Yes, we are commanded to produce agape, but without spiritual muscle you won’t do much of that—or much of anything else worthwhile.
So what is spiritual muscle? Endurance—the capacity to keep going when you are tired, to rise above discouraging circumstances, to keep saying “no way” to temptation, to keep telling the Devil he dialed the wrong number, to take the next step when you had no strength to take the last one.
Sometimes the Greek word is translated “patience,” but patient person waits for someone else to deal with the challenges confronting him. A person with endurance stays in the fight.
I find this passage in which Paul describes the ways in which he exercised endurance especially challenging:
(B)ut as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance in afflictions, hardships, pressures, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…. (2 Corinthians 6:4-5)
Paul is saying that he displayed endurance, specifically “much endurance,” in the nine circumstances he lists.
The first three, afflictions, hardships, and pressures, describe situations in which the person feels the squeeze internally, like when it is raining, you get a flat tire, you discover your spare is missing, and your cell phone battery is dead. The first challenge resides in exercising endurance in dealing with that frustration. “With the help of the Holy Spirit I will rise above those feelings, see this as God’s plan for this moment in my life, and joyfully deal with each of these issues one at a time.”
The second three situations in which Paul manifested endurance entailed hostility from other people: beatings, imprisonment, and riots. He took riots personally since usually the goal was to kill him. In most of those cases he could have alleviated the hostility by compromising his testimony: “Jesus is great but the emperor is up there, too.” Paul wasn’t going there. He endured.
The last three have to do with physical suffering resulting from ministry: laborious work, little sleep, and not much to eat. He could have stopped the pain simply by stopping his ministry. He would not.
Notice that in this passages Paul informs us that these displays of endurance commend him as a servant to God. “So what are your credentials for ministry, Paul. You got some prestigious degrees and other training from leaders in the field, didn’t you?” His response: “My resume is better than that. I was beaten several times, spent a fair amount of time in jail, and had very large crowds of people bent on stopping my pulse.”
If you are moving and are hiring some guys to put your belongings in a moving van, you will need some workers with muscle. Likewise, God was looking for someone to move the whole world out of paganism into the church, so he chose someone with the spiritual muscle described in this passage. God is likewise today looking for muscular Christians to do some moving and shaking.
How can we develop the muscle needed to be one of his ministers? Paul answers that question in Romans 5:3. “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance….” Notice that we do not produce muscle merely by suffering, but by having the faith to rejoice in the midst of it. Difficult circumstances comprise God’s gym. It is lifting the weights by exercising the faith to rejoice in the midst of challenges that develops spiritual muscle— endurance.
James gives us the same message. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (James 1:2-3 NASB)
Viewing challenges from the perspective of faith enables us to take on trials with joy, which produces endurance.
I have an old T-shirt, you have probably seen one like it, that shows Christ in a push-up position with the cross on his back and reads, “Bench press this.” The ultimate display of endurance is found in Christ on the cross. Assaulted by every weapon known to man and the devil, Christ endured.
He calls us to take up our cross daily, to display endurance. This takes us to the personal stuff. Today’s exercise routine for developing endurance might include saying no to that extra scoop of ice cream, turning off that television program that starts to turn bad, refusing to watch that movie you know is not wholesome, responding graciously when someone is unkind, talking with someone about the Lord when it may be uncomfortable, spending time in Scripture and prayer when other activities we find more entertaining press for priority.
What a great workout. Before long you will be ripped and cut and ready for ministry.