A few months ago, I took up running again. Well, I say running; that may be stretching a point somewhat. Each time we hit the pavements, my running partner and I perform an action that might be described as sauntering, lolloping, or if you were feeling particularly kind – jogging.
We’ve managed to jog an average of three times a week, during our lunch hour, and we’ve somehow managed to grow the length of our route to just over 5km. I am aware that this is not especially impressive, but in the lardy context of my keep-fat lifestyle so far, it feels like a major achievement.
The benefits have been pretty much instant – I have more energy during the day; I seem to need less sleep in order to recover; my self-esteem is improved, and of course, I now have a body like Daniel Craig (give or take a few pounds, muscles and crags).
But do you know what? It’s hard. Every time I go our there, choosing half an hour of hard, slow running over a lazy chat in a non-tax-avoidant coffee chain, I expect it to get easier. I assume that my body must be learning to do this; that at some point I’ll be twenty minutes into a run without even breaking sweat. It hasn’t happened so far. Instead it’s an effort – it requires an act of will on my part to start, and a series of further painful decisions not to stop. It’s been like that since I started running, and while I no longer get weird chest pains when I jog, it still hurts. It’s still quite hard.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Rob told me about something he’d heard the great writer and thinker Dallas Willard say at an event few days earlier. This is now a third-hand quote, but here’s the gist: Dallas, who is passionate about the ancient Spiritual Disciplines and their place in spiritual formation, said that their practice should be ‘at least as hard as jogging.’ That’s to say: activities like prayer, study, meditation and solitude aren’t easy. Part of their power comes from the fact that they require effort and commitment on our part.
In recent years, I’ve become fascinated with (and passionate about) the place of the Disciplines in discipleship – and especially in youth discipleship. I genuinely believe that this collection of spiritual practices, used by the church for literally thousands of years, can be transformational. But they’re not a quick fix – which makes them entirely counter cultural – they require effort and commitment. We don’t just fast for a couple of minutes and get on with our high-consumption day; if we practice only five minutes of silence a day, we shouldn’t be expecting to regularly hear the audible voice of God as a result.
Instead, if we want to build a deep, rich, sustaining relationship with the almighty, we need to put the hours in. Like any relationship, it flourishes when we give it proper time and attention.
The spiritual life should be at least as hard as jogging. Not a lung-bursting sprint. Jogging. Let’s pound those pavements together.
My book The Beautiful Disciplines is a complete youth curriculum, differentiated for various youth work contexts, exploring the Spiritual Disciplines. Find out more here, or order a copy from me direct here.