Spiritual Strength Training - Part One

(Editor's note: Here's Spiritual Strength Training - Part Two.)

Most pastoral problems, such as burnout, backsliding, depression, begin with neglect of the body.

Let me say that again in a different way. From what I’ve seen and experienced, most pastoral soul-care problems begin with neglect of the body, a lack of strength training. Soul-care problems do not usually begin with channel-surfing or with a click of the mouse, nor with wandering eyes or hands, nor with shortening or missing private devotions. They begin by neglecting the body, by denying or ignoring its many varied needs. The other problems inevitably and inexorably follow.

Theological Problem

This question of spiritual strength training is not merely a practical problem or a physical issue. This is also theological problem, a problem that’s associated with a wrong view of God. And it’s not just a slightly wrong view. Its error is fundamental and foundational because it concerns the fundamental and foundational truth that God is our Creator.

That’s the very first truth that’s revealed to us in Scripture. And it’s first for a reason. It’s because if we go wrong there, we run a great risk of going wrong everywhere else. Now some of you are thinking, “Don’t insult me, man. I believe in God as Creator. I defend God as Creator. I fight those who deny God as Creator. I can even prove God is Creator. How can you say that my soul-care problems arise from denying God as Creator?" Well, maybe we are not denying God as Creator with our lips, but some of us are with our lives.

Creationists living like Evolutionists

There are lots of people who call God “Lord” but don’t live as His servants. And there are lots of people – yes, even pastors - who call God Creator and preach God as Creator, but who live like evolutionists. Some pastors give the impression that the ministry is about the survival of the fittest! (OR THE FATTEST!)

God’s Creatorhood has massive implications for the way we live and the way we do ministry. Although we usually skim over that chapter in our Systematic Theologies and rush on to more “gospel-centered” material, I’ve become increasingly convinced that we cannot be gospel-centered unless we are also Creator-centered. We cannot live as zealous saints unless we first of all live as dependent creatures. The soul and body are so intertwined and inter-connected that we will make no progress in soul-care unless we start with, and go on with body-care.

Our Maker’s Instructions

How would you feel if you built a remote control model car for your children, only to come back home a few days later to hear that they had broken it by trying to use it as a plane? You’d say, “I gave you instructions, why didn’t you follow them?” Similarly, God has given us instructions about how to live as creatures. To some of us God may be saying, “Why are you trying to live as angels or as disembodied spirits? Why aren’t you following my instructions?”

God publishes his instruction in various places in His Word, but also, especially in this subject area, in his World. Increasingly he is allowing scientists and researchers to discover how the body functions best. For example, yesterday I saw research that was headlined, “The more you sit, the sooner you will die!” That made me sit up! In fact it made me stand up!! That’s my loving Creator’s instructions coming to me via reliable research, which I read through the spectacles of Scripture. We ignore such gracious instruction at our peril.

The body is a complicated mix of physical material and physical forces: electricity, chemistry, physics, biology, plumbing, gasses, pumps, siphons, lubrication, buttons, switches, receptors, etc. Then there’s the soul, way more complex than the body and completely inaccessible to empirical research methods. Although we have some Biblical data to mine and research, yielding us some basics about the soul’s capacities and abilities, so much about the soul remains a mystery. Then you put complex body and complex soul together and what do you get – multiple complexities!  How do they relate, how do they interact? How do problems in the body affect the soul and vice versa?

Biblical Link

The Bible confirms a link between distorted thoughts or emotions and many of our bodily ailments: “A merry heart does good like a medicine: but a broken spirit dries the bones” (Prov. 17:22).  Guilt also damages the body (Psalm 32:3–4).

And what about feelings and thoughts? Where do they originate? What do they influence and impact? What do they link with and overlap with? How come when our body is sick, even with a common cold or allergy, that our thoughts, feelings, and even our spiritual life are impacted? Does that go the other way as well? It seems to. When our spiritual life is damaged, it often seems to impact our bodies as well. When our emotions are depressed, so many things go wrong with our bodies as well.  Doctors call this psychosomatic (mind/body) illness.

