Lately I’ve been using an audio training app when I go for a morning run. Various coaches talk me through running techniques and remind me of the purpose of each workout. While I was on a jog last week, a coach said something that caught me off guard—both correcting my thinking about running and how I approach various spiritual disciplines. He said, “You don’t run to punish your body. Running should be enjoyable.” After some reflection on these words, I came to realize that I didn't believe these words in my heart. I run to punish my body and by-extension, myself. I punish myself because I’m not in shape or I think that I’m too lazy. I punish my body because it doesn’t look how I want it to or function at its best. But this thinking is a type of self-commoditization of my own body. This mentality only leads to burnout, self-hatred, and an enslavement to an elusive-yet-different version of myself that simply doesn’t exist.
I soon began to realize that this unhealthy punish-to-health mentality also pervades much of what I consider ‘spiritual’ in my life. What motivates me to read the Bible and pray and love my neighbor and participate in worship? If I’m honest, it may be a type of guilt-induced flagellation with the hopes of removing any feelings of shame or inadequacy.
In order to fall in love with running for running’s sake, you need to buy into the idea that running itself isn’t only a means to an end—it can be enjoyed for what it is. It turns out that real runners don’t stop running once they get into shape. They. Keep. Running. Not out of a fear of losing what they have, but out of a love for what they gain each time they lace up their shoes.
Just as a regular runner's increased capacity to run only enhances their experience, the same goes for a life of prayer and meditation. Communication with God isn’t a result of the Fall of Man. Neither is silence. I don’t set aside time to be still before God as a punishment for my stupidity or as a necessary evil so that I can get on to something more important. I pray because I love talking with God and spending time in silent, peaceful reflection. When I think about these times like a reward instead of a punishment, it reframes my mind to be grateful and hope-filled.
In the long-term, you can’t punish yourself into a healthy body, mind, or spirit. Discipline is a gift, not revenge for error. It is a tool for growth that ought to leave us humming the grace of God in our hearts each day.