Do Prayer and Exercise Have Anything in Common?

A really good comment from my friend Alayna (a.k.a. Paul) got me thinking about some connections between prayer and exercise. Like any metaphor, it eventually breaks down. I've never wanted to throw up after prayer, nor been hardly able to walk the next day from praying more than I should have when I wasn't used to praying very much. But I think there are some good parallels:

Whether we realize it or not, some good how-to guidance really matters. When we aren't praying, or aren't exercising, we can think of both of these activities as things we know we should be doing, and already know how to do, but we just aren't doing them. When we aren't praying or exercising, the how-to seems too elementary for us to bother to investigate: to exercise, we could just go out our front doors and start jogging. To start praying we might say something like, "Dear God, please help me..., please help them...., please help us... Amen." While neither of those approaches are the worst in the world, neither are they the best. That approach to exercise rarely makes an unfit person healthy, and that approach to prayer rarely makes an ordinary life prayerful.

On the other hand, once we begin to attempt exercise or prayer, we find that some good how-to guidance is highly valuable. For example, we find how helpful it is to have a plan, or to learn from those who have already taken the steps we're attempting to take. In exercise, the guidance helps us to avoid injuries and to stick with it when we don't feel like exercising. In prayer, the guidance helps us to shape our our prayers in ways we might not think of on our own and to stick with it when we don't feel like praying.

It's easy to avoid doing them by convincing ourselves we always do them. I have a good friend for whom I have enormous respect who used to wear a pedometer, and we'll call him Russell. (The point of wearing of a pedometer is to count how many steps you take during a day in order to quantify your level of activity, or lack thereof, in a normal day.) While it was a good thing that Russell wore that pedometer, I don't think it accomplished its intended result. Rather than attaching it to his hip, as the instructions say to do, Russell discovered that the pedometer also fit nicely onto the side of his shoe. In addition to looking a bit more stylish, this also allowed Russ to earn quite a bit of extra credit on the pedometer. All day long, as he sat at his desk (or drinking Dr. Pepper with me), he would habitually shake his foot... all the while getting credit from the pedometer for living an active lifestyle.

When we think of our main way of praying as "praying all day long," we're like Russell sitting at his desk, drinking a soda, shaking his foot and getting credit for exercising all day long. We absolutely need specific, dedicated times of exercise to be healthy, and we also need specific, dedicated times of prayer to be prayerful. When we have those specific times, we begin to find that their effects spill over into the rest of our days, and then the real experience of praying all day long comes into view for us. The times of exercise give us more strength or energy in another part of the day when we wouldn't have had them otherwise. The times of prayer help us to be aware of what God is up to in our world when we would normally have been completely oblivious.

This is the flip side of what I wrote about in A Life That Makes Prayer Come Naturally. The key in that post to prayer coming naturally for Mr. Means from the moment he awoke each day was all of the time he spent intentionally praying throughout his life. If we try to only develop a sense of constant prayer without building it on dedicated times of prayer, we may as well sit at a desk, shake our foot, and see how healthy it makes us.

It's tempting to stop short of letting them take their effect on us. Several years ago, I bought a weight set. (We disassembled it when we moved six years ago, and it's never been put back together since then.) I used it two times in one week, and suddenly I thought of myself as a serious athlete. The truth was that I was still practically as unfit as I had been before getting the weight set. The only real difference was that I was an unfit person who had lifted weights twice in a week. I may have been headed toward a more fit life, but I surely wasn't there yet, regardless of how I was thinking of myself.

It's the same with prayer. If we have two consecutive days with dedicated times for prayer, many of us think we'll soon be nominated for canonization as saints, even if we're not Catholic. However, the likely truth is that we're probably still living largely prayerless lives, though we're hopefully on the road toward living more prayerfully.

The point of exercise and the point of prayer is not what happens during the moments when we exercise or pray. Rather, the point is the (healthy or prayerful) life that those moments lead us to develop over the course of time.