Gregory of Nyssa Comes With Me to Gym Class

When I was a freshman in high school, I hated P.E. class.

I should mention that this was the class where everyone quickly learned that I had no knowledge of the basic rules of football. And the class where I did the 12-minute run with a 102 degree fever because it was also standardized test day and I couldn’t skip. And the class where we had to dress our awkward fourteen-year-old selves in swimsuits and get in the pool…and there was a fire drill and we had to go outside. In January. True story.

The one part of class I didn’t hate was running laps as a warm-up. Because, you know, I actually knew how to do that. I was successful. If you’re completely lacking in skill and physical fitness, you can get by on sheer stubbornness, a quality I had in abundance.

To distract myself from the burning in my lungs, legs, and pretty much any body part that was being moved, I turned to Hebrews 12:1.


As I ran, I pictured all of the Biblical characters literally surrounding me, cheering me on.

Sometimes the saints got a little sassy. Imaginary Moses was all like, “Child, this is nothing. I had to put up with whiny Israelites for forty years, and we didn’t even have air conditioning!”

And then Paul was like, “Yeah, well, have you even read about all of the things that happened to me? I was like the Chuck Norris of the Bible!” This was hotly contested by Sampson, and then Ruth had to separate them and get everyone to calm down.

(I actually had these imaginary conversations with Biblical heroes while running. This is why I turned out the way I did.)

That’s what came to mind when I read an excerpt from The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa.

He doesn't even look half as weird as I did in my gym uniform.

He doesn’t even look half as weird as I did in my gym uniform. Trust me.

He talks about what is apparently an age-old question, since I’ve wondered it myself many a Sunday afternoon when my mom and sister watch the Steelers: why do sports fans go so fanatically crazy cheering for “their” team?

Upland Community Church dodgeball championships. It. Matters. Guys.

Upland Community Church dodgeball championships. It. Matters. Guys.

Gregory explains, “They do not do this because their actions themselves contribute anything to the victory; but in this way, by their good will, they eagerly show in voice and deed their concern for the contestants. I seem to be doing the same thing myself . . . while you are competing admirably in the divine race along the course of virtue, lightfootedly leaping and straining constantly for the prize of the heavenly calling, I exhort, urge, and encourage you vigorously to increase your speed.”

Echoing Paul, Gregory goes on to talk about what it takes to throw off distractions and sin and live a godly life. In fact, someone had asked him to describe how to live a perfect life (first-century guys apparently went straight for the high-stakes questions).

I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like what came next. Probably because Paul and Gregory used a race metaphor and I hate running with a fiery burning passion. Sometimes I assume that, like running, growing in my faith will involve gritting my teeth and working until I’m exhausted, with no feeling of accomplishment except a checkmark on my exercise schedule.

(If this does not describe your running experience, be grateful. I’m not actually convinced endorphins exist.)

But here are the three things Gregory advises for living a perfect life: don’t stop striving, look to others as your example, and love God.

Huh. That’s a pretty good list. Actually, that last one is my favorite. Here’s how he put it: “It is time for you, noble friend, to be known by God and to become his friend.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Of Gregory’s three instructions, the first might be gritting your teeth and hitting the treadmill, the second is about having that workout buddy to hold you accountable and challenge you…but the last one is the reason you’re doing it all. And love is a great reason, even when the goal is a difficult one.

Put it on your spiritual to-do list: become God’s friend. And think about what that might look like.


    1. That’s so cool, Shawn! I’m reading a book called Devotional Classics with excerpts from theologians I might not have discovered otherwise. It’s like the amateur introduction to the history of Christian thought.

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