Two years ago I received one of those unexpected “wake up” calls. I was about twenty-five pounds overweight, quickly headed towards thirty. Unfortunately the “voice of reason” didn’t come from a little voice inside my head. Fortunately the voice didn’t come in the form of some sort of health crisis. Instead I got the word about my widening waistline from another person. Out loud. To my face. On a Sunday morning. Such is the life of a minor public figure — especially when one’s figure is morphing towards blob-ness in plain sight.
After I got over the flood of emotions, I rediscovered something I hadn’t seen in myself in a long time. I laid hold of my hibernating willpower and got to work. I changed my eating habits. I increased my activity level. I lost the twenty-five pounds by the end of 2010. But as anyone who has struggled with weight issues through the years will attest, the effort at losing weight pales in comparison to the effort at keeping what was lost from being found (again).
Over two years later, most of the weight remains gone. I’m exercising more than I have in my entire life — walking, biking, lifting weights. I’m wearing clothes in sizes I had not seen since high school. And guess what? Every day there’s a new opportunity to decide. I get to decide what I will (and more importantly what I will not) eat. When I make a bad decision in this department, the results don’t show up immediately. Every now and then I can get away with a piece of bread, or some marmalade or a pumpkin muffin from my local coffee shop. However, over the course of a few days, if I continue to make decisions based on my carb-craving tastebuds, the bathroom scale will accurately give me feedback as to the error of my ways.
The fact is, I don’t like having to watch what I eat all the time. I cannot out-exercise bad eating habits, though. Every eating decision for me has a direct consequence. I wish there were “free days” when the calories I don’t want to count didn’t count, but the calories ALWAYS count. Everything counts.
Making the every day decisions about what to eat and what not to eat, when to exercise and how much, are gifts really. I recognize that not everyone has choices about food at their disposal. I also understand that there are plenty of people who have physical situations that prevent them from doing the sorts of exercise they truly love.
With the foregoing caveats listed, however, here’s what making daily decisions about eating and exercise have taught me about the spiritual life. It is unlikely we Christians will learn the Bible until we make the decision to read it on a regular basis. The same goes for prayer. Until we decide to say a prayer, no amount of thinking about praying will actually assist us in learning the discipline. Worship too. We learn to worship God in community with others by making the decision to be present at the appointed time (even if we can think of hundreds of places we’d rather be). Each and every aspect of the spiritual life (mercy, service, evangelism, fasting, you name it) we would like to strengthen requires a decision on our part to give our time and attention towards it.
This is hard to hear. In a culture addicted to instant gratification, the long slow climb of daily, disciplined decision-making isn’t very glamorous. But it’s what we’ve been given. Jesus told his disciples once that, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Easy and light, but a yoke and a burden nonetheless. There’s no magic carpet ride to a deeper relationship with God. No quick fix, no powder or pill. One day at a time. Making little decisions day in and day out that take us a bit further into the life of faith and further towards the heart of God.
I wish I could say that I look forward to exercise. I can’t just yet. I am, however, better able to make a decision to exercise now than two years ago. It is becoming a habit. I do, however, enjoy the results. I think it’s probably the same way with the spiritual life. Some of the spiritual exercises that are a part of the Christian tradition will likely be challenging to implement. There are plenty of voices clamoring for our attention to do other things. Still, if we can focus for a moment, quiet the demanding voices, breathe, and make a decision towards a new direction, we can change the course of our lives. Maybe not dramatically and immediately, but gradually and faithfully. All it takes is making a few tiny decisions. Every day. Starting now.