The degree of discomfort I have experienced has not always been obvious to others, especially as I’ve always been active, have raced in triathlons and run marathons. Generally the more active I’ve been, the better, but since my early 20s, once or twice a year, I have been almost completely incapacitated by muscle spasm and pain for a week or three at a time. This has normally happened as a result of doing something innocuous, like getting milk out of the fridge, or visiting Milton Keynes. (Ah, the curse of Milton Keynes. Another post, another day.)
I know pain does funny things to people and have often wondered if I might have been a nicer person if I hadn’t gone through so much of life with - literally - gritted teeth.
Three years ago, after a particularly agonising round of back spasm, my GP sent me for an MRI scan. I have subsequently learned that this is what GPs always do when they have no idea what to do for patients with chronic back pain; despite the fact that the – expensive – MRI hardly ever reveals any information that can be used to alleviate said pain. True to form, the MRI revealed nothing very much: “Some deterioration of the lower discs. Don’t lift anything heavy.”
Then, two years ago, I took up CrossFit – “the sport of fitness” – which, among other things, involves lifting heavy objects. I was nervous about this, figuring I might quickly be laid up with my back in bits. In fact, while I certainly have not been pain free, these two years have been the best I can remember, with no prolonged period of enforced inactivity due to back pain. It would seem the medical advice I received was plain wrong: lifting something heavy has helped sort out my back issues more effectively than all the treatment, sport and exercise I have previously tried. I wonder how different my life might have been if I’d done this in my 20s rather than waiting till my late 40s. Think how nice I might be!
The point of this tale? If someone is struggling, very often it seems the right thing to do is to say, “Don’t lift anything heavy.” This can almost be our discipleship strategy: life is demanding enough, don’t put too much effort into following Jesus, that might tip you over the edge. This kind of strategy only heads one way though, ending up in a Nadia Bolz-Weber-like wholesale rejection of biblical truth. Instead, it might be that the very thing someone needs in order to handle life better is the encouragement to lift more. Inactivity and passivity don’t make anyone stronger.
The final spur I needed to give CrossFit a go was being beaten in an arm wrestle by a skinny 18-year-old and realising how weak I had become. Some of us are similarly spiritually weak – not because we lack the capacity for strength but simply because we have believed the lie that lifting something heavy might injure us when really it could strengthen us.
So go on and lift something heavy. Read that copy of The City of God that has been gathering dust on your shelf the past twenty years; give away enough money for it to really hurt; speak to someone about Jesus when you’d rather keep your mouth shut; choose a life of sexual purity rather than compromise. Lift something, and keep on lifting. You might be surprised by the results.