How do you get back into “spiritual shape” if you have fallen away from God?
The Barrier: When you haven’t prayed in a long time, or haven’t been praying regularly, guilt is often the major barrier to starting again. No other spiritual muscle group makes you face God directly in admitting that you’ve been “away.” If you’re like me, this can actually cause you to go even longer without praying because you don’t want to face God. The second barrier is that we often aren’t sure what to say or where to start when we’ve been disconnected for a while. World peace? My neighbor’s surgery? General praise and thanks? Forgiveness for a nagging sin? The blank prayer slate can be intimidating.
The Work Out Plan:
Remind yourself that God is actually waiting to hear from you again! There is no need to feel sheepish.
You’ve heard it a million times before: set a time to pray daily. Ideally, choose a time that is part of your routine so you can’t forget. I used to try waking up early, but I would never do it because I didn’t have to. I now pray every morning in the shower and am much more consistent because showering is part of my daily routine.
Write down 5 things you want to pray about before you start. It helps get you back in the mindset of prayer and eliminates the fear of not knowing what to say.
When you pray, start by asking God for forgiveness for your “absence.” Acknowledging your distance sets aside your guilt barrier and opens you to free communication.
Prayer is a spiritual exercise we should all do daily. The Bible tells us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)!
Go back to the basics. Or put another way, the “best practices” for a practicing Catholic: Mass, confession, adoration, traditional prayers. But don’t hesitate to ask the Maker for a jolt or two of extra grace to spark those batteries.
Remember that — body and soul — it could be the physical strongly influencing the spiritual. It can be hard to work on holiness when you’re just plain worn out. You may benefit from what one pastor referred to as “horizontal meditations” (that is, naps). Then, too, a physical, emotional or mental condition can sap your strength and even sap your sense of hope. Chronic pain, grief and clinical depression are examples of that. Getting professional help can be the greatest — and toughest — form of prayer for you right now. And the most beneficial.
Shake it up, baby! What you’ve done for months — or years — may have lost its pizazz. That’s not to say the things you were doing aren’t very good, but, for now, they seem ordinary or bland. Toss in a little spice. Add a novena or chaplet. Sprinkle in a daily prayer to a new-to-you saint. Take a stab at journaling. Head out for a weekly private “pilgrimage” around the neighborhood or high school track, focusing on one virtue, a gratitude list or a litany of prayers for others. Pay attention to any spiritual nudges from the Holy Spirit when he suggests a new form or practice. The Holy Spirit may be asking, “Can you hear me now?”
Spend time in the desert but don’t die on the vine. Follow Jesus’ example and spend some time alone with the Father. This could be at adoration, on a silent retreat or just tucked away in your bedroom. If it helps to go someplace, go. But know when it comes to being in the presence of your Heavenly Father there’s no need to be going. Just pay closer attention to his being … with you. The same with Jesus: he’s the vine, you’re one of the branches. Pause, consider and be grateful for the grace and nourishment that Vine is offering you. Never forcing you to accept them. (You always have free will.) Never getting on your case if you’re “too busy” and ignore them.
Pray with your whole body. Yes, walking, kneeling, standing, sitting — but more than that. Getting up, going out and doing something physical for others. Like what? Oh … feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit prisoners, bury the dead, give alms to the poor. The corporal works of mercy. Each and every one is a form of prayer. Each and every one is a way of serving Jesus. (Remember Matthew 25:31-46? The Judgment of Nations? Sheep, goats … and you.)
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6. Ditto with the spiritual works of mercy. Take that tiny portion of spirituality you feel right now and give it away. Take those little loaves and itty-bitty fish and … you get it. How? So glad you asked. You can find some suggestions if you …
- Use the web! Click over to USCCB.org and type in a search for “works of mercy.” In the same way, take advantage of Catholic periodicals, radio, television and other websites. There you’ll discover information, encouragement, consolation and suggestions to help recharge your batteries, refresh your heart and mind, and renew your soul.
Dare to open your soul up to God.
No more pretending, no more going through empty motions. This is the time to be real before God. Lay it all out on the table with Him. He knows anyway. Be real…be raw…tell it like it is. Pour your brokenness out to God, tell Him you’re angry, share your doubts, express the pain of unanswered prayers and unhealed minds and bodies. Tell Him your fears. He can handle it. Pray through the famous lament psalms along with David. Take the time necessary to do your lamenting. We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge and we can’t tear down walls in our relationship with God if we keep pretending. Tell Him your heartache…tell Him about your disillusionment and doubts and sadness. Share the honest cries of your broken heart. As singer Amy Grant sings, “Honest cries of broken hearts are better than an Alleluia.” Don’t let another day go by without baring your soul to the One whose love never changes.
