When I was a kid, I was fascinated with the Incredible Hulk. He terrified me, yet I loved him. It was only when I got older that I realized the Hulk was really just a bodybuilder named Lou Ferrigno, painted green. So those muscles don’t just come out of nowhere…?
I’m sure no one thinks that bodybuilders just spontaneously morph into beasts, but most of us don’t give much thought to how they got to be so big. Those enormous physiques represent years and years of near constant physical trauma. There are three things that are necessary in order to cause a muscle to grow, and a bodybuilder is someone who is steadfastly committed to all three.
First, to grow muscle one must exercise. The bodybuilder must bring his muscles under extreme, sustained stress to the point of actually damaging the muscle tissue. Obviously, this stress comes from lifting heavy weights. Most of us have done vigorous exercise at some point in our lives, whether that be running or playing sports or lifting weights. For the average person, when we get to the point that further exertion becomes painful, we stop. But the bodybuilder understands that the real work begins at that point. All the benefit lies in the pain and beyond it. So he will spend an entire workout pushing one muscle group (legs, shoulders, back, etc.) or part of one muscle group to complete exhaustion.
Second, to grow muscle one must eat. Like crazy. Some professional bodybuilders will consume in the neighborhood of 6000-7000 calories a day. You might think that would give them to license to eat absolutely anything they want, but they watch their food very closely. They do eat a lot of food, but it has to be the right kind of food. They shoot for just the right proportions of the three macronutrients – proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The bodybuilder needs the right amount of all three because all three perform different tasks in the muscle-building process. Proteins are necessary because they provide amino acids, the building blocks that repair and build the muscle. If a bodybuilder does not eat adequate protein, his body will actually break down muscle to get the amino acids to repair muscle. In other words, without enough protein, his muscles will get smaller, not bigger. Carbohydrates are necessary because they provide the energy that fuels the bodybuilder’s workouts. Without carbohydrates, he will not be able to push himself to the point of sufficiently stressing his muscles. It may seem counter-intuitive, but fats are also essential for a bodybuilder. Good fats provide a variety of benefits, including slowing down digestion, lubricating the joints, and supporting testosterone production. A bodybuilder who is not eating enough of the right fats will be spinning his wheels in his attempt to build muscle.
Third, to grow muscle, one must rest. In light of how huge these guys are it’s natural to assume that they must workout for hours a day, 7 days a week. The truth is that they are just as fanatical about rest and sleep as they are about lifting and eating. This is because they understand that muscle recovery and growth happens during rest. Most professional bodybuilders will not workout on less than 8 hours of sleep. They also do not workout everyday. Some only workout 4 days a week, with one day of rest in between each workout.
When all three of these factors are present – exercise, eating, and rest – muscles grow. The extreme exercise causes trauma to the muscles that must be repaired. During rest, the body takes the nutrients that have been eaten and uses them to repair and build the muscle tissue. Working together, the three factors cause both the multiplication of muscle fibers and the expansion of muscle fibers, so that the muscle gets bigger. If a person does that long enough with dedication and intensity, he will eventually look something like Lou Ferrigno.
It’s remarkable the parallels that muscle growth has to the process of sanctification. When we see someone who is extremely mature in the Lord – sometimes referred to as a “spiritual giant” – we don’t typically think about what took place to bring them to that level of maturity. Those among us who are most like Christ are usually those who have experienced great pain and trauma, while applying the biblical tools for recovery.
Like our muscles, we only grow spiritually when we are brought under extreme, sustained stress. The bible calls this stress trials. And what do we typically do when the pain or discomfort begins in a trial? We want to stop. We want to find a way out. But the spiritually mature understand that God has a purpose for the pain. He wants to grow them into the image of Christ. So they endure the pain, even regarding it with joy, knowing the benefit that will come in the end (Jas1:2-4).
But in order for the trials of our lives to result in growth, we must be implementing what we could call the “three spiritual macronutrients”. First, we have to be taking in God’s Word. Jesus prayed in the Garden, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17; cf. 2 Tim 3:16-17; Eph 5:26; 1Pet 2:2). Without interpreting our circumstances and pain through Scripture, we cannot think biblically about them and we have nothing to draw on in responding to them. As Jesus said, we must not “live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).
Second, in order to grow through our trials, we must be spending time in prayer. Repeatedly, the New Testament calls us bring our cares to the Lord in the context of trials and suffering. In 1 Peter, the apostle gives instruction on how to be faithful in the midst of persecution. This teaching is capped with the following exhortation from 5:6-7: Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Similarly, Paul calls us to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phi 4:6). It is through prayer that we bring the pain and confusion of our trials and lay it before the Lord, trusting Him to grow us through it all.
Third, to grow through our trials, we must be actively participating in the life of the body of Christ. Eph 4:1-16 demonstrates that God has given the church to the church to help the church be the church. He has gifted every member of the body to serve every other member of the body so that the body “builds itself up in love.” God has designed sanctification to take place within the context of the community of the saints. It is there that we find admonishment when we are idle, encouragement when we are fainthearted, and help when we are weak (1 Thess 5:14). It is there that we are stirred up to love and good works by those who also are encountering trials and pursuing holiness (Heb 10:24; 1 Pet 5:9; 2 Tim 2:22).
In addition to these “spiritual macronutrients”, we also need rest, that is, we need to trust in the sovereign hand of God. In Rom 8:28-39, Paul points to the sovereign plan of God as a source of great comfort to the believer who finds himself in the midst of various trials. God is forcing all things – including and especially the painful things – to do us good, to conform us to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.
When we put all of these things together – trials, God’s Word, prayer, fellowship, and rest – we have the recipe for tremendous spiritual growth. Sadly, most of us never consider what God is doing by bringing these trials into our lives. And because we do not understand the purpose, we are not intentional about resting in Him and about implementing those spiritual macronutrients. Like a bodybuilder who works his muscles to exhaustion but does not eat or rest, we simply spin our wheels, not getting any more mature, but just experiencing a lot of pain.
Consider what God is doing in you right now and think about how you are responding:
1) What specific trial or trials are you experiencing right now? If you are a believer, the ultimate purpose for these things is to cause you to grow.
2) How are you responding? Are you looking for a way out of the pain? Or are you staying with the “burn,” looking for what God is trying to teach you, understanding the benefit it will have if you remain faithful?
3) Are you getting your spiritual macros? Are you in the Word? Are you praying? Are you engaged in the lives of other believers and allowing them into yours? In order to grow, you’ve got to eat.
4) Are you resting in the sovereignty of God? Are you focusing on God and His loving plan or on your circumstances and their seeming meaninglessness? In order to grow, you’ve got to rest.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (Jam 1:2-4).
Posted by Greg Birdwell