Hamstrings and Excellence, Law and Grace

For those who do not know me, I push myself hard in many areas of life. I generally like doing "hard things" that trigger the desire to perform within me. From preaching, to teaching, to writing long essays, to lifting heavy weights, I generally delight in doing things that many people find difficult or strenuous. And before I go on, let me make it clear that there are plenty of things I am bad at too. I hate administrative things, paying bills, balancing accounts, making beds in the morning, doing dishes, going to bed at a reasonable hour, waking up early, etc. So suffice it to say, I tend to perform in front of people, and get lazy behind the scenes. So, I've got a lot of growing to do.

But, one of my more effective hobbies is lifting weights. I'm good at it, for my age and build. I pick heavy things up. I put them down. Usually in the solitude of my garage with loud music playing. I don't injure myself often, but when I do, it is memorable. One of those occasions was last night.

I tore the biceps femoris of my right hamstring last night, doing "light day" on stiff leg deadlifts. I use about half the weight on stiff leg deadlifts as I do on regular deadlifts (my "heavy" day for legs and hips). I was 8 reps in on 235 lbs, and feeling good, when my hamstring goes "POP" and I let go of the bar, and crashed to the floor. I knew immediately what happened. And I knew immediately it was going to set me back a month or more lifting. And that really irks me, much more than the pain.

But I cannot find a good physical explanation for it. I'm flexible. I'm well trained. I use good form: Slow down, slow up. This was about half the weight I use for regular deadlifts, and I know folks with similar strength on regular deadlifts who use more than I do on stiff leg deadlifts. So why did my hamstring suddenly pop? It is an exceedingly strange injury given the circumstances.

So, if there is no easy physical explanation, perhaps there is a spiritual explanation. And by "spiritual explanation" I don't mean causal agency. It's not like I think angels cut my hamstring. By "spiritual explanation", I mean something more like a deep lesson that perhaps I would not learn without this. Did God allow this to humble me and teach me? I think perhaps so.

First of all, lately I have not been pursuing spiritual fitness as hard as I have been pursuing physical fitness. I have not been praying or meditating regularly, nor seeking God early in the day. If I set aside time to pray, it has often been at the end of the day as an afterthought. I have not been reading Scripture regularly. This on its own is enough for a humility check.

But secondly, I have been obsessed with the idea of pursuing excellence lately, stemming from pondering and preaching on the TMI Core Values. Excellence is our fifth Core Value, behind integrity, wisdom, devotion, and compassion. Our Core Value statement lists it this way:

Enthusiasm for Excellence
We strive for Growth, that we may develop our full potential throughout our common life at TMI, from the classroom to the athletic field, from the concert stage to chapel, from the parade ground to the dormitory. See Matthew 5.14-16; John 14.12; Philippians 3.12-16; Ephesians 4.11-16; 1Peter 4.10-11.

Growth and excellence are great things when balanced with grace and mercy. But I tend to de-tether them from grace and mercy, and started to think of it as a "law" of necessity. For instance, the following thoughts came to mind AS I WAS PREPARING to workout last night:

People should be expected to be excellent, not just encouraged to be excellent. People who do not strive for excellence are being lazy. And it is a lazy theology that tells people that the best they can do is ask Jesus for forgiveness and limp along as miserable sinners. God created us for so much more. In fact, we were made to cooperate with Christ's grace working inside of us, to be excellent. While all will be saved by God's grace in the end, every life will also be judged by whether we cooperated with God's grace to be excellent in this life.

And the fires of hell are the fires of regret for having missed opportunities to live into what Christ has called us to. These fires can be mitigated and healed by the forgiveness of Christ, but the relief of forgiveness pales in comparison with the joy of the congratulations of "well done good and faithful servant" to those who have strived for excellence. So we should compel and insist that people be excellent. To make everyone "piss excellence" in all they do. And we should not accept anything less.

But while this is a series of mostly true insights, it is not the whole truth. And if taken as the whole truth, it can become a damnable lie. Because the whole truth is that-- just as this damn hamstring injury is going to impair me from attaining excellence in a number of lifts in the month(s) it will take to fully heal-- so also there are a lot of wounded people who cannot attain excellence due to the emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds they have, which are beyond their control once they have happened.

Because of these wounds and injuries, people may not see the path to excellence that Christ has called them to; If they do see it, the wounds may stop them from desiring it, or make them feel they are too worthless or useless to even try; And if they do want to try, there may be tons of ineffective coping mechanisms-- such as this limp I have from my hamstring injury-- which keep them from fully enacting the excellence Christ calls them to.

So to "mandate", and "insist", and "demand" excellence is yet another form of legalism, a "salvation" by following a kind of "Law". It seeks to elicit excellence, not by mercy and healing and love and encouragement, but by shame and blame and discouragement and unworthiness. It seeks to impose discipline and training on someone who has not agreed to the training, nor may be up to the training. Like making a new lifter try and squat 315 lbs on the first workout, it is sure to injure them quickly.

Injuries, tragedies, and accidents happen in a fallen world, and they stop people from attaining excellence. They make otherwise strong people become weaker than a child (to use the analogy of my hamstring right now). And just as it would be absurd and destructive to mandate that I go back out and pursue excellence on my deadlift while my hamstring is injured, so also there are people with inner wounds who need to be encouraged to heal, not mandated to be morally or spiritually excellent.

Excellence has to be encouraged. If it is sought, it can be accompanied with hard training and discipline, so long as it encourages the person undergoing it and doesn't demean them. But excellence can never be mandated as a matter of law, or motivated by guilt or shame. These destroy the person made in God's image, and force them to demolish one part of themselves (their identity) to build up another part (their skills in some area).

So pursue excellence? Yes. Encourage excellence? Certainly. Inspire and model excellence? Definitely. But mandate, browbeat, guilt-trip, and shame someone into excellence? Never. That is not the way of Jesus. That's what I have been reminded of by this injury. What have you learned from yours?
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.