“It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as [God] commanded us. But now…let us love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to God’s commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning—you must walk in it.“ – 2 John 4-6
I recently started lifting weights again after a several months long break. I went back into the gym, opened the app on my phone that tells me how much I lift each time, and decided to take it easy on myself on this first day back. I loaded up the weight with fifty pounds less than I normally lift, slipped under the bar, and thought to myself, “This will be a piece of cake”.
And then, I tried to lift. The bar budged a few inches, bearing down on shaking arms and threatening to crush me. Chagrined, I brought it right back down. In the end, I had to take another forty pounds of weight off the bar before I could finish.
One of the things I like about lifting weights is that there’s no gray area: you either manage to lift a certain weight, or you don’t. There are clear successes and clear failures. This is rare in life. It also means that if you don’t put in the work, you lose your strength. If I looked back over the months, I couldn’t tell you exactly where I lost ninety pounds of strength, but clearly I did. Now, for months to come, I’ll be trying to get back to where I used to be.
That’s okay. I can get back there. But sometimes it’s good to have a tangible reminder of what happens when we stop doing something that helps to strengthen us. One of the dangers of grace is that it’s easy to allow it to be, as Bonhoeffer said, “cheap.” We can allow ourselves to believe that our faith requires nothing of us and that we can stop doing the hard work of conditioning ourselves to live it out in the world.
But the author of the Second Letter of John reminds us that the best way to walk in the faith (or ride, or lift, or whatever you do) is to keep on walking. For John this means to keep on keeping the commandment to love one another, day after day, and mile after mile. The more we do it, the more effortlessly we will be able to keep doing it. We become conditioned to love by just keeping on loving.
Sometimes I think I’m doing that better than I actually am, and I believe my love to be just as strong as it has always been in the past. And then, the test comes, and I find myself barely able to raise the bar. When that happens, I look back and realize I have lost the habit of loving. Usually I’ve just been spending too much time focusing on anything but loving the people around me.
Those are the days when I realize that it’s time to get back to practicing, and back to the heavy lifting. A funny thing happens when I do that; suddenly the load doesn’t feel that heavy at all.
God, help me to keep doing the heavy lifting now, so that that I can be ready when the biggest challenges come. Amen.
Emily C. Heath is the Senior Pastor of The Congregational Church in Exeter (New Hampshire) and the author most recently of Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear.