“Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.” – Susanna Wesley (Mother of John Wesley)
I read that quote and thought, “ouch.” Paul wrote similar warnings in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 9) and in his first letter to Timothy.
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I [l]discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
…discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8 for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. I Tim 4:6
What does this kind of training look like? If we were talking about weight loss or a 5K, we’d know exactly what would be needed. Regimens of aerobic exercise and strength training, proper diet, recovery periods – it’s all very scientific. Athletes can tell you what increases their ability to perform well and what decreases it.
Many followers of Jesus are familiar with basic spiritual disciplines- time in the Word, prayer, fellowship with others and personal ministry- and would view them as pathways to growth. Susanna Wesley’s counsel echoes Paul’s words to us. They call us to train for the marathon. Not just to finish, but to win.
Like an athlete in training, Paul highlights our need to be aware of how we are affected by our own habits. Susanna is straightforward-whatever damages our capacity for God becomes sin to us. She focuses us on our capacity to continue to follow hard after God in the midst of temptation. I found myself thinking about what feeds my loyalty to the Lord.
- Is my mind more in tune with the Word of God? Do I know what He loves, and what He doesn’t?
- Am I more or less sensitive to offending God by my choices?
- Is my desire to be please Him, the One Audience that matters? What has my affection?
- Do I value spiritual things over this world’s offerings? Do I keep my eyes on the eternal?
Maintaining that focus is not merely a matter of the will. Part of the “ouch” of reading the quote is just knowing that I cannot do that through willpower. I need His grace to make those choices. Only His Spirit can provide the power to keep me in training for godliness. He guides me into all truth. He convicts me of sin. He gives me the ability, the power to live in a way that pleases God.
How do we keep ourselves in a place where we can say “yes” to God, and “no” to the things that take us away from Him? I have to rely on Him to change my heart. I have to be honest about what diminishes my capacity to love Him first. Even as Susanna points out, what bothers me may not bother you. I have to pay attention to my soul and the things that strengthen or weaken my love for the Lord.
More yes to loving Him first and best. More no to the things that take me away from Him.
Training for the marathon. Yes, indeed.