In 1 Timothy 4:6-10, Paul compares the Christian’s pursuit of godliness to the way an athlete physically trains their body:
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
We know, however, that the most physically fit among us may also be the most spiritually obese. Those who have trained their bodies to perform weightlifting feats may not have trained themselves to walk in purity. They may be able to impress you with their mile-time, but their sexual lust may have caused them to run right past their spouse to pornography. Physical training, with all of its real benefits, does not correlate to being trained by grace for godliness.
In this passage, Paul uses the language of “training” (we get the English word “gymnasium” from the Greek noun used here) to describe the way that Timothy ought to pursue godliness. Paul is commanding Timothy to exercise his faith by teaching the Ephesian church the “words of the faith” and the “good doctrine that [he] has followed.” He contrasts this type of exercise with the laziness of the false teachers who have been pontificating about “irreverent, silly myths” (4:6) and have “wandered away into vain discussion” (1:6). These false teachers were familiar with the Bible, but they were not able to use it correctly (1:8).
Athletes know that if you don’t go into the gym with a workout in mind, you will wander around aimlessly, do a few random movements, and see few results. One might be able to declare that they spent five hours a week at the gym, but they will not be as fit because they did not train while they were at the gym. The person who goes to the gym to purposefully train will see more results than the person with no direction.
The same reality exists in the spiritual gymnasium. The person who approaches godliness like the wandering gym-attender will see less fruit from their training. Of course, going to the gym is at least better than not going at all. In the same way, opening your Bible and reading something is better than nothing, but this is not where we will see spiritual flourishing occur. In order to see greater spiritual fitness, we must train with discipline and precision.
Those who have no spiritual disciplines are on the trajectory towards spiritual obesity. While reading your Bible every day, praying, and fasting do not necessitate spiritual growth, neglecting them is like never going to the gym in the first place. In order to train ourselves for godliness, some of us need to have as strict (or stricter!) disciplines for our Bible reading and prayer as we do for our workouts.
For example, very few people utilize a Bible reading plan. In our day and age, there are a plethora of tools to keep us disciplined in our Bible readings. The one I use is called the Kingdom Bible Reading Plan. I like using it because it leads you through the whole Bible in a year, and it gives you a variety of genres to read each day. You will read a passage from each portion of the Hebrew Bible (The Law, Writings, and Prophets) and a passage from the New Testament. Just like you don’t make it to the gym every day, this plan gives you two days a week where you can forego (or, if we’re honest, just neglect) reading. Following any of the array of Bible reading plans will help keep you fit and engaged in the work of the Kingdom of God.
Some people can go to the gym and make a workout plan, but they don’t have the skills to execute their workouts. It’s not that they don’t have the willingness to plan their Bible reading, it’s that they don’t know how to read the Bible. In this regard, picking up a book on hermeneutics (the study of how to interpret the Bible) or asking for a mentor’s help could be helpful in deepening your understanding of the Bible.
In order to be more disciplined in prayer, we should make it our aim to pray with specificity. If you go to the gym with a broad goal of, “Maybe I'll do some cardio and throw around some weights,” then you cannot expect to see specific muscle growth. In the same way, if all our prayers begin to sound like, “Dear God, thanks for this food, thanks for this day, keep us happy and healthy,” should we expect to see tangible fruit from our prayers? Do you want to see your coworkers be saved? Then pray for them by name and pray that God will give you time to share the gospel every day. Do you want more joy in Jesus throughout the workday? Pray for specific moments that you are tempted to be anxious or angry and ask for God’s presence in those moments. Pray throughout the day and with specificity.
If you plan your spiritual disciplines, you can walk into the spiritual gymnasium with purpose rather than wandering around aimlessly looking for self-help verses from the Bible and offering up vague prayers. In these efforts, remember that we do not train in order to gain God’s favor. As Paul says at the end of the above passage, we “toil and strive” for spiritual fitness “because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” I pray that the good news of the Gospel would propel us to have diligence, precision, and purpose in our spiritual training.