I grew up with a father who holds a third degree black belt in traditional Japanese karate. My father also had the privilege of coming from a long line of men prone to a lifestyle that encourages high blood pressure and cholesterol. Couple these fun thoughts with the fact that I turned 30 this year and enjoyed my first visit to the chiropractor, and you will understand why I felt inspired to begin—or, should I say, begin once again—my martial arts training.
Growing up, I trained to be an orange belt in karate (which is the colour after white—the first level). However, after my parents divorced, I did only basic punches and kicks during the summer. My brothers and I threw shuriken (a traditional Japanese concealed weapon), did basic swordsmanship, sparring and a myriad of other things. Then, as I grew older, a sedentary lifestyle crept in. I still enjoyed an occasional game of football or volleyball, but regular exercise didn’t factor into my daily schedule.
Five months before writing this article, I stepped into a karate school close to my home to get into shape and to accomplish an unachieved personal goal—completing the requirements for the black belt. Everyone was friendly, courteous and answered all my questions. My teacher was a practising Christian.
I tried out a demo class and much of it took me back to the training I did with my dad. I knew this was the place I wanted to work out. I signed the contract, acquired my uniform and my white belt, and embarked on the journey. Visions of achieving that black belt danced like sugar plums in my head.
The first three weeks I hurt in places I never knew I had. Fist push-ups, wrist push-ups and even fingertip push-ups were the tip of the iceberg in a series of exercises that moved me toward physical fitness. This was followed by blocking, punching and kicking drills done ad nauseam, to be topped off with shadow boxing. My only solace during this period of reacquainting my body with exercise came from an eight-yearold white belt student named Alex.
Like any eight-year-old, Alex had the focus and attention span of a puppy. Frequently, I heard the teacher yell, “Alex, why are you prancing around? Get back into your stance!” or, “Alex, quit standing on your head and get back to work!” or, “Alex! What did I just tell you?”
Alex’s antics were enhanced with bizarre questions. He would stop practising, raise his hand and ask, “Um, if you kicked someone in the face . . . uh . . . would they bleed?”
The instructor stared back incredulous. “What? What are you asking me?”
“Like, if I kicked someone, would they . . .”
“No, Alex we aren’t talking about that right now. Get back to work!”
This secretly delighted me. I thought, I’m not the most incompetent person here! Yet, while Alex wasn’t as fast or as big as I was, he knew more of the commands and corrected me on the words to switch legs and hands and to stop.
Over the next three months, I made my first rank and am nearly ready to test again for the orange belt, which— assuming I pass—will place me where I was when I was younger. I have handed in the six reading reports required for testing and know more of the history and philosophy of the martial arts.
In a full class, you can see 10 to 12 students lined up working on their various requirements. Frequently, the teacher tells the more advanced students to work with and coach the beginning students. So now I run the younger or newer students through their drills and have begun my own regimen of hard training with an oak striking post, a punching bag and increasingly difficult kicks.
Recently, I helped two prospective students through stretches and warmups and recognised the same pained expression that comes with realising how out of shape you are. But in a recent free-sparring exercise, I was soundly defeated by Steve, a senior student almost ready to test for his black belt. However, even in the midst of beating me, he paused and gave me pointers and encouragement.
The point I’m making is that at the karate school I see people of various ranks and skill levels. Because of my background, I’ve been able to do in six months what may have taken someone else a year. One student spent an entire class period trying to learn how to fold his uniform properly and he still didn’t have it down correctly at the end of an hour! Despite all these differences, we all progressed toward that black-belt goal (and beyond), doing our best to help each other.
But what if I’d come to this karate training and found that it was made up of only advanced students? Or suppose that on my first day, the teachers and students had all pummelled me and then asked if I wanted to join. Or what if I had walked in and everyone, including the instructors, wore white belts, meaning that nobody had made any progress for years and no-one knew what to do? That particular karate school would not have lasted very long and no-one would have learned or grown toward their goal.
The church: a place to train
Some Christians expect everyone to be perfect. Everyone should do the same things, know the same things and practise the same things. And when a person doesn’t “get it” like others with more experience, these people jump on them, criticise them and in essence beat them up. As a result, newcomers leave the church, because they haven’t been given room to learn and grow.
The apostle Paul, writing to a young pastor named Timothy, encouraged him to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Notice that Paul told Timothy to do his best. He didn’t tell him he had to be perfect. The King James Version says that we should study to show ourselves approved. Study implies learning and growth in order to understand God’s Word. Christians are called to a neverending process of devoting themselves “to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2).
Paul even used an illustration from the world of boxing. He said, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. . . . I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:25–27). Paul made the point that the journey of faith and becoming more like Jesus involves training, learning, failure and growth, just as an athlete learns, sometimes fails, but always grows as he trains for various competitions.
Imagine a church where everybody was (or appeared to be) perfect! Or a place where everyone was an absolute disaster with no victory to speak of, nothing good, no hope, no progress, no experience going forward! Either of these churches would be a fake and you’d be wasting your time to attend.
The Bible’s heroes
The characters in the Bible all went through learning and growing. Moses had to learn to trust God when he was told to go back to Egypt. Noah may have built the ark, but he stumbled into drunkenness shortly after. And David had to confess that he stole another man’s wife and then had her husband killed. Even Paul admitted, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18).
Sometimes, when we strive to be like Jesus, it feels like we’ll never get there. This simply means that we have room to grow.
Some martial artists have nicknames like “Iron Fist” or “Thunder Leg.” My nickname should probably be “Floppy Foot.” My biggest frustration is that my side kick with my left leg is supposed to strike with the heel and the edge of the foot. It’s supposed to shoot out like a knife with the toes bent slightly down to the ground. Instead, my leg goes flying out, and when it stops, instead of providing a solid striking surface, my foot flops like a dead fish.
It’s better now, following hours of leg raises and strength building exercises, but still it manages to flop at certain heights, which is very exasperating. There’ve been times when I felt like grabbing that foot and shaking it out of frustration, crying, “Work with me!” But I know that eventually, with more training, I will make it.
Whether it’s a particular movement or the required reading, all of us in the karate school struggled to grow. And in Christianity, whether it’s prayer, studying the Bible, serving others, getting over bad habits or simply attending church, we all have times when it feels like we’ll never get it. But God’s grace is sufficient for us, and we keep trying.
So wherever you are in your spiritual journey, whether you’re an experienced person of faith, a new believer or a believer who is out of shape and struggling to regain spiritual health, continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever!” (2 Peter 3:18).