It was a colorful day in May. The sky was bright blue, the tennis courts olive green, and John McEnroe’s hair was wiry red.
I was sitting in the stands watching the final match of the NCAA tennis tournament in Athens, Georgia. McEnroe, a freshman playing for Stanford, was giving tennis lessons to his opponent.
And what an amazing display it was. I still remember it vividly. John’s serves were so fast they were barely visible—and almost always to his opponent’s backhand. His forehand shots were powerful and deep; and his backhand—so often the weaker stroke—was equally offensive.
Later that day, John lifted the championship trophy above his head and became my tennis idol.
It was only logical, I assumed, that I should be able to play like John. After all, at that time we were exactly the same size—I don’t like to brag, but I think I’ve got him by a few pounds now. We each had wiry, reddish hair (but preferred the more descriptive “strawberry blond”), wore homemade headbands, and played on our colleges’ tennis team.
Admittedly, my college was a bit smaller, and would let anyone on the team who could swing a racket without smashing his own face, but that’s beside the point. We were tennis players. And I set out to play just like my hero.
But I quickly noticed some problems. Even though I wanted to play like John, my first serve would not cooperate—although fast, it sometimes sailed over both the net and the fence. My second serve was so slow a sloth on Quaaludes could return it. My forehand was erratic, and my backhand was nothing more than a defensive weapon—well, that’s not exactly true: some opponents found it to be a source of amusement.
For quite a while I wondered what was wrong. Why couldn’t I play tennis just like someone of my same build and temperament?
With time—and reading about the practice habits of my idol—the truth dawned on me. John McEnroe was totally devoted to being the best tennis player in the world. His days were consumed by practice sessions designed to hone his skills, calculated to make him the kind of player who would instinctively do the right thing, make the right shot, without even thinking about what he was doing.
I, on the other hand, was an every-other-weekend warrior, who longed to be able to imitate the highlight reel of McEnroe without actually becoming a disciplined athlete—like him.
Years later, while reading an article by Dallas Willard, a second light bulb switched on over my head. I had also been trying to imitate the highlight reel of another hero, Jesus, without imitating his overall lifestyle. I wanted to be like Jesus but live like me.
But here it is: if I want to play tennis like John McEnroe, then I must train my body to imitate his overall lifestyle—not his championship matches. I must be willing to become a disciplined athlete, practicing serves, strokes, and volleys until their mechanics have become instinctive and I perform without thought.
And, if I want to play earth-life like Jesus Christ, then I must imitate his overall lifestyle—not just the miracles and brave confrontations. I must be willing to become a disciplined apprentice, practicing solitude, conversation (with God) and obedience until being with Jesus and being like Jesus have become instinctive, and I perform without thought. All of this directly involves my body.
In the paraphrased words of Dallas Willard, spiritual disciplines are things that I can do by direct effort (silence, solitude, prayer, study, fasting) that make it possible to do the things I could never do by my direct effort (being like Jesus in every component of myself. Christian spiritual disciplines are activities of mind and especially body that are purposefully undertaken to bring our total being into cooperation with the divine order—to help us become like the one we idolize (See also, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 68)
Whether the new skills we desire are in the arena of tennis or Christ-formation—disciplines are important and our bodies the primary vehicle for learning how to respond without thinking.
Oh, and one last thing. There is a distinct advantage for those who want to live like Christ instead of play tennis like McEnroe. Christ will actually step into your flesh (incarnate you) and show you how to play—from the inside out.
This has already been a long blog, so feel free to stop reading here. But if you still have the energy, I’ve got three more reflections on the body and a prayer…
- The body is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, an amazing gift from God, created by him and declared good (Genesis 1:31). While it is common to believe that this benediction has been reversed by the Fall, that belief is not true. Those who would argue that the body is a bad thing often cite scriptural admonitions against the “flesh.” And while the term “flesh” is sometimes used to refer to the physical body (Romans 2:28), “flesh” has a much broader meaning. Dallas Willard makes the case, in Renovation of the Heart, that it is better to understand “flesh” as referring to the tendency of bent humanity to rely on merely natural forces (the flesh) accessible in and through the body, as opposed to the presence and power of divine life from above. It is, therefore, not the body that is bad, but the tendency of fallen humanity to rely on natural forces (See Garden of Eden—where humanity decided to play God instead of allowing God to be God as opposed to the power and presence of the indwelling Christ).
- The body is a good thing. God made your body for good. It is your personal power pack (a source of energy and power) and your primary place of dominion and responsibility. In learning to manage this kingdom, you will develop skills and come to wisdom that will help you in managing later dominions to be placed under your charge.
- The body is forever. The doctrines of the Incarnation (the in-flesh-ment of Christ 2,000 years ago, and his present in-flesh-ment in you) and the Resurrection remind us of the high value that God places on the body and the fact that it lasts forever.
“Father, we are grateful for the miraculous gift of our bodies. A body is a skin-covered cosmos. It is a power pack of energy, a source of transportation and enjoyment. These bodies you gave are the first spheres of dominion that you trust us to manage. But Father, we are bent away from you, so easily deceived in how we use our bodies. Please grant us the wisdom to present our bodies back to you as living sacrifices, instruments for your service and tabernacles for your presence. Amen.”