Sinewy women, perfect hair, abs of steel, reaching heavenward, stretching, smiling. Men with biceps like small mountains, pumping iron, flexing in mirrors. The fittest physical specimens are more than surviving; they’re thriving. You’ve seen them in the gym, subtracting inches from their collective waists, adding a few around the arms. They work, pump, and supplement, hoping for a physique that speaks back from the mirror, “You’re healthy—you look good.” These are the gym rats, the ones who live by the old adage “No pain, no gain.”
It might be the secret to physical fitness. A little pain never hurt anyone. In fact, it can be quite good for the body. We work through the burn. The pain trims fat, expands the threshold of muscles. Working through pain gets results. But does this principle hold true spiritually?
In the autumn of 2013, I awoke from a spiritual stupor. My youngest son Titus was gravely ill, and I’d been thrown into a tailspin. Realizing my anxiety, my inability to utter an efficacious prayer, I visited a Christian therapist. I sat on his couch and asked, “What gives?”
He spread his lips into a flat grin, and squinted. “Let’s explore your past. Let’s find the source of your anxiety.” Maybe it was my son’s illness, he said, but maybe it was something deeper.
We sat in silent prayer—the best tool of Christian therapists—and I asked the Spirit to show me the source of my anxiety. In the quiet that followed, images rushed. I saw a faith healer, the one of my youth who promised that, with enough faith, I could be healed of asthma. His promise fell flat. I remembered the pastor who ran me ragged in the early days of my short youth ministry career (the one who conflated building campaigns with true spiritual growth). I recalled the friend whose lies cut deep and the family member who cheated. I considered disappointment after disappointment, the way the world waged war against my once tender faith and led me to believe that both God and man can sometimes disappoint.
The practice of taking an inventory of our pains is not easy. But as we practice the way of Jesus, we grow into the strength of Christ’s passion.
Soul sick, full of doubt and discord, I considered my inner man. My spiritual muscles had atrophied; my faith was weak. My spirit was rail thin, gaunt, and jaundiced—a sight not to behold.
The counselor led me into the anxieties. “It’s going to hurt,” he said, “but you have to confront these disappointments, these pains. Wade into them; see them for what they are, and ask God what to do with them.”
In my living room night after night, week after week, I walked into the faith disappointments of my life. Why had I carried these hurts so long? Could I use these life-pains as a catalyst toward spiritual growth? I went into prayer, asked for the Spirit of God to lead me into true soul health. And this is what I heard:
Go to the garden.
I turned to Scripture, where Jesus knelt in Gethsemane, anxious and sweating drops of blood. It was as earnest a prayer as was ever whispered: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). And God, because of His great love for us, would not relent. He sent His Son into the pain. Drink the cup of pain, Son; it is My will for their good.
I read on. The lynch mob took Jesus. He was mocked, as His beard was pulled from the roots. He was lashed and then nailed to the cross. He was given no relief but was hung and left to die. And there, having suffered the worst that men could offer, before His soul exploded into the glory of heaven, He whispered these words over His torturers: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus forgave His torturers.
His prayer is an interesting one, isn’t it? He could have prayed something else—could have whispered “Father, forgive them of their sins.” After all, He’d forgiven sins before. By the atoning work of the cross, He was forgiving sins once and for all. But His phrasing from the cross was particular—“forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
God, because of His great love for us, sent His Son into the pain.
It was the prayer whispered by Jesus in His most tortured hour, the time when His spirit was the weakest. And if the tortured Jesus is to be our role model, if He is my hope of glory, shouldn’t we extend this same forgiveness in our own spiritual weakness? Forgive your accusers, He says, they didn’t know what they were doing, not really. They crucified me, and I forgave them.
There is no doubt about it: The practice of taking an inventory of our pains, of walking through life’s hurts and disappointments is not easy. But as we practice the way of Jesus, as we flex our forgiveness muscles, we grow into the strength of Christ’s passion. We grow into Christlikeness.
It’s been two years since I crawled to the spiritual weight bench—since I began naming names and practicing forgiveness. As sure as the world keeps spinning, folks continue to work their myriad small treasons against me. New pains come. New disappointments arise. But if I’m diligent in the ways of forgiveness, I’ll see the strength and resolve of Christ’s love steeling my bones, bulking up the spiritual man. I’ll find my spiritual self transformed into something lean, strong, and flexible. And I believe the same will be true of you, too.
The way of Jesus’ forgiveness isn’t easy. He never promised it would be. But here’s what I’ve found: The practice of forgiveness fuels our spiritual fitness. And hard as it may be, the truth is still true. No pain, no gain.