We live in a time when the world is seeking a transformation now more than ever.

If we are going to experience or offer this kind of change, spiritual training and discipline are essential.

Now all discipline seems to be more pain than pleasure at the time, yet later it will produce a transformation of character, bringing a harvest of righteousness and peace to those who yield to it.

Hebrews 12:11 TPT

Transformational moments in our characters don’t just spontaneously happen. They require that we yield to God’s training which comes through “days” of adversity, opposition, and hardships in our lives. 

Having competed professionally in football, I have personally found physical training to be both bitter and supremely rewarding. There are many times I responded poorly to training and suffered for it. Then there are transformative times I have embraced training and seen great results. 

Through all these, I have learned the invaluable need for training. 

Spiritual training is invaluable

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8 For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

I Timothy 4:7-8 NIV

Spirituality or developing a connection with God requires training. Paul helps Timothy understand the importance of spiritual training in comparison to physical training. The vital difference between physical training and spiritual training is that spiritual training has value for all areas of our lives, whereas physical training has limits.

Many people ask why does God allow pain and suffering? How does God spiritually train us? God works through our hardships to spiritually train us (Hebrews 12:7). Hardships can come in many forms – pain, guilt, relationship challenges, adversity, opposition, delay, etc. The great news is, with God, these times serve as a catalyst for God to transform our characters (inside world). 

My high school had very talented athletes during the four years I was there. We had a Hiesman trophy winner, and a good number of players who received college scholarships. We even had six players go on to play professional football. And we had a Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year nominee.

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We were loaded with talent, but we relied on that talent and did not train hard as a team. Our rival high school during that same four year period didn’t have the same number of talented players as we did, but they had a fanatical work ethic, trained hard, and had more disciplined people.  And of course, they defeated us every year I was in high school.

I learned three timeless truths from this about training: 

  1. Focus is knowing our goal – Talent only matters when you are willing to conscientiously train it. 
  2. Perseverance is setting our mind – Knowledge is only useful if you have the discipline to apply it.
  3. Encouragement is needed to reach our full potential – Talent can achieve success but won’t sustain it without the coaching to train it.

Embrace focus

Training is different from exercising. Training is focused on a specific goal or end in mind. 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [who by faith have testified to the truth of God’s absolute faithfulness], stripping off every unnecessary weight and the sin which so easily and cleverly entangles us, let us run with endurance and active persistence the race that is set before us, [looking away from all that will distract us and]

focusing our eyes on Jesus, who is the Author and Perfecter of faith [the first incentive for our belief and the One who brings our faith to maturity], who for the joy [of accomplishing the goal] set before Him endured the cross, disregarding the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God [revealing His deity, His authority, and the completion of His work].

Hebrews 12:1-2 AMP

Training requires focus. Scripture calls us to focus on Jesus. Jesus knew why he was here and what he wanted to accomplish. Jesus’ focus helped him endure the emotional and physical pain involved in reaching his goals.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.

Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher

Our “why” is Jesus. Spiritual training is about allowing our lives to reflect more and more the life of Jesus (II Peter 1:3-10). He is our reminder that God can use hardships to eventually work for our good (Hebrews 12:10, Isaiah 48:17). Our relationship with Him keeps us motivated to focus on the goal God has for us which is the salvation of our souls (I Corinthians 9:25-27 NIV) and the souls of others (I Timothy 3:16 NIV). Focus is important in reaching our goals.

My goal was to play college football, and therefore I told myself, “if I am a good enough football player, I can make it”. However, because academics was not one of my natural strengths, and I did not want to exert any additional energy to focus on excelling academically, I missed out on several college scholarships. 

“To be trained, we must be aware of what can derail our focus.”

Spiritual training

This motivated me to work harder in school because I now understood why school was important to my other goals. I was grateful for an opportunity to attend Laney College (in Oakland, California). It was there that I would encounter a coach who focused on academics, expecting every athlete to be great and have a disciplined life both in the classroom and on the field. 