Practically, take a notebook and list every single disappointment, hurt, disillusionment, grief, doubt—every cry of your heart. Settle it between you and God. So often we think a good Christian shouldn’t think or wrestle with such things. It’s the enemy’s lie that keeps us burying those struggles and the unspoken pain deep within our souls so no one can see them, keeping them from ourselves resulting in a distance from God—and so we let the pain and disappointments back up someplace in our souls.
Enter Back into God’s Presence.
Stop hiding, stop avoiding, stop ignoring. Step by step begin to repair the distance as you let Him pour His words of life over your dead soul, and let Him use your prayers to breathe healing into the empty space that was created when words went unspoken. Let God’s Spirit draw your heart back to the lover of your soul as you sit unjudged in His presence and love.
Let God Heal Your Soul.
Let the pain and sorrow, and the distance and disillusionment bleed out of your soul into God’s healing hands. Let Him cradle your broken heart. Let Him rub the healing balm of His deep love into your wounds. In the words of author Sue Monk Kidd, “What are the wounds that need to be healed? What ‘lost sheep’ in me needs to be shepherded?” Listen to your soul. See the darkness, the deadness as an invitation from God to discover Him in a deeper way and to a pathway of healing for the unspoken pain you have carried alone for far too long. Paul Miller said, “The very thing we are afraid of, our brokenness, is the door to our Father’s heart.” Who better to heal your wounds than the God who has been wounded and bleeds with us?
Let God Love You.
In assessing my relationship with the lover of my soul, it became glaringly apparent that the focus of my relationship became very one-sided—me loving God. A lot of years were spent trying to earn God’s love, although I didn’t recognize it. When I failed to hold my neatly obedient life all together, God’s love broke through. It was my brokenness that opened the floodgates of His love. I had gotten it mixed up. God loved me first, while I was yet a sinner (Rom. 5:8). But I had made it all about me and my love for Him instead of how deep and wide and great is His love for me. In letting myself go, I began to experience God’s incredible love for me in a way I had not understood before—a love not based on what I did for Him, not based on my worthiness, but on me in my messiness, just as I am, the beloved daughter of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Romans 8:35-37 says, “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity…? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ who loves us” (NLT). How many times have I heard that? Now, for the first time I started to really believe and experience that. Nothing…not weariness, not brokenness, not missing a quiet time, not my worst version of myself, not letting myself go. God loves me. Period. God loves me despite myself. Here is the paradox, says Ann Tatlock, “We can fully embrace God’s love only when we recognize how completely unworthy of it we are.”
Rediscover things you once enjoyed.
I had given so much of myself in the process of caring for others, that I had lost large pieces of my soul. It became hard to even remember what I loved to do before medical illnesses and its subsequent brokenness took up residence in my life. Make a list of things you enjoy doing and try to do one each day. Proverbs 13:12 reminds us, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Find someone to pray for you.
Too often, I allowed myself to struggle alone. I was too ashamed to share this deep soul struggle with anyone—even myself. But we can’t go it alone. To keep ourselves spiritually fit, we have to have cheerleaders along the way. We need that friend to help us hold our arms up in the battle, in the moments of crushing defeats and setbacks, in the moments when it looks like we’re not going to win.
Getting back into spiritual shape will look different for each of us—and takes time. But we have an incredibly patient and loving God who wants us back under the shelter of His great love for us. He sees our struggles, our pain, our distance—our letting ourselves go—and nothing can separate us from His love. And as we start to take the walls down and be honest, He welcomes us back into His arms again.
Why Have Spiritual Fitness? What Does It Do For Me?
A) It helps you live more out of the spirit and less out of the sinful nature.
The Bible teaches that our minds are being torn between what the Bible calls the “sinful nature”, and the “spirit”. We want to operate more and more out of the spirit and less and less out of the sinful nature because when we operate out of the spirit it works for good in positive long term consequences in our lives, other people’s lives, and impacts the future of the world; and making decisions out of the “sinful nature” leads to negative consequences in the long haul for our lives, other people’s lives, and has a negative impact the future (however don’t worry about the past, God has it covered).
Therefore, if having spiritual fitness makes us more likely to live every day out of the spirit with our thoughts, words, and deeds and less in the sinful nature with our thoughts, words and deeds, then in the long run there will be a much better cumulative effect on our lives, other people’s lives, and the future (not just the future of our lives but the world/our community).
B) It allows you to have a bigger impact in the spiritual realm and people’s lives.
Additionally, Jesus said in John 14:12 “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus was NOT only referring to the the twelve disciples; he said “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these”. There is a spiritual realm around and in us that has its own rules and functions, just like our physical world has its own rules like the rule of gravity, the laws of mathematics, etc. Jesus spoke about prayer, fasting, faith, giving, etc as producing effects in the spiritual realm (Mark 9:29).
