As I was spending time in the Word yesterday morning, I came up with a great idea for a blog post: Learning to swim freestyle is like learning to live the Christian life.
Let me explain.
I have been training for my first sprint triathlon for about a month now (only 2.5 more to go!) While I pretty much have the bike and run licked (did my first brick workout today…a bike and run right after one another…they call it a brick because that’s what your legs feel like when you run after biking!), swimming has been and still is a major challenge.
For many more reasons than I care to explain to those of you who may not be acquainted with swimming terms, form and technique, learning to swim the freestyle stroke (a.k.a. the front crawl) is like learning to run on all fours…humans just weren’t designed to do it.
My hips don’t float. Even with fins on. I can’t go longer than 25 yards (one length of the pool) at a time. Every time I get to the end of the pool, I ask myself, “WHAT am I doing wrong?!?!?” I feel like I’m treading water…literally. I’m going that slow.
So what does all that have to do with learning to live the Christian life, you ask? The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12, “But [Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamitites. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
When I get frustrated or sorrowful over my sin, it’s not really because of the offense against God. It’s because I messed up again. I couldn’t cut it. I tried to will myself to be loving, to act like Christ, but I failed. Miserably.
Often, I find myself wondering in regards to the Christian life and virtues, “What am I doing wrong?” I’m reading the Bible and seeking to understand the Gospel. I often have very encouraging, nourishing times with God, in which I feel like I have the beginnings of understanding the gospel, yet I can walk away from those encounters and within seconds, be uncontrollably angry at Travis. The Bible says “Be filled with the Spirit.” My mind says, “Yes, but HOW?”
Part of me understands that my being filled with the Spirit is God’s doing. The other part of me wonders when, if and how God plans on doing it.
After reading those verses written by Paul in 2 Cor. 12, I think I have a tiny little insight into the HOW.
Paul writes about being weak. Whether he means physically weak or spiritually weak, it doesn’t matter. Because he also talks about insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. Those are all external realities. There is no spiritual, internal persecution. It comes from other people.
I have internal and external troubles as well…but can’t say that I am content with them. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I try to avoid them at all costs. I get angry when things aren’t moving smoothly, when there are hiccups and bumps in the road. That’s because my 2 biggest idols are: 1) getting my own way and 2) happiness.
My idols are sort of inter-related but not quite the same thing. When I have troubles like Paul is describing (whether they be my own weaknesses and sin or an external situation that I can’t fully control), it interferes with my ability to have things go my way. When my boss at work tells me that something has to be done differently, I get angry because either I don’t want to do it that way or I don’t want to do it over. When Travis wants to talk about money and mortgages and I want to blog instead, I get angry because he is interfering with my personal determination of how I will spend my free time.
The way my idol of happiness ties into getting my way is that deep down, I fear not getting my way because I fear being unhappy. I don’t trust that God has my best interests in mind and that I can trust Him with my everyday circumstances and situations…even those as mundane as Travis wanting to talk AGAIN about what we plan to buy with our tax credit.
Where my idol of happiness is different than that of getting my way is in relation to my sin. When I abruptly get angry at Travis for no reason, I am just as frustrated at my being angry as I am actually angry. When Travis annoys me and I feel like raging on him, I despair and wish that I could go even a day without feeling annoyance toward him.
But the thing is, I don’t want to make my “wrong” emotions go away because I want to glorify God–though that certainly is involved. Rather, I want them to go away because I want my life to be easy. I don’t want to have to deal with those emotions and the situations they bring up. I don’t want to have to feel and stifle my anger, frustration and rage. I would much rather take a hands-off approach, which explains why Travis is always wanting more physical attention than I do–the way I look at it is less physical contact means fewer problems. And I just want to be happy already.
Maybe at this point you’re seeing a slight tie-in to swimming but not really understanding where I’m going with it. Well, with swimming, I have been trying and trying to get better. I have read books, watched videos, talked to friends, done drills, and even practiced in my sleep (that is unfortunately not a joke). In the case of getting my hips to float, I know what I’m doing wrong…but I don’t know how to fix it. In the case of being completely out of breath after one length, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong…but it’s obviously something.
I feel like that a lot with the Christian life. In the case of getting frustrated with my boss and my husband when I’m not getting my way, I know what I’m doing wrong. I can look back on those situations and see what I was feeling, understand why I felt that way and remind myself of truth. In the case of my being annoyed at Travis spontaneously and without discernable cause, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong…but I have the physical evidence that indeed, something is amiss. And yet, in both cases, regardless of whether I know what I’m doing wrong or not, my knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into action. I’m just left out of breath after short stints of trying to live the Christian life, hanging on to the wall and wondering “What am I doing wrong?”
But all this is assuming that I have to find the power inside myself to change the situation. That I have to be self-sufficient. That I have to make myself float instead of allowing the water around and under me to lift me up.
I don’t have to do any of those things.
If I never struggled, if I did indeed have everything under control, I would have no need for Christ. I wouldn’t need to rely or call upon God for strength and peace.
Too often, instead of taking Paul’s attitude to troubles, I let my trials derail me and turn me from God. In those moments of struggle and inner turmoil, I think to myself, “How could God help me with this?” or “Yeah, I know I’m being moody and sinful right now, but truth just doesn’t feel relevant to me in this situation” or “I’m too tired to try and change my attitude.”
But these verses in 2 Corinthians 12 reveal that I don’t have to be more patient, more loving, more peaceful, gentler in myself–I only have to find those things in Christ and let them live in me. I don’t have to dig deep down inside myself to find real honesty, real love, real peace, real joy–or lament when I can find none–because I can borrow Christ’s. His is real all the time.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean I just become a better version of myself. It doesn’t mean I just have to get rid of all my vices and failures and develop all the virtues. It means that I actually become a version of Christ–it is His Spirit living in me after all. And His Spirit is what changes me. It’s not me forcing, willing myself to be different, to change. It’s God working in me to enable me to do things I couldn’t or wouldn’t have done otherwise.
My analogy between swimming and the Christian life kind of breaks down here…there is no spirit of swimming that will enable me to magically master the front crawl (though I so wish there were!!)
But what an amazing reassurance it is to know that I don’t have to be sufficient in and of myself when it comes to being Christ-like. Because if it’s all up to me, I will be constantly treading water, out of breath, and barely keeping myself afloat. When I don’t have patience, I can borrow Christ’s. When I don’t have joy, I can borrow Christ’s. When I don’t feel like I have the strength to keep on, I can borrow Christ’s.
Just a few verses to summarize/legitimize what I just wrote:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy & beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…” Colossians 3:12
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
“…the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10