It was there that I learned to focus and understand my “why” behind it. I was then able to transfer to New Mexico State University, having been trained and become a more disciplined person who was ready for this next stage in life. 

To be trained, we must not only understand our “why”, but we must also be aware of what can derail our focus. In reflecting on my life, I’ve found there are 4 threats that can steal our focus:

  1. Unresolved relationships – focused on hurt or injustices done by others over God
  2. Unconfessed sins – focused on our status in the eyes of others over God
  3. Unconquered fears – focused on our insecurities and weaknesses over God
  4. Unprocessed pain – focused on past wounds or disappointments over God

When these threats are undealt with, they consume our thoughts, eventually stopping us from focusing on our goals. I can struggle with each of these things. 

I love the movie “The Last Samurai.”  It is a classic favorite because it’s a great movie about training and excellence.

In one scene “Nathan Algren” (Tom Cruise) , a former Civil War soldier, is training with a Samurai warrior. He is struggling to focus and so his training is suffering. His friend the prince and Samurai “Nobutada” helps him out by teaching him to focus. Below is the scene from the movie.

A huge help in staying focused on God and defeating these threats has been a commitment to constant prayer. 

The end of everything is near. Therefore, practice self-control, and keep your minds clear so that you can pray.

1 Peter 4:7 GW

According to Dr. Caroline Leaf,  “It has been found that 12 minutes of daily focused prayer over an 8 week period can change the brain to such an extent that it can be measured on a brain scan. This type of prayer increases activity in brain areas associated with social interaction compassion and sensitivity to others. It also increases frontal lobe activity as focus and intentionality increase.

How Prayer Changes the Brain and Body; Renewallthings.com

Prayer is the time during which I can free myself from having “too many” things on my mind that distract my focus from God. Below are four choices in my prayer life that help me combat the four threats to focus above:

Here are four ways we have focused prayers:

  1. Resolve relationships
  2. Confess sins 
  3. Conquer fears 
  4. Process pain

Reflection questions

  • What distractions in your life do you need to say “no” to, in order to focus more on Jesus?
  • What sins do you easily get into and need help repenting of?
  • How much focused, undistracted time are you spending in prayer daily?

Embrace perseverance

Focus is not enough. It has to be coupled with perseverance. Knowledge without application and discipline will not produce transformation (Proverbs 12:1 NIV).

Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Hebrews 12:3-6 NIV

Training requires perseverance. This scripture tells us to consider Jesus and how he endured opposition. He is our model of perseverance.

Perseverance defined by the Oxford Dictionary is the “persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.”  It’s more than showing up; it is showing up with purpose and tenacity. 

Kobe Bryant, one of the most tenacious competitors I’ve seen called this resolve the “mamba mentality” and described it this way.

 ” ‘If you see me in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear”. I’ve always loved that quote. That’s the “mamba mentality” we don’t quit, we don’t cower, we don’t run. We endure and conquer. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, find the silver lining and get to work with the same belief, same drive and same conviction as ever…Mamba Out.’ ” 

Kobe Bryant

Perseverance is an attitude and mindset. It’s about setting our mind about how we will handle fatigue (Hebrews 12:3), setbacks or opposition ahead of time (Hebrews 12:4). Our goal as Christians is to set our mind on how we want to love God and others regardless of our circumstances or hurts we are caused.

Our natural tendency when we face hurt, fatigue, setbacks, and opposition is to get discouraged, vengeful or indifferent — saying “this is unfair” or “I don’t need this” (Hebrews 12:5-6). In these moments, we must decide what we will believe about God (Psalm 34:19, Psalm 42:5-6) over our feelings or fatigue. We have to decide what we will believe about our hardships (God is good) so that, when discouragement comes, we are ready to endure spiritual training (Hebrews 12:10-11).