C) It is something God rewards, in this world and the next.
There is also clear teaching in the Bible in Matthew chapter 6 that the kind of spiritual fitness I describe below is something that the Father rewards, particularly when we do those things in secret without other people knowing – in a healthy way of course! There are rewards in heaven for sure, but there are also rewards here on this earth when we practice spiritual fitness. However, Matthew 6 seems to teach that these rewards are significantly diminished when we do not have a spiritual life in secret in addition to what other people know about or see. The rewards on this earth may include the strength of our spiritual gifts, providing more unique opportunities, a greater impact of your efforts, etc.
What if I am drawn towards unhealthy asceticism?
When I was delusional I became unhealthfully ascetic. Many nights in a row I tried to stand and pray all night instead of sleeping even when it was unproductive, I fasted excessively for the wrong reasons, and I gave away excessive amounts of my possessions. Please, if you have tendencies towards these excesses, spend some time meditating on the following Scriptures: Colossians 2, especially verses 13-23; Hebrews 10, especially verses 5 through 25; I Timothy 4, especially verses 1-8a; Matthew 7, especially verses 15-20; Hebrews 12, especially verses 18-24; Hebrews 10:22, Rev 2:2-5, and Luke 12:6-7.
What if I am in a bad place psychologically?
Obviously if you are in crisis mode or in the middle of an episode you don’t need to be as concerned about spirituali fitness and may have to be more concerned about spiritual first-aid. If you are in crisis or ill in any way (in the middle of a depressive episode, grieving a loss, dissociating, etc) the following things may not apply to you at this time. It is like when you have a fever, you are not expected to go to the gym or go running in the cold.
- Your diet matters a lot in spiritual fitness just like it does in physical fitness. Not all spiritual food is created equal and if you are trying to get in great shape a variety of highly nutritious substances is ideal. For example, the Bible is of the highest varieties of nutrition content, but if you only read one book of the Bible for example you will not be as nourished as if you get a variety and read many of its books.
Starting with the New Testament is a great idea, but don’t limit yourself to just that. Devotional books with one verse and a paragraph of text are a great addition to a diet, but if you eat only that your spiritual health and knowledge will be limited. There are other ways to feed yourself which include prayer, thanksgiving, and worship (“Singing and making music in your heart to the Lord” Eph 5:19b, as well as Col 3:16b), as well as hearing the Word of God preached and hearing other believers testify to what God has done in their lives. Reading literature by Christians (books, blogs, magazine articles, devotionals, Christian non-fiction, Christian fiction) definitely has nutritional benefit but shouldn’t be all you have in your diet. Nothing takes the place of reading/listening to God’s Word for yourself.
I recommend the “high protein green leafy vegetable” of confessing scripture out-loud with your own mouth. This has had high nutritional benefit in my own life. I used to really rely on it when I was a waitress last year to help set apart my mouth for good for the day when I was struggling with complaining to co-workers and having other negativity come out sometimes before I could catch myself. It really helped me improve in those areas over time, I felt like I had more control over my mouth after I started the day repeating scripture out loud as compared to the days when I did not start my day that way. I listened to a scripture CD on my car stereo on the way to work every day and tried to speak it out loud after it the best I could. Now if I am going be interacting with other people (vs just at home) I try to start my day with repeating some verses out loud from biblegateway.com on my phone quietly to myself as I take my morning walk. I don’t know why it makes such a difference for me as compared to reading the Bible silently but it does. Also consider singing along out loud to spirit-influenced songs when alone (even some “secular” songs, all true truth is God’s truth!).
I don’t always feel like “eating” some things spiritually but I know if I don’t my ministry here will suffer. Please comment below about what types of spiritual veggies, fruits, proteins, grains, supplements etc have really helped your spiritual diet.
- Just like physical fitness, sometimes it can take months or years to develop certain areas of spiritual fitness. At my gym I noticed after about a month that the amount of weight I was lifting seemed lighter and I was able to start lifting a heavier amount. I received one physical training session and the physical trainer told me that after about a year of working out my body fat vs muscle percentage would be higher. This is something that thin people cannot achieve without working out. He said I would feel better than I ever have before in my life.
Why do we treat our spiritual lives so differently? A pastor once told me, in commenting on the passage about when Jesus drove out a demon and said “this one only comes out with fasting and prayer” (as to why the disciples could not drive it out – Mark 9:29), that Jesus was “fasted up, and prayed up”. Christians often talk about “having enough faith” as they pray for something etc. Well, what type of faith have you been showing every other day of the week? Why do we think that our faith in the moment is the only factor?
