A while back I was training for a long race. Had a lot of time to ponder when out pounding the pavement. I learned a few things along the way, and kept seeing the spiritual parallels; every truth I found through hard work and sweat seemed to apply to both my physical and Gospel-centered life. So whether you’re hoping to improve your body or your testimony, (and at the risk of sounding like inspirational Pinterest board) here are a few things I learned along the way:
Resistance Isn’t Futile — It’s Necessary
One of the primary rules of health is that we can only grow stronger by facing resistance. If something feels “easy” to lift, that means you’re ready for something heavier. If you want to become better, you are going to have to face something more difficult than what you’ve done today. If I can lift 10 lbs. for 12 reps today, then tomorrow I’ll try 15 lbs. for 6-7 times, and the next time I’ll try for 8-9, until I hit about 12 reps, then add another 5 lbs. and repeat. That’s “progressive overload.” You don’t have to be able to lift it all or run it all right away; do whatever you can today, and try to do little bit more tomorrow. Trust that the resistance is making you stronger. And you won’t always be able to progress every day; sometimes you’ll have 2-3 days of progress and then a bad workout or running day. That’s okay, because your overall trend is sloping upward. Any progress is progress, even its it’s 1 step, 1 rep, as long as you’re trying to move forward.
Coach Christ makes no apologies about the discipline required of discipleship. He doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that walking on his path is burdensome. “Take my yoke upon you” he says. But the burdens we shoulder have a purpose and a point —“learn of me” says, asking us to know the Why behind the What of Christian life. And in doing so, the fibers of both muscle and morals will grow, fueled by the divine light within that regenerates and renews, until we find that, compared to lifting life’s burdens on our own, living life as a part of his team becomes easier. “My yoke is easy” he says, “and my burden is light”. If it’s His yoke, that means He’s there by our side, helping us and walking with us through life, “taking upon him our infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy according to the flesh that he may know…how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”
So you’re if you’re going to have to exercise sooner or later, whether it’s lifting a kettle bell or carrying the groceries into the house in one trip (#nobagleftbehind)— and if you want to do it a little bit better — you might as well train with someone who knows what they’re doing.
Prepare for Pain
Someone once said “there are 2 kinds of pain in this world — the pain of discipline, and the pain of regret. Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” Another person said “Life IS pain. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.” Sometimes we avoid exercise because of the soreness or pain we feel afterwards. We’re afraid of how we’ll feel once we get through it, so we back off. But if you stay consistent and keep moving, you’ll learn that your body can actually crave the exercise. I used to dread how I’d feel after a workout, but now I’ve found that I get stiff and painful joints if I go too long without moving.
Barbells in the gym have an etched groove on the bar called ‘knurling’ — it gives you traction so your hands don’t slip, but it also gives you callouses. Sometimes the very thing that helps us also hurts us a little bit.
So if some degree of pain or discomfort is unavoidable, will you spend your time avoiding it, or learning from it and growing? Maybe you’ll need to change your view of what pain is telling you — it’s a signal that something changed and some small degree of discomfort / damage has been done. So trust in your body’s healing ability and grow from it, because growth will only happen when you’re outside your comfort zone. If you want to become better you’ll have to do something that feels a bit uncomfortable. There has to be an opposition, forbidden fruit opposite the tree of life, one sweet the other bitter, and God lettings us act for ourselves. We acted, we partook of that which is forbidden, and now the ground is cursed…but it is cursed “for our sake”. Pain teaches us how to improve, how to heal, how to trust, how to avoid more pain, and at the very least, how to empathize with others and say “I know how you feel; you’re not alone here.”
You Can Start From Anywhere
Getting in to the gym (or back to Church or the temple) for the first time, or going back after an absence, is often intimidating. You see other people who have been there a long time and you feel out of place. You feel like they may be watching or judging you, silently critiquing you for what you do or don’t do well. Sometimes that may happen, (just a bit, let’s be honest,) but you get to choose whether or not you’ll let that get in the way of your progress.
The first time I ran a half marathon, after training for months and months, I felt so triumphant and proud of myself. I had all my water bottles, gu gels, headphones, fancy shoes, tech shirt, and was pounding my way through those miles with burning lungs and cramping legs but feeling like I just might actually finish and boy wasn’t I hot stuff! Until at mile 10 when I got passed up by a scrawny 11 year old in basic tennis shoes and a tshirt, just running along by himself. Thanks for knocking me down a peg, kid. Not gonna lie…I kinda wanted to trip him as he whizzed past me.
But I realized a simple truth: there will always be someone faster than me. And there will always be someone slower.
Same thing in the gym: there will always be someone who can lift more, but somewhere there is also someone who lifts less.
In other words, comparing your progress to others is a waste of time and energy; the only person you’re competing against is your past self. Even if you are setting your resolutions again for the 2nd time or the 20th — if you are getting back on the strait and narrow path after 1 week away or 1 decade, it doesn’t really matter. You can start from anywhere. Said Jesus, “How oft will I gather you as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart.”