I remember trying out for teams in the NFL and being cut from the Carolina Panthers. I was doubtful and bitter. This hindered my desire to persevere and keep physically training for my next potential opportunity.

During this time, I started working out with a coach who would send me on 3-mile runs, most of which were uphill. I would quit in the middle of the run when the pain was too much.

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I argued one day with my friend who was also working out with me about why the coach was having me run distance when my sport required sprinting. My complaining and lack of effort was proof of my bitter unbelief. My friend challenged me that day and told me that I had lost heart.

It was hard to hear and even tougher to accept. Then I recommitted to running the hills and finishing. It was extremely challenging because somewhere in the middle of the run my mind started telling me to stop, that it was too hard, that this wasn’t what I needed, that this wouldn’t guarantee me making a team, etc. 

But I ended up learning something invaluable from those grueling hill runs – that the benefit of persevering is the inner strength you gain from pushing through the pain and finishing (Romans 5:2-6). Interestingly, the coach later shared with me, “The hills weren’t for your speed; they were for your mind”. He was training me in perseverance because he saw it was my weakness. It was a transformative moment for me in my body and mind.

For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. [5] Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus,

Romans 15:4-5 NASB

God also gives us the ability to persevere through the encouragement of scriptures. I encourage you to find books in the Bible or characters in the Bible to study that are going through similar trials to you. Scriptures are an indispensable source of encouragement, especially during times of perseverance. 

The musician H.E.R has lyrics in her song “Sometimes” she sings “Feel like my faith keeps getting tested. I need a sign, I need a message..”. We all need God’s “message” of encouragement if we are going to persevere and be transformed through our challenges.

Reflection questions

  • What is currently happening in your life that is an opportunity to persevere?
  • What are the negative thoughts or sins you turn to when you are tired of persevering? 
  • How can you practically increase your ability to persevere through bible study with friends?

Embrace encouragement

When we are going through spiritual training, encouragement from God and friends is imperative.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. 14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Hebrews 12:12-15 NIV

The Bible teaches us the importance of taking care of ourselves and building friendships that encourage us to keep moving forward in times of hardship or spiritual training. Here are three components to finding encouragement while training:

  1. Seek the encouragement of strengthening your weaknesses. Training or hardships usually surface weakness. We need encouragement to face and work through our weaknesses. Know that when we strengthen our weaknesses, we provide encouragement for others following behind us with the same weaknesses (Hebrews 12:13). A friend of mine who won a silver medal at the U.S. Open in judo told me, “I went into matches the most confident when I knew I had put in the effort to train. It was those times that I cut corners that I brought doubt into those matches.”  
  2. Seek the encouragement that comes from making every effort. The greatest gains in training are made outside of team practices or games. It’s the personal time and work we put in that makes the difference. Similarly, in our spiritual lives our personal relationship with God and peer relationships is where this extra effort really pays off. Another friend of mine who received a scholarship for music shared with me, “You have to do the work outside of the coaching sessions. For the saxophone, this meant long hours standing in the corner of a cement room listening to my sound as I practiced exactly what my teacher told me to practice.” What will it look like for you to make great effort spiritually?
  3. Seek the encouragement of mentors and friendships. There are parts of our heart and potential that we cannot reach without the encouragement of others. A crucial part of training is allowing people who know you to teach and push you (II Timothy 3:16). The movie Karate Kid (2010 version) is a great example of both adapting our training to fit the individual and the impact we can make in one another’s life when we are willing to both train and be trained by others.

Reflection questions

  • What is a weakness in your character or faith, revealed through hardship, that you can take the next 30 days to strengthen?
  • Who will you invite into your life to help you train and strengthen this weakness?
  • Who will you give encouragement to so they can be strengthened?

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Sam Manuel

Sam is a former outside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. Since retiring from the NFL, Sam has worked in the ministry serving communities in the Bay Area.

Sam Manuel

Sam is a former outside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. Since retiring from the NFL, Sam has worked in the ministry serving communities in the Bay Area.

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