Jesus is very gracious and isn’t harsh with us, but think about how things look when you are observed by others besides Jesus. Have you ever heard of the concept of moral authority? Andy Stanley describes this as walking the walk and talking the talk. If you are a manager and your employees see you being inconsistent in major areas, no matter how well you may act in one moment if they notice you know you do the opposite thing later your moral inconsistency ruins your credibility in that area with those employees. Even if they do not see you, it still matters in God’s book if we are not talking the talk and walking the walk. He loves us no matter what, but there can be a loss of spiritual authority.
We need to take times to relax. I just saw this mug design by Joyce Myers Ministries that I love – it said “Good morning this is God! I will be handling all your problems today, I will not need your help – have a good day! I love you” That is totally true, God can handle our problems. We don’t need to get in spiritual shape to talk to God, or to have our problems handled. God has got that – he has us in his hands. We can lay back and relax and get well and drink chicken soup and rest up!
However, after we get well, are feeling better, and notice that God has all our problems handled, our conscience may start to twitch. We may start thinking about all the ways the world is not the way it should be, other people are hurting, bad things are happening, people all around us don’t know Jesus (and throwing apologetics haphazardly at people doesn’t count!), and realize this life is the only chance we have to make an impact for eternity. Because of this, we may start to desire to get better at fighting in the spiritual battle. That is when you move on to pursuing what I am talking about.
Once you are well and feeling better, you need to get in shape to advance in any battle, whether spiritual or physical. Do what you need to do. If you can’t pray without falling asleep in the morning bundle up and take a quick walk around the block to keep you awake while you talk to God, he loves to hear from you and it builds you up spiritually. Skip a meal now and then as a fast only between you and God. Show faith in the way that you talk to people (do you complain a lot?) and the way that you think (God’s got it covered vs worry) and the way you make decisions (no need to panic!). Be ready to do things for God, that is what I believe it means when it says “feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15).
If you are unfamiliar with the Bible passage on our spiritual armor you can read about it in Ephesians 6:10-18. You have armor but are you able to use it? Is it strapped on well? That shield of faith can seem heavy sometimes but it is much better if you are used to carrying it around. Having a good defense is all well and good, and sometimes we are called to just be on the defensive line, but we need to be able to carry that shield in one hand, have our other armor on securely and be able to move forward in it, while having the other hand used to handling that sword of the spirit if we are going to advance in enemy territory.
Realize that it might take a year or maybe longer of consistently eating well and getting spiritual exercise till you really notice a difference in your spiritual strength – don’t give up! That is how you know it is for real and not just an artificial high or look due to steroids or whatever.
- It is good to have “aerobic exercise” as well as “anaerobic” exercise in addition to that good diet. Aerobic exercise involves the heart. Here are some ways you can exercise your heart spiritually:
Courage: stepping out in faith and love even when it is uncomfortable, hard, or inconvenient.
Ways you can exercise and develop this quality – praying throughout your day by asking God what you should do in every little situation (at the gas station, at the grocery store, at a party, on your night off, at church, at work) and being willing to follow his prompting even if it is uncomfortable for you and/or involves sacrifice. (Remember to be wise!!! And only do this when you are stable and thinking rationally; and don’t do anything bizarre!)
Compassion: sympathetic concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Ways you can exercise this – grieving for someone or for people enduring injustice, pouring out prayers for people and/or people groups oversees and in your own country, listening to someone in their pain, going somewhere and holding babies or playing with children, serving at a homeless shelter, making care packages, going to a senior center, visiting people in the hospital…all those things are good exercise for our hearts and are ways of developing the muscles of compassion. We also can walk around each day with an open heart to bless the people around us including people in the grocery store, at the gas station, etc. and try to see them through God’s eyes – beyond their behavior and into their true selves.
Service: serving others – offering to do more than what is expected, washing the dishes so the host can spend time with others, helping put chairs away after small group, making a meal for someone, helping with a church event, helping your neighbors move furniture, etc.
Blessing God: Doing things for God as an act of love towards him. He is blessed when we show love to him, sing for him, talk to him throughout the day, clear out an afternoon to spend with him, listen well, treasure his Word, secretly skip one meal as a fast for him, give as an act of love to him, show that we prefer his company, talk to him more than what we feel like we “have to/ought to”.
Testifying: Speaking/sharing truth, sharing your story and what the Lord has done for you, giving encouragement, etc.
- Finally, to keep good health you need to take care of yourself! Obviously if you are smoking five packs of cigarettes a day you won’t be in good health. Similarly with things that are dangerous spiritually.
Things called the “spiritual disciplines” help us in getting spiritually fit. There are many books and web pages about that (too long of a list for me to cover in this post). If you are looking up the spiritually disciplines online just realize most websites do not have a complete list so its better to look at multiple sites. This whole process can also be called spiritual formation.