I was once running a 200 mile long relay race with my wife and some friends and hundreds of other teams. We’d each take turns running legs of 4-9 miles each, with no breaks in between legs, all day, all night, all the next day, following simple markers every 2-3 miles. At one of the relay stations at about 2:30 AM we noticed some runners coming in extra tired and frustrated — it turns out some knucklehead in that town thought it would be funny to change a few remote mile marker signs to point in a different direction. By the time the runners figured it out and started to backtrack to find the right way, they had added anywhere from 3-5 miles to what was supposed to be an already long leg.
But when they found themselves out in the darkness, with no help around but their fellow lost runners, they realized they had no choice but to stick together, turn around, head towards what they learned was right, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. There’s nothing for it but to just keep going. When the darkness can feel endless, hopeless, and you helpless or worthless, sometimes you have to just put your shoulder to the wheel and keep pushing along. God won’t lift the darkness or move the mountain for you, but He may provide you the courage and strength you need to navigate it yourself, trusting that you’ll make it through.
Don’t Mistake Motion for Progress
Lifting weights is great for strengthening muscles. Doing any kind of cardio is great for strengthening your heart and lungs. Tomorrow the gyms will be filled with folks hitting the treadmills, and that’s a wonderful start. If you’re one of them, that’s great! Whether it’s Couch to 5K or your first ever Zumba class, moving is great. A word of advice if you’re training for cardio, though: it turns out that treadmills are a poor substitute for running outdoors…they don’t tax your body the same way as the real world does (so you have to add inclines and resistance and stuff like that). I found that as whenever I got confident in my ability to run a long time on a treadmill, I would attempt the same thing outside and it was a whole lot harder! It turns out that simply moving a lot doesn’t mean you’re getting actually getting better. Motion isn’t always improvement.
A buddy at work joined a fitness challenge with his friends a while back and totally cleaned up his act. He hit his macros, exercised regularly, and gained a healthier body. When I congratulated him on his last day of the challenge, he said “I can’t wait until this is over — as soon as i finish my final weigh-in, I’m having an apple fritter and a coke for breakfast, like I used to.” I saw him a few years later…he was right back where he started, if not worse. His short-term efforts gave him short-term results. He went through the motions, but maybe the real transformation he needed was more in his brain than his body.
Simply doing a lot in the church and being busy doesn’t always mean we’re doing good, or becoming better. It’s too easy to reduce practicing Mormonism to a completing a checklist, earning an award, improving a statistic, or reporting a number. It’s easy to quip that measuring progress improves it…but simply measuring isn’t enough. Constantly checking the gas gauge on a car doesn’t magically improve the MPG. And when it comes to the Gospel,some things just can’t be quantified. How do you put a number on a testimony? How can anyone really measure conversion? Don’t we lose a bit of the soul, the true inner worth of it all, when trying to wrap it in a stat?
And I’ve been there. I’ve passed off memorizing Seminary Scripture Masteries but never really internalized them. Had friends who were busy in YM programs but not truly converted to Christ, or who went through the mission experience but didn’t really have the mission experience go through them. A few years back some buddies were working on a family history indexing project, hoping to hit a big flashy number; much of their group’s discussion was about the easy pickings they could get by resubmitting duplicates or other similar empty shortcuts.
Wise people have asked us to simplify, to focus on what is most important; so if that means saying ‘No’ to empty or fruitless motions in order to say ‘Yes’ to those things we really need to help us grow, so be it.
It’s Easier To Avoid Calories Than to Burn Them
Losing or gaining weight is mathematically simple; eat a calorie deficit to lose weight, and eat a calorie surplus to gain it. The challenge comes from the fact that we tend to underestimate calories consumed and overestimate calories burned from exercise. And when I compared the 30 seconds of eating those buffalo wings or rice crispy treats with the 8-10 miles of running I’d have to do to burn it all off, I realized that just a little bit of discipline would prevent hours of penance.
I’ve had moments of foolishness when I have taken bites of sinful little cookies and made spiritual choices that deep down I knew were bad for me, thinking that they would bring me some degree of happiness. Sometimes I’d justify it, saying I couldn’t resist, or I had a weakness or an addiction or I was flawed anyways or whatever. And inevitably I had to pay the spiritual price for it; I had to burn it all off, as it were. It wasn’t easy, and it’s not what God would have wanted for me.
As he said to the early saints: Please turn around and “repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;”
He doesn’t want us to suffer — He’s already paid the price and knows how much it hurts, so avoid it!
It is so much healthier for us to prepare, resist, and prevent, than repair, regret, and repent.
Track Your Progress
One of our family traditions every New Year is to get out hiking somewhere beautiful. There’s something inspiring found in clear, quiet skies at the edge of the world as you greet the dawn of a new chapter. While hiking sometimes we’d see little rock cairns — pillars of stones balanced on top of each other as a marker. Sometimes people use them as waypoints…a sort of trail marker to help others navigate through terrain that didn’t have paths. We like use them as memorials to where we’ve been — something small and kind of permanent in a temporary world, saying “I was here, this is how far I made it.”
The ancient Israelites would make pillars like these as memorials to special, sacred events. As the story goes they were attempting to cross the Jordan River into Palestine when Yahweh performed yet another miracle for them…one that hadn’t been seen in decades…something that only their parents or grandparents had talked about seeing happen a long time ago — He parted the waters for them again, and they crossed on dry ground.
Once they crossed, someone had an idea that they should memorialize that miraculous event and location for future posterity…so they built a pillar of stones, 1 for each tribe. They built other similar stone monuments when they were victorious in battle over Philistines – they called the pillars “eben ezar”, meaning a “stone of help”. (we pronounce it Ebenezer…yup, like the Scrooge guy.)
It’s really easy to get discouraged on our journey towards a goal, or to feel like we’re not making progress. Having something to memorialize our progress, whether it’s progress pictures or logging calories or lift numbers or a hanging your medals on the wall, being able to look back on just how far you’ve come can be a reminder of your patterns of success and failure.
You’ve probably heard the song “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” — tune my heart to sing thy grace. We ask God to teach us some melodies sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. I’ll praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, Mount of thy Redeeming Love. (The 2nd verse is my favorite) —it’s on that mount of redeeming love we sing “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come. And I hope by thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.”
In other words, I’m better than I was, but not yet as good as I’m going to be. So track your progress, and trust that as you step into that rushing water, the Stone of Help will be there at your footsteps.
You’re Going To Make Mistakes; it’s Built Into the Program
Plenty of times I’d get shin splints from bad running form, or a sore back from not lifting the right way. Can you imagine what would happen if we just threw down our gear and gave up whenever we got something ‘wrong’ with fitness? Nobody would stay.
But we don’t. We learn what we need to fix…fix some posture here, a better food choice there, and we keep trying. Making mistakes is built into the program.
We need to remember that. I love how when a brother messes up the sacrament prayer, there is no penalty. He doesn’t give up, he doesn’t have to pay a price, he isn’t forbidden from taking it himself. He doesn’t stop coming to church thinking “i’ll just get it wrong anyway”. Nope…he just restarts again. and again, if he has to. He may stumble a bit, and there may be awkward pauses and sometimes the mic doesn’t work or he feels like the crowd is watching him, but it’s okay. God forgives, and he can forgive himself.
Because we are more than the mistakes we have made. We are more than our weaknesses. we are more than our flaws. We are more than our lifestyles and preferences, whether they are innate at birth or cultivated by choice.
As long as we have another breath to breathe, God’s open arms are waiting, as in invitation to all, to come unto Him and be perfected. That doesn’t mean flawless, by the way…it just means complete and fully developed. So we come to Him with our flaws and we trust His training, and we join with Him in the transformational process of becoming a new creature.
Year of Yet
I hope this year you make a lot of mistakes. Because that means you’re trying something new, something you’re not good at. . It means you’re making, learning, pushing, changing, yearning, and reaching for something you aren’t or can’t but you’re still trying.
I hope this year you add a new word to your vocabulary. It’s only 3 letters long, but it’s one of the most powerful words for change. The word is Y-E-T, yet.
As in “I can’t run a mile without stopping…yet.”
Or “I can’t bench press my bodyweight…yet.”
Or “I can’t resist my wife’s amazing oatmeal chocolate chip cookies…yet. #2017beachbod”
Or “I don’t know how to forgive my local church leader for that one thing they did…yet. I’ve been reading special essays about Church History and It has shaken me up a bit and I can’t reconcile my testimony…yet. I have an addiction that is keeping me from being able to serve a mission, or I don’t know how to get direction for my life or I’m not sure if I have a testimony of Temples…yet.
Yet is a motivator of action. It implies effort and struggle. I think a lot of our can’t or don’t statements come less from inability or ignorance than mere inexperience. It’s not that you truly can’t or don’t…it’s just that you can’t or don’t YET.
As you write the next chapter of your life’s story, some parts of it are going to hurt. Moving forward to your ‘yet’ is going to take a lot of time and dedication. It will require willpower. It will require sacrifice. You will be tempted and tested and torn up and more than once you’ll want to give up and throw up your hands and shout up to the universe that you are done, that you don’t have a second verse.
But still you’ll show up, step up to the challenge and shout down the voice that tells you could can’t. You’ll take one more step, tapping in to that inner fire, and because you know your Why, you’ll be able to overcome any What and figure out every single How.
So I hope you have a fabulous new year as you write the next chapter in your life’s story. I hope you find your year of yet. I hope you turn to your Savior and find new beginnings in Him, for His is the light and life that makes it all possible.
Now bring it on, 2017. It’s time to go light the dark.
Portions of this were originally shared as a Sacrament Meeting talk in Laguna Creek 1st Ward, Sacramento Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elk Grove CA on Jan. 1, 2017.