Burpees Suck: What the Gym Can Teach You About Prayer

SELF | Eric Ankenman | 9 mins

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So do squats, lunges, sprints, those big fat ropes, and everything you find at those stupid Crossfit gyms. You know, the ones with monster truck tires and people who look like they just chugged three espressos with a Prozac chaser.

Hi, I’m Eric, and I hate going to the gym. I’m also 40 and about 30 pounds overweight because I eat too much sugar and have a desk job at a church, so here we are. I’m a fairly active guy—I like to hike, camp, and ride motorcycles, but those hobbies don’t really make a dent on the growing pressure I’m feeling from the waistline of my jeans. As it turns out, I hate feeling fat more than I hate the gym, so I’ve recently started going again. Now, it’s at this point in the article where you probably look back at the title, notice that the word “prayer” is in it, and wonder where in the heck we’re going with this.

Here’s the deal: Going to the gym and getting in shape involves a fair amount of weirdness. Given that my desk job involves teaching people about churchy things like prayer, I recently started to notice some funny similarities between gym weirdness and prayer weirdness. If you’ve ever felt any of this stuff, you’re not alone—and if you’re trying to figure out why you’re stuck (with the gym or prayer), chances are pretty good that at least one of these assumptions is in play.

Weird Thing One: Not Everything Works.

If you’ve ever been to the gym, you know that there are different types of gym people. You’ve got the free weight muscleheads over by the mirrors, and the treadmill people upstairs, and the 85-year-old dude that can barely walk but still annihilates you at racquetball, and so on. Everybody has different exercises or things that they like. Different things work for different people. If you stop to think about it for a second, it’s not really that surprising.

It’s that way for prayer too. Some people journal. Some people need music, others need silence. Some pray early in the morning, others late at night. Some people get a lot of memorized, structured prayers, while others need something more free-form. Just like the gym, different things work for different people, and that shouldn’t be surprising.

Yet it seems like our religious baggage tends to get in the way. Perhaps some well-intentioned (but wrong) church leader told you, “it has to be this way.” Maybe you’re still reeling from the boring, forced prayers of your childhood church experience. Or worse yet, perhaps even the idea of prayer brings a whole rat’s nest of guilt and shame.

Here’s the deal about prayer: at the core, it is a conversation. It’s just you talking with God. That’s it. Should you mix things up from time to time? Maybe. Are there some practices that tend to be more sustainable or effective over the long term? Possibly. But if this is your first trip to the gym, don’t beat yourself up because some religious prayer nazi made you feel inadequate.

Weird Thing Two: It’s Awkward.

A quick side note on this one: I know that yoga pants have been a thing for women for a long time. When did guys get in on this? Why are you wearing shorts over the yoga pants? Also, do they have a different name if they’re for guys? Someone tried to tell me that yoga pants for guys are called “joggers,” which makes no sense. None of the guys I’ve seen wearing them are doing a single bit of jogging. Help me here—WHAT ARE THEY FOR?

Okay, rant done.

Seriously though, the whole idea of the gym is awkward. You go to a special building and put on a different set of clothes, then pick heavy things up and put them down for a while alongside a whole bunch of strangers in their special clothes. You don’t really talk to any of these strangers unless you absolutely have to, and even making eye contact is uncomfortable. Any way you slice it, a hundred strangers all pretending we’re there by ourselves is just flat out weird.

But in spite of this weirdness, there’s meaning and value for us. When I go to the gym and run in place for 45 minutes, I know that there are real, valuable changes that happen to my physiology in spite of the fact that it looks like I went nowhere at all. My muscles are stronger. My heart is in better shape. I’ve burned fat (not as much as I’d like, but we’ll go with it)—that awkward, potentially useless looking activity actually changed something about my life.

The same thing is true for prayer—it’s awkward. It feels awkward, it looks weird, and I completely understand why it’s a struggle for a lot of us. I work at a church, for crying out loud, and I still have my moments where I feel like I’m just talking to the wall. Yet just like that time on the treadmill, there are real, substantive changes that happen in me and in the world around me because I pray. I’ve become more patient, more trusting, less cynical, and more willing to take risks because of the time I’ve spent praying. What’s more, I’ve seen people healed, financial crises solved, and relationships reconciled all because of prayer. In spite of how awkward I still feel about it at times, I have seen prayer do things that all my human efforts couldn’t begin to touch.

Weird Thing Three: Consistency > Results.

So if I’m really honest, this is the one that’s hardest for me. Like I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t really like going to the gym. I’d much rather read a book or ride a motorcycle. I’m here not because I love the gym, but because I don’t want to be fat. As a result, I’m really motivated by results. I want stuff to happen, and I want it to happen now. I want to see pounds lost, I want to have to use a different belt size, and I want my wife to be impressed by how much my old T-shirts seem to have shrunk lately.

But the reality of physical fitness is that change and results are slooooooow. They happen over a long time and don’t happen because of a massive, one-time effort. Progress comes from consistency—doing the small, important, correct things day in and day out. There’s nothing glamorous about spending 30 minutes on the stair master three times a week; nobody’s patting me on the back, cheering me on, and my wife isn’t swooning when I drag my sweaty carcass through the door.

But the more I keep that streak alive—that I continue to show up and put in the work—a funny thing happens. Those barriers, weights, and distances that felt nearly impossible begin to be a bit more attainable, then normal, and eventually (I’m hoping) easy. Over time, consistency bears it’s biggest result: increased capacity. My waist size may not be dropping as fast as I’d like, but I can tell the difference when I’m on a hike, and it’s not me that needs a break anymore.

This same principle holds true for prayer, as well. If I’m gonna go through the awkwardness of prayer, then I want results. I want to see stuff happen! I want to ask God for things, and for something to change about the world around me. Yet more often, the “results” that I see from prayer come from a consistent, day-in-day-out conversation with God. In the midst of my pursuit of results, it’s still so easy for me to forget that God is after a relationship. Paul (one of the early church leaders) put it like this:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. —Philippians 4:6-7

In everything. Every day, every struggle, every success, every issue, everything. When I make the consistent, intentional effort to re-center myself with God all the time, that same funny thing happens as on the treadmill—things start to change. That stressful relationship, that overwhelming conflict, that confusing work project—all of them start to be more attainable, then normal, and then even easy. I still never see it coming, but when I do the hard work of consistently talking to God about my days, those days start to change. My capacity goes up. My patience goes up. I have better, wiser, more creative ideas—I actually grow.

So burpees still suck. I still hate the gym. Prayer is still—even now, 30-some-odd years into following Jesus—kinda weird at times. And yet, when I’m willing to push through all that weirdness, I still find new power, capacity, and health on the far side.

So with that, time to go to the gym. Again.


Written by

Eric Ankenman

Writer, Husband, Father of Five, Motorcycle Rider, Video Game Junkie, History Nerd, Connoisseur of Cinnamon Rolls, Chronic Over-User of Gifs

Published on Dec 7, 2019
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Discussion Questions

  1. What stood out to you most about Eric’s article? Why?

  2. What’s your biggest hang up with prayer?

  3. Like a trainer at the gym, who could you talk to about your barrier spiritually? Try to think of one person who might be a few steps ahead in following God, and talk to them about it.

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