On my first visit to a southern African country, I started praying that God would send a missionary there. But I knew it couldn’t be me.
For starters, I was in terrible physical shape. I was more than 110 pounds overweight and took several medications to mitigate the effects of my obesity. I joked that my blood type was butter!
But I also fell far short in education, church leadership, financial readiness and spiritual discipline. How could I go with so little to give?
Physical fitness seemed like the least of my worries. It turns out, however, that exercising self-control (a fruit of the Spirit) in the realm of physical transformation provided a template for transformation I needed in all the other areas.
Here are a few things I learned on my journey.
1. Physical fitness is a reminder.
I came to realize that my weight was physical evidence of my decisions regarding food and exercise. So, I started going on walks, then short runs and eventually a marathon. I went from eating what was convenient until I was comfortable and comforted, to a target number of calories I tracked on Post-it notes.
Five years later, I still track most every calorie with the help of an app. Every meal has become a fast of sorts, an exercise and reminder of my need for discipline and obedience in other areas. My spirit, empowered by the gift of self-control, had to exercise control over my body.
2. Physical discipline feeds spiritual discipline.
Careful eating and physical exercise — the math works just as one would expect. The excess weight and medications are gone. But what surprised me was that physical fitness did more than transform my body. It helped me realize that my desire for immediate comfort was killing me and, more importantly, impeding my proper Kingdom service.
I had to learn to choose obedience over comfort for my body.
As Americans, we are told that comfort and convenience are our goal, even our right. But as citizens of the Kingdom, our goal is to be obedient. That lesson reached every area of my life — from financial to marital.
My desire to serve in Africa steeled my focus, and God poured out on me the gift of self-discipline. In retrospect, I see the physical transformation was not the tangent I supposed it to be, but a catalyst and pattern for God’s working in many areas of my life.
3. Maintaining physical fitness is worth it.
When it came time for the mission field, I knew I would face challenges in keeping up my new habits. The food in my new country is excellent. It would be easy to make many unwise choices.
Running after dark is difficult and unwise — and most daylight hours are filled with work. Culturally, they joke that I can’t be a pastor because I’m not heavy enough.
It would be easy to set aside the discipline of self-control, rather than setting aside the sin that so easily ensnares me.
In my case, I continued in that discipline by investing in a treadmill. It required an expensive trip to a neighboring country, with a long and challenging time at the border. But whatever the cost in money, time and effort, it was clear that maintaining the exercise of self-control was valuable to buttress the other realms of life.
As for what I thought I needed to qualify as a missionary — I was way off. I was, and am, still desperately unqualified to serve. Unqualified, but grateful and honored to be where God is working in such a mighty way, despite and even through my shortcomings.
“Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore, I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Are YOU ready to take your next step toward the mission field? Check out this free download to prayerfully evaluate your health in eight key areas before you serve overseas.