Layers of Complexity

Then throw on top of all that the conscience and the will? Do they operate independently or are they simply part of the soul? Are they affected by the body and/or just the soul? Analysis of the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual contributions to each situation is so difficult. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:

Christians don’t understand how physical, psychological, and spiritual realms interrelate because Satan muddies the boundaries. Many of our troubles are caused because we think a problem is spiritual when it is physical or we think a problem is physical when it is emotional or spiritual.

The complexity and interconnectivity of human nature, means that the health of the body effects the health of the soul and vice versa. And it also means that it’s not easy to figure out the contribution of each to our problems! One thing is for sure, we cannot neglect one realm and expect the other not to suffer the consequences.

Creatures, by definition, are less than their Creator. He is infinite; we are finite. He is unlimited; we are limited. Hopefully none of us really think that we are unlimited. However most of us think we are less limited than we actually are. We certainly vastly over-estimate our physical strength, emotional stamina, moral courage, spiritual maturity, volitional muscle, and conscience steel.

Crashing and Burning

Underestimating our limitations and over-estimating our abilities can only have one outcome – weakness, fraying, and eventually breaking. Try it with anything – your car engine, a towrope, your computer, etc. Underestimate the limitations and over-estimate the abilities and you will eventually blow the engine, break the rope, and crash the computer.

Why do we think it’s any different with ourselves? Some people may break after two weeks or two years. Others may take much longer. It’s these people who especially need to be careful because their habits have become so engrained that they no longer pay attention to any warning signs. It’s like the elastic band. Better it snap before you pull it too tight, because the stronger the band - the further you can stretch it - the more forceful and damaging the eventual snap.

Changing and Challenging Limits

Our limitations also change through the years and seasons of life. Hormones and brain chemistry change, our responsibilities increase as marriage and children come along, “events” come along, stressful and painful providences that stretch and strain us.

Some initially do very well under huge stress. I’ve seen people pass through multiple horrendous troubles, and everyone’s amazed at their fortitude and perseverance. Then, maybe something smaller comes along years later, and they fall apart. They break down. Everyone looks on in amazement, “How can they not cope with this?” But the stress on our bodies and minds is cumulative. The straw that broke the camels back came after years of beating with a very heavy club! Everyone has limits.

Isn’t it strange that we very rarely take health advice for ourselves until we lose our health!? Health advice is for others isn’t it? We must find out our limits – physical, spiritual, emotional, moral, etc. – and we may need someone objective to help us with this. And when we find them, we must accept and work within them.

Men and women with very high limits must not impose them on those with lower limits. And those with lower limits must not impose that on those with higher limits. Let not the lower limit people be jealous of the higher limit people. Let not the higher limit people despise the lower. Let those that think they stand, take heed lest they fall. God has his way of humbling us and showing us our limitations.

We are Dependent Creatures

Even before the Fall, Adam and Eve were dependent upon their Creator. That’s how they were made. They leaned upon him, sought help from him, and sought to live in a way that pleased him. Independence did not cross their minds…until they heard, “You shall be as gods…You won’t need God. You can do without God. You can be god yourself. You can depend on yourself, on your own wisdom and strength.” And what a disaster ensued!

Many of us are theologically dependent but experientially independent. We depend on God with our lips but not with our lives. We say we lean on him for everything, but he rarely feels our weight. And disaster is often the result.

Imagine you’re in New York City with your family. Your two-year-old is just learning to walk and decides to experiment when you get to Times Square. He hops out the pushchair and starts walking away from you. You call out, “Come back, stay with me!” No answer. You run after him and try to grab his hand. He pulls away and keeps going toward the crowds and the cars. And all the while he’s saying, “Daddy, I love you!”

Some of us are living like this. Our Creator’s name is on our lips, but we are not living in dependence upon him. We say we love him but we never lean on him. And that puts us in far greater danger – physical, moral, and spiritual danger – than the two-year-old in Times Square!

Two-way Protection

God has not just made our souls to protect our bodies, but our bodies to protect our souls. If we are sleeping well, resting well, exercising well, eating well, our minds are clearer, our wills are stronger, and our defenses are higher. It’s easier to pray, to discipline ourselves, to read the Bible, to serve. A good conscience is greatly helped by a sharp mind and strong will.

Remember: most pastoral problems - burnout, backsliding, depression - begin with a neglect of the body. The most basic Christian experience is dependence. If we don’t live as dependent creatures we are not worshipping our Creator. By our independence, we are worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator.

We are not just creatures, not just complex creatures, not just limited creatures, and not just dependent creatures, but we are also fallen creatures! As part of the curse upon us for our first parent’s first sin, death entered the creation and even the greatest creature – humanity. Death entered into our bodies, our souls, our minds, our wills, and our emotions. Death is at work in the youngest baby. As soon as conception occurs and life begins, so does dying and death. If you thought we were complex before, we are even more complex now.

A Complex Mess

Like all anglers, I’m fatally attracted by the latest “guaranteed” fish-catching reel. And of course, as we all know, the more complicated (and expensive) a reel is, the more likely it is to catch fish. Right?!  Now complicated reels are great when they are working well, but when they break down, they make a much bigger mess than standard reels.

That’s why humanity is in a much worse state than any other creature; the more complex the creature the more mess when they break. And that’s why nature films focus on animals rather than humanity. Who wants to look at ugly human creatures in all their brokenness when you can see much more residual beauty in the animal kingdom!

Welcome to humanity! What a mess – our bodies, our minds, our organs, our members, our chemistry, our physics, our plumbing, everything is in such a mess – each part of our humanity on its own and especially each part as it interacts with other parts.

Spiritual Strength Training

But the best news is that our gracious and powerful Creator is in the business of re-creating. Our Creator has come down into our fallen world and lived as a creature to save His creatures and begin the process of making all things new.

However, that renewing requires our cooperation. We will hinder the process of re-creation as creative creatures if we do not live within our creaturely limits and if we do not respect how God created us. And that includes regular rest – healthy daily sleep patterns and a weekly Sabbath – recreation, relaxation, routine.

Let me encourage you further along the road  to spiritual strength training with this fact: Creativity research has shown that the most creative people find most of their creativity insights and breakthroughs in down-time. Eureka moments - breakthroughs in thought, design, engineering - usually come when the mind and body are resting.

Creative Creatures (and Preachers)

To put it bluntly, tired pastors produce tired sermons. If we want fresh sermons we need to refresh and be fresh ourselves. If we don’t live as creatures, we will not be creative! As the 19th century pastor, William Blaikie wrote:

But even where there is no positive disease, there may be a physical languor that reflects itself in feebleness of voice, dullness of tone, stiffness of manner, and a general want of lively and attractive power. It may be difficult to persuade some preachers that physical causes have to do with this, but the connection is beyond all reasonable doubt. And the fact that such symptoms are the effect of some transgression of the laws of health makes it incumbent upon the student to attend to the condition of his outer man.


David Murray was a pastor in Scotland for 13 years before accepting a call in 2007 to be Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology in Puritan Reformed Seminary. He continues to preach most Sundays in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area. He is the author of Christians Get Depressed Too and How Sermons Work. He is also President of HeadHeartHand Media, a small Christian film company. David is married to Shona and they have four children ranging from 8 to 16. You can read his blog at HeadHeartHand.org/blog or follow him on Twitter @davidpmurray.


For more in-depth resources for pastors, check out Tony Merida's Proclaiming Jesus.

For more free articles for pastors, read: Winfield Bevins' What is Gospel-Centered Ministry, JR Vassar's Domain of Influence, Jared Wilson's Five Ways to Keep Church Discipline from Seeming Weird.