Success in the Spiritual Life

“Train yourself for a holy life! While physical training has some value, training in holy living is useful for everything. It has promise for this life now and the life to come.”

1 Timothy 4:7b, 8 (Common English Bible)

Thoreau said, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams…he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”i Advancement in a chosen direction is intentional movement, not simply a longing or a dream. One is aspirational; the other is a determined pursuit. One person may aspire to learn the Italian language; another enrolls in language class. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, “Have I determined a pathway for realizing my dreams? Am I now pursuing that path?” Success, says Thoreau, belongs to those who begin to move in the direction that is right for them. That is when things start to go our way.

In this letter to Timothy, Paul uses an athletic metaphor to describe, “Advancing confidently in the direction of a holy life.” He urges the reader to “Train yourself,” that is, to advance intentionally and confidently in the direction for living as Christ. The Greek word Paul uses for “train” is the word from which we get “gymnasium.” It would be odd for anyone to go to a gym simply to watch others train. Gyms have value, not as “observation posts” for people who dream of better health, but as an “action center” for advancing toward better health. When Paul speaks about training in holy living, he is talking about activities that engage us – activities that make a demand upon us.

It is good for us to reassess our priorities from time to time. Often we speak of our aspirations: an aspiration to learn a musical instrument, an aspiration to travel, or an aspiration to return to school. Yet, without “advancing confidently in the direction of our dreams,” they remain aspirations. Absent is a commitment and plan to advance toward them. Someone once observed that our priorities are transparent for the world to see – they see our priorities in what we do each day. The mature person understands that what is important receives time, energy, and intentionality. If consistently arriving to work on time is important for job security, we arrive to work on time. 

Thomas Long writes that if the holy life is our aim, we go to the theological gym to do curls, crunches, and run laps to train, not to run a marathon but in order to be people of love.ii Naturally, observes Tom Long, it does not take much training to love the lovable. However, when Christ calls us to love those who are difficult to love – or to love our enemies – then, that takes practice. That takes time in the theological gym. “Train yourself for a holy life!” writes Paul. The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said that the supreme goal of men and women is to fulfil themselves – to honor their unique calling in life. The apostle Paul is asking that we now honor our baptismal vows – to become like Christ.



i Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1981), 326.

ii Thomas G. Long, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 131.


Throwing Away Self-Pity

“Awake, awake, put on your strength, Zion!”

Isaiah 52:1a (Common English Bible)

Captivity for Israel has ended. God has defeated the powers of Babylon and has authorized Israel to depart and head for home to Jerusalem. A new day, with a strong future, now rises for God’s people. “Awake, awake!” is God’s double imperative to Israel. “Put on your strength, Zion!” The call sounds strangely familiar. “Up and Adam! Let’s get going!” is the more common usage today. These, or similar, words have been uttered by most parents summoning their children awake from their sleep. The image of sleepy children, resisting the call to leave the comfort of a warm bed, is sharp and crisp. The parent can wake the child with a shout, can summon the child from the bed, but it must be the child’s own strength that moves them from slumber to a fresh engagement with a new day.

God’s present difficulty is that Israel doesn’t want to get out of bed. During their captivity in Babylon, Israel has become dulled, inattentive, hopeless, and grief-stricken.i Israel has been humiliated by Babylon and has spiraled into such despair and self-pity that they no longer want to live. No longer did life offer a driving purpose, only a memory of brighter days. Absent was a radiant hope, only a fading dream. A captivating vision has fled from their sight. What remained was a history. “Awake, awake!” is God’s response to Israel’s self-pity. “Put on your strength, Zion!” God is reminding Israel that there is still strength in the people and is here urging them to summon that strength and toss-off that negative attitude that has consumed them.

Psychotherapist and author, Amy Morin writes that feeling sorry for yourself is self-destructive.ii Though we all experience pain and sorrow in life, dwelling on your sorrow and misfortune can consume you until it eventually changes your thoughts and behaviors. Morin contends that any of us can choose to take control. “Even when you can’t alter your circumstances, you can alter your attitude.”iii This is the clear declaration of God to Israel; the clear call to shake off their indulgence in self-pity, claim the strength that remains in them, and move positively forward toward the future God has prepared for them. God’s strength comes alongside our own. It does not do for us what we can do for ourselves.

After Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France, he spent 18 years in the Channel Islands. Hugo once described this exile from the nation he loved as worse than death. Each afternoon, at sunset, Victor Hugo would climb to a cliff overlooking a small harbor and look longingly out over the water toward France. Legend tells us that each day, following his meditations, Hugo would pick up a pebble and throw it into the sea. One day the children who developed an affection for him asked why he threw a stone in the sea each day. “Not stones, children, not stones. I am throwing my self-pity into the sea.” Little wonder that during those 18 years of struggle, Victor Hugo gave the world his best and most profound work of literature.



i Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 136.

ii Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. (New York: William Morrow, 2014) 20.

iii Morin, 18.


A Life Full of Meaning

“Come, follow me,” he said, “and I will show you how to fish for people.”

