many times a day: every time He wants me to relinquish control, conquer fear, steady my heart, give instead of ignore, love instead of curse, die rather than thrive. These things are anathema to me, to my flesh. Nearly every time i am asked to do one of these things it doesn’t feel like joy, or sudden freedom, it feels, in the moment, like pain and constraint. it feels like stepping into a shower that is too hot, or onto a treadmill that is too fast.

But joy is not in immediate gratification. That is why Paul calls the Christian life a race, why he “beat[s] his body and make[s] it [his] slave.” (1 Cor. 9:27) Joy is in the long haul, the discipline, the dedication, not in the quick fix. The Quick Fix is what got us into a “quick fix” in the first place. Joy, real joy, will need to look like something different, and might very well need to look, at least at first, like something so different that it is extraordinarily uncomfortable. i must remember, we must remember, that many of us, myself chief among these, have just gotten up from our knees on the road to Damascus. We have just gotten on the treadmill of the walk, just plunged ourselves into the heat of His cleansing waters. For the most part, we are still staggering and reeling from the shock of having “seen a great light.” But given time, our skin will adjust to the heat, our legs to the work, our bodies to the strain, and our eyes to the wonder and glory of vision. After that perhaps we will enjoy the fruit of walking upright in Him, and we will see the joy of not tripping over the dog toy of temptation and face planting on the floor of sin.

***

i don’t go work out every day. Sometimes the sluggard inside wins. i am terrific, probably the best you’ve ever met, at originating excuses. i need to write. i need to read. i didn’t eat that much today anyway so i don’t have enough calories to burn. My leg still hurts from tripping over that dog toy in the dark. Whatever the reason, it is just as common, if not more so, that i fail to go as that i actually do go.

The good news is that the gym will still be there tomorrow, and i bet my key will still work to let me in.

Christ, our Key, will also still be working to let us in tomorrow. He is an Amenity that has already been provided for us as residents here. We have but to reach out and grasp hold of Him and the fruits will come. Should we fail to do so today, well, He will be there for us tomorrow. But my prayer is that as each new tomorrow becomes today, it will be the day that i stop making excuses and just go to Him.

***

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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.   – Hebrews 12 : 1 – 3

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