Last spring I bought a Groupon for 12 sessions at a CrossFit gym in Dallas. My inspiration was a friend who had dropped more than 100 pounds in 6 months while doing CrossFit workouts three times a week.
If you’re not familiar with CrossFit, it combines elements of rowing, Olympic powerlifting, gymnastics and stretching. And also death. It is not for the faint of heart.
I attended an introductory session called “Elements” to learn some of the basic movements of the workouts. It’s supposed to be an easier version of the full-blown CrossFit training.
About halfway through that hour-long class, as I was sucking wind and grimacing in pain, memories from high school weight training came flooding back. I knew what was coming – the way my muscles were burning. I knew what it meant.
I was going to have trouble walking for a while.
Oh, and I definitely had to run to the bathroom after the workout and puke.
That’s the way it is when you get back into weight training. If you get into it too quickly, and your muscles aren’t used to tearing so much, the lactic acid builds up, and the soreness can be excruciating.
Sure enough, in the days that followed, my body hurt. It hurt to walk on flat ground. It hurt to walk up stairs. It hurt to sit down. It hurt to stand up. It hurt to laugh. It hurt to get in the car. It hurt when someone looked at me.
It’s crazy, isn’t it? Something that’s supposed to be so good for you can hurt so bad!
And, as I think happens more than in just my experience, I didn’t go back. I certainly didn’t feel ready to go back 2 days later. And then a week passed. And then a month.
The initial pain of growth was too great to continue.
I think there’s some truth in this story that can be applied to spiritual training as well.
Saint John of the Cross describes the Holy Spirit as a “Living Flame of Love.” When one encounters the Living Flame the first experience is not joy and pleasure but pain and discomfort. Flames burn what they touch, after all. John says that the Living Flame of Love “wounds tenderly [one’s] soul in its inmost depth.” The Holy Spirit’s first action is to “destroy and consume the imperfections of its evil habits.” And that hurts.
Saint John also describes the Flame as a dazzling light, which does not at first appear to one’s eyes as light but as blinding, profound darkness. It takes a while before the eyes of a person’s soul can adjust to the radiating light of the Spirit.
Another way of looking at it: when we begin to work out spiritually and connect to God, we begin using muscles we’ve never used before. We’re not used to it. We experience spiritual lactic acid build-up. And getting used to God can be painful.
We are sinful and selfish; God is holy and loving. That in itself is a recipe for awkwardness.
Our instant gratification culture might lead us to believe that we can jump into spiritual formation and immediately be happy, peaceful and fulfilled in God. We might be tempted to believe that something is wrong if it doesn’t feel right; or if we feel uncomfortable; or if it’s hard; or if we’re constantly distracted in prayer and it seems like a waste of time.
Yet the experience of pain, frustration, and distraction in relationship with God is normal – just like feeling sore after the first weight lifting session in a long time.
The good news is that it doesn’t last forever. The soreness goes away. The Flame burns away the impurities. Our eyes adjust to the light. And when that happens, it’s good. So good.
Not that pain, frustration and distraction go away forever in our spiritual journeys. Hardly. But there is definitely an initial hump to get over.
Here’s my suspicion: lots of people, and not just new Christians, engage God on their spiritual journeys in a cycle of frustration. We thirst for God, engage God, and then experience some form of pain, frustration or distraction. And instead of pushing through it, we disengage, only to repeat the cycle again and again. What we end up missing is the spiritual breakthrough that comes when we persevere with God through the pain, frustration and distraction.
If I’m honest I’d have to say that I’ve spent the majority of my first thirty years in this cycle. Not that I’m done with this cycle. I wish. I’ve merely been given the grace to see at least glimpses of the other side of the pain, frustration and distraction that I experienced with God in my initial encounters. And it’s good. So good.
I write this as a word of encouragement. (I have a feeling that a future version of me is going to want to look this up and read it.) Don’t disengage when you experience pain, frustration and distraction with God. Sit with it. Push through it. Hang in there. Jesus says:
Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.
I still haven’t been back to that CrossFit gym for my 11 remaining sessions.
How do your experiences in spiritual training compare with my reflections here?
What has helped you to push through the initial struggle of connecting to God in order to experience God’s goodness on the other side of it?
I struggle with a core sentence of your blog, “When one encounters the Living Flame the first experience is not joy and pleasure but pain and discomfort.” I wonder if there is both awe which can inspire worship while at the same time dissonanace of not fulling living into His awesome love and holiness.
My struggle may be the meaing of “Living Flame” according to Sain John of the Cross.
That’s a great point, Gailyn. Perhaps the first experience is not pain and discomfort but the warmth of the Living Flame (Holy Spirit). When we come into contact with our Creator it is not necessarily initially painful or uncomfortable. On the contrary, it can be comforting and live-giving. Even awe-inspiring. Like the unbeliever in 1 Corinthians 14 who acknowledges in a worship gathering that God is truly among his people.
I think what John of the Cross is getting at is the same as the Apostle John when he shares Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit: “When he comes, he (the Holy Spirit) will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” John 16:8 Part of the role of the Holy Spirit is to judge and convict us of our sin, which is often painful and uncomfortable.
Thanks. Very good reflection!