Mark 1:17 (Common English Bible)

Norman Vincent Peale said, “To find life full of meaning, live a bigger and better life.” Joseph R. Sizoo spoke of a man who said to him, “I am not interested in the endurance of life but in an enduring life.” Jim Rohn wrote, “Consider others’ interest as important as your own. Much of the world suffers simply because people consider only their own interest.” I like best the way Michael Brown expresses the route to a life full of meaning, “Find something bigger than you to live for. Be like Abraham who was so busy tending the needs of his children, Israel, that he just didn’t have time to fret much about his own needs.” Multiple voices that all, essentially, share the same wisdom. A life focused only on your own wants and desires is the shortest route to an empty life.

These few words in Mark’s Gospel offer tremendous guidance to a full and satisfying life. First is an invitation to “follow.” To the one who is experiencing emptiness in their life, tossed from here to there by unseen forces, without direction or purpose, Jesus asks that their eye be focused on him. As sailors once navigated the seas by the North Star, Jesus asks that we navigate the complexities and uncertainties of life by an eye that pays attention to Jesus. Time reading the Bible, learning the teachings of Jesus, is never wasted time. Nor is this an exercise for the margins of time that may remain after a day of work. Learning of Jesus continually resets those values and priorities that propel us forward. We discern with greater clarity the important stuff of life. 

Second is the invitation to “learn.” In Judaism, rabbis often shared their wisdom with their followers. Formation of others was accomplished by teaching, modeling life built upon the teaching, and asking followers to do the same under the supervision of the instructor. This method of learning is more effective than instruction alone. During a vacation in Mexico my wife and I enrolled in a cooking class. The chef introduced the ingredients required for a particular Mexican dish, the kitchen instruments that would be required in the preparation, and then prepared the dish under our watch. Then the chef turned to us and asked that we now repeat what we saw. What was most satisfying is that Grace and I then enjoyed a lunch that we had prepared. Jesus says right here in Mark’s Gospel, “I will show you how.”        

It is then that these words reveal their “strangest secret” – a phrase I have borrowed from Earl Nightingale. The cooking class Grace and I took in Mexico was, without apology, for us. After all, we were on vacation. Yet, here Jesus identifies that our instruction, our formation, is for one purpose: the welfare of other people: “I will show you how to fish for people.” I call this the “strangest secret” because what remains unnoticed by many is that discipleship isn’t really about us. It is about others. Jesus is asking us to join him on the great adventure of populating God’s Kingdom with people who have lost their way in life. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah writes about God calling people to “catch” others in God’s net that they also may know God. A life lived for others is the secret of a life full of meaning.



Happy People

“Therefore, get rid of all ill will and all deceit, pretense, envy, and slander. Instead, like a newborn baby, desire the pure milk of the word. Nourished by it, you will grow into salvation, since you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

1 Peter 2:1-3 (Common English Bible)

Happy People, penned by songwriters, Lori McKenna and Hailey Whitters and performed by Little Big Town, is a feel-good track that sparkles with uncommon wisdom about what it takes to be happy people: “Happy people don’t cheat. Happy people don’t lie. They don’t judge or hold a grudge. They don’t criticize. Happy people don’t hate. Happy people don’t steal.” These are the opening lyrics of a song that capture the sentiment of what’s going on in a world threatened with a deadly virus and torn by hurtful political rhetoric. As Fred Craddock, a widely popular preacher and thinker of the Christian faith, observes, “Christian growth involves, among other things, getting rid of those attitudes, ways of speaking, and behavior patterns that attack the central fabric of the community: mutual love.”[i]

As each one of us, approach a new day the one constant factor we all share is a decision: the feelings and attitudes that will shape our response to others. Implicit in these words from 1 Peter is an old life that was before knowing Christ and the new after our encounter with the Gospel. Whenever we face a situation, we now have a choice: the habitual response of ill will, deceit, pretense, envy, and slander that was the character of the old life or a response that is shaped by love. This moment of decision is one point of conflict we must negotiate between our old and our new life. A conscious decision is called for. Will we surrender to our old impulses, our normal response to other people, or will we choose the new way taught by, “the pure milk of the word”?

First Peter calls us to clean the slate of our lives – to face up to our old, destructive nature and wipe away specific attitudes and behavior that tear at the fabric of relationships with one another. Craddock wrote, “Malice, envy, and slander do not drop off like old clothes; these demons must be fought to the end.”[ii]  If they are not wiped away – by an intentional decision each day – these behaviors sour and spoil our lives and rob us of the happiness we desire. As Happy People reminds us in a lyric, “Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel.” A rich and rewarding life is the promise of the Gospel, a salvation from the decay brought by destructive speech and behavior. In Jesus Christ, we have “tasted” the promise of that salvation and know that it is good.

The refrain of Happy People announces, “If you wanna know the secret (of happiness). Can’t buy it, gotta make it. You ain’t ever gonna be it. By takin’ someone else’s away.” An excellent place to begin this “new life in Christ” is with any animosity that we may hold toward another. Letting go of that anger and hatred is like removing a heavy backpack after a long hike up a mountain. The initial relief is immediate and grows, measure by measure, over time. In truth, we may cause little hurt to another by our anger but we do serious harm to ourselves. It shows in our life, in our speech and our behavior. People see it. More, we experience it. It is depilating, often resulting in physical ailments. The closing lyric of Happy People is especially poignant, “Well life is short. And love is rare. And we all deserve to be happy while we’re here.”


[i] Fred B. Craddock, First and Second Peter and Jude: Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) 35.

[ii] Craddock, 35.