I wish I could describe the hope I felt when I first came to understand this truth. I found it in Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines, and most of this chapter flows from the spirit of understanding that underlies his work. For much of my life, when I heard messages about following Jesus, I thought in terms of trying hard to be like him. So after hearing (or preaching, for that matter) a sermon on patience on Sunday, I would wake up Monday morning determined to be a more patient person. Have you ever tried hard to be patient with a three-year-old? I have—and it generally didn’t work any better than would my trying hard to run a marathon for which I had not trained. I would end up exhausted and defeated. Given the way we are prone to describe “following Jesus,” it’s a wonder anyone wants to do it at all.
Spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wisely. This is what the apostle Paul means when he encourages his young protégé Timothy to “train yourself in godliness.” This thought also lies behind his advice to the church at Corinth: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
Athletics was familiar imagery to Paul’s audience. Corinth was the site of the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics in prominence in ancient Greece. Paul himself had probably been in Corinth during the games of A.D. 51 and, according to Gordon Fee, may even have made tents for the visitors and contestants needing accommodations. That a competitor would strive for the crown by simply “trying really hard” apart from training was unthinkable. In fact, any athlete who entered the games was required to undergo ten months of strict training and could be disqualified for failing to do so. Paul said he, too, had entered a life of training, “so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”
Respecting the distinction between training and merely trying is the key to transformation in every aspect of life. People sometimes think that learning how to play Bach at the keyboard by spending years practicing scales and chord progressions is the “hard” way. The truth is the other way around. Spending years practicing scales is the easy way to learn to play Bach. Imagine sitting down at a grand piano in front of a packed concert hall and having never practiced a moment in your life. That’s the hard way.
This need for preparation, or training, does not stop when it comes to learning the art of forgiveness, or joy, or courage. In other words, it applies to a healthy and vibrant spiritual life just as it does to physical and intellectual activity. Learning to think, feel, and act like Jesus is at least as demanding as learning to run a marathon or play the piano.
For me, this truth brought light to the darkness. For the first time as an adult, I found the notion of following Jesus a real, concrete, tangible possibility. I could do it. Following Jesus simply means learning from him how to arrange my life around activities that enable me to live in the fruit of the Spirit. — The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (John Ortberg)