Ever since my senior year in high school, my journeys in faith and fitness have always walked alongside each other. I got into Jesus, (like, really into Jesus) at about the same time I got into lifting, and looking back, it comes as little surprise that a lot of my encounters with the Lord have been more or less in the gym.
As cliché as it sounds, being in front of a barbell or on a tennis court reminds me a lot of what church feels like. I have a sense of comfort, a sense of familiarity, and a sense of peace whenever I start loading up forty-fives or taking serves out of a basket.
This is all great stuff so far, and I’m sure a great deal of athletes have a similar testimony to my own. It’s just that, despite having glimpses of God in the weight room or on the tennis court, my so-called ‘church’ was also a breeding ground for misconceptions about the Gospel.
Let me try to explain. I love my deadlift. I always have. It’s given me a sense of pride and ‘manliness’ to say I can pull over 300 pounds off the floor any given day of the week. There’s nothing quite like the deadlift once you get the hang of it. You either move the weight off the floor, or you don’t. There’s no cheat code, no run around, no half-reps. It’s just raw, real, untapped strength on display.
I say that to segue into the fact that I was obsessed with getting my deadlift to where it currently is. I’ve almost always been a firm believer in sets and reps. So, any time I got up to a barbell, I would just grip and rip, (with ape-ish grunts being optional from time to time) the weight as many times as I could, trusting that ‘the process’ would take me wherever I wanted to go.
It was over the summer before my first semester of college when I finally pulled 315 for the first time. And not so coincidentally, it was also the day after I’d gotten back from serving on a mission trip in Oklahoma the week before.
I sheepishly loaded three plates onto either side of the barbell, fifty pounds more than I’d ever attempted, save the ten minutes prior. I wasn’t scared so much as determined, determined that whatever amount of strain it took, I was going to get that bar to my waist.
I set up and I drove through my shins, scraping the iron against my legs, slowly but surely to the top of the movement. Then, in an instant, I dropped everything to the floor with a crash, overjoyed with my victory over gravity.
I thanked God for the moment. I really did. I even made a post on social media about the unbelievable ‘progress’ I’d made in the previous year. I was so happy, so excited to share what had to be the most miraculous lift of my short career.
It was then when I really started to let pride seep into my heart. I was positive that the events of the day were one hundred percent connected to the events of the previous week. I thought God, in a moment of divine courtesy, had given me what I justly deserved after working so hard on missions in Oklahoma.
I was completely blind to it at first, and even months afterwards. I continued my obsession with lifting, intermingling my devotional life with my gym life and always seeking out that next high point to post on Instagram.
Eventually, the dread of reality sank in. The first semester of college went on, and I had started to plateau in strength. I’d hit three plates again, and then I’d miss it. I’d go heavy for a week, only to pull back dramatically for the next one. The struggle went off and on for several months, and I became so frustrated with myself, so confused as to why God wasn’t continuing to ‘bless my lifting’ the way He had over the summer.
The climax of it all was when I pulled 335 for the first time without any belt or straps, only to crumble under 345 a few minutes later, just ten pounds more than my previous one rep max.
I was so frustrated with God and myself for what looked to me like a needless failure. I thought I was doing everything right. I thought I’d put in the work, both inside the gym and out of it. I was in Bible studies. I was praying. I was trying not to show off as much as I used to, but there was still no progress in my deadlift. I felt like God was disappointed in me for some reason, and that was why He wasn’t letting me succeed.
I sulked in my despair for a little while, and it wasn’t until I heard a sermon at Breakaway talking about works and righteousness that something finally clicked in my head.
TA, our director, made a comment on how most Christians think if we could only get the spiritual combination just right that God would then be willing to help us out. He said that most of us, myself included, were so obsessed with God, not out of thankfulness, but because of what we thought He could give us if we were only ‘good’ enough to earn it.
When he put it that way, it became abundantly clear that I had twisted my image of God for an image of karma, turning Him into, of all things, a legalist and universal vending machine that I could manipulate for my own personal gain. And from that point, I was convicted to change my view on what the Gospel really promised.
I had a devotional that I was reading before every workout (part of my own Karma tactic to get the Lord ‘on my side’ as it were). God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect, because the devotional was all about thankfulness.
The words spoke adamantly against the works-rewards theory I had unconsciously been operating with for most of my first semester. It referenced the karma mentality in the same way TA had done only a short while before, and it said that we should always be working from victory rather than towards it.
At the end of the devotional was a challenge, or rather a question on behalf of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. What can you be thankful for today?
As it turned out, I had a lot of things to be thankful for, especially in the gym. I had never really taken to time to thank God for the opportunity to train in the way He’d allowed me to. He’d given me legs to run, a head on my shoulders, and a working heart that I’d completely taken for granted, and that I still do when I’m not in the right state of mind.
I realized what God had already done always came before anything I could do. Why in the world am I asking for more, I thought. I was selfish, ungrateful, and un-attentive to the blessings God had constantly been pouring over me in college, the ones apart from a three-hundred-pound deadlift.
I couldn’t give you a date and time on it, but I slowly started to develop a new mantra whenever I stepped into the gym, something I forced myself to repeat out loud after almost every set, every rep, and every exercise I did:
Now, my deadlift didn’t do anything crazy after that. If it had, the ‘thank you’ mantra would have simply become the next element added to the works-reward theory I was fighting to get rid of. So, let me say it again; nothing spectacular happened to any of my lifts, at least not that I can remember.
What did happen, however, was exponentially greater than a new max bench or fastest mile time. I felt God’s Spirit begin to push me, begin to encourage me, and begin to motivate me beyond the doubts and insecurities I’d always faced when in the gym. No longer was I terrified of the two-hundred-and-fifty-pound monsters on either side of the squat rack. And no longer did I care about what my twelve-inch biceps looked like in the mirror. I was too focused, too focused on repeating that phrase, (thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you), to be intimidated by the stacks of muscle looming from the left and right.
I took the ‘thank you’ mantra with me to the tennis court, another place where I’d been training myself to believe karma and God were one and the same. Again, my serve didn’t pick up any new-found speed after I started the exercise, nor did my forehand start magically finding the sidelines every time I let it rip.
And yet, the Holy Spirit had given me a new sense of peace, even in the midst of missing the same shots I was before I started the mantra. If anything, it was the peace of the Spirit that made me a better player, not the ‘magic words’ of saying thank you over and over again like a busted piece of vinyl.
I’ve stumbled since then, having often forgotten those glimpses of peace and the relief they provide from the pressure of performance. Even in recent months, it’s been a struggle to lay down my pride at the foot of the cross.
But, thanks to the Spirit, I’ve been able to realize more and more the areas of my pride which need to be addressed. I’m hoping that, by God’s grace alone, and through the knowledge of Christ, that He will continue to show me reasons I have to be thankful, and maybe, just maybe, that He might add a few pounds to my deadlift as well.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful… And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3: 15, 17)