To help with strength and conditioning for lacrosse, my teenage son has enrolled in one or two private gyms. These are a far cry from the ill-lit, smelly, Quonset hut edifices of my 1970s teenage years, dread buildings presided over by coaches with firecracker haircuts and thick, white coaching shorts. My son’s gyms have indoor turf, good sound systems, professional weight sets, cute receptionists, and inspirational messages on the walls.
In one gym, there is a quote from Proverbs: “Iron sharpens iron” (27:17). The message? You are made stronger, faster, and harder only by encountering something stronger, faster, and harder than you. Sitting in the whirlpool does not cut it (or, “You don’t make the club sittin’ in the tub”). The weight does you no good if you just look at it; you have to grip it and lift it.
Outside the gym, though, how easy is it to just grip it and lift it? How often do we encounter someone or something that is stronger, faster, and harder than we are—and nothing happens. The system remains static. At best, we remain unchanged; more often, we buckle. Or, a weight comes upon us in our personal, family, business, or social lives. Not only can we not lift the weight, we cannot even bear to look at it. The iron barbell may as well be the brass handrail on the coffin.
How does the barbell become the handrail, and what can be done about it?
The barbell becomes the handrail because the gym’s message, at least for purposes of my salvation and yours, is Nietzsche Lite. Remember the German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), famous for his dictum that “God is dead”? He also said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Twilight of the Idols, 1888). Over the run of a person’s life, this is empirically not so (even if it is true for a while). That which does not kill me, but tries hard and comes close, can wreck my life. My own devices are useless. No less a theologian than Marilyn Manson pointed out that “whatever doesn’t kill you is gonna leave a scar” (from The High End of Low, 2009).
Physical fitness is desirable; spiritual fitness—if by “fitness” we mean being fit to be in the presence of God—is an oxymoron. No amount of holy exercises, spiritual discipline, positive thinking, or good works will make us fit to stand in God’s presence without being destroyed. There is no alchemy by which we can keep the iron barbell from turning into the brass handrail.
We need no alchemy, though. The Cross of Jesus Christ has done the work for us. With nails through his hands, he gripped it, he lifted it, all of that black and immeasurable weight of our sin. His bleeding hands grasp the handrail and lift the coffin up into life from death. Iron may sharpen, but it can kill no more.