“No pain, no gain.”
“If you can’t outplay them, outwork them.”
“It’s all about who wants it more.”
“The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.”
“You gotta burn it to earn it”
“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
“Go big or go home.”
“If you fail to prepare, you’re prepared to fail.”
As someone who has taken sports and athletic training very seriously my whole life, quotes like these really get me going. Even watching a commercial like this makes me want to jump off the couch and hit the weights. I can work harder. I can get better. I can be great. There is within me a constant demand for progress and the belief that it is within the realm of my free will to achieve it (or not) based on the amount of effort I put in. Hard work pays off, as they say, and so I’m all about hard work.
And while most of us recognize that our free will is only one contributing factor to our success (along with our genetic makeup, social upbringing, and chance), I imagine that most of us buy into these weight room montras to some extent. We want to be in control. We want to think that we can determine our own future, that it is not some unchangeable characteristic our biology that determines our life, but rather our dedication and innovation. Isn’t that the American way? At the core of who we are, we are a people that upholds the freedom to make of ourselves what we can, that hard work should be rewarded with success.
I think that’s really the crux of it: we are a people that believes that we are able to and should earn everything we have. We live with the notion that the world is a meritocracy, that those who work hard will be successful and those who are lazy or incompetent will be unsuccessful. In this world, everything is in our control. We can choose to work hard or not, but ultimately success is within our hands. When people hear that the actual greatest indicator of one’s success is the social status of the family in which one is born, most want to reject this: the privileged want to think that they earned what they were given, and the poor want to believe that their situation can be changed if only they work hard enough. Everyone wants to be in control; everyone wants to believe that we can earn whatever we want.
It’s no wonder, then, that weight room montras and motivational quotes pervade all aspects of our life, even our relationship with God. Without even realizing it, many of us have adopted a weight room theology in which salvation is yet another task to be overcome by our will and earned by our hard work.
Can we really earn our salvation? Can we really work hard enough to deserve a place in heaven? Will any amount of innovation, creativity, or usefulness really make God love us? The answer to all three is clearly no. Because we are God’s creation, made in God’s image to reflect the divine aspect and to give everything we are back to our Creator, there is nothing we ever do above and beyond what is expected of us. God’s grace to us is something that is freely given and undeserved. It is a true gift, something that is not as a result of our actions and does not warrant anything in return. God created us, Jesus became like us, and the Spirit now remains with us, not because of who we are, but because of who God is.
But that doesn’t sit well with us Type-A Americans, does it? We want to know that what we are doing means something, that we can overcome ourselves to assure the result we want. We allow a weight room theology to slip in. “If I say all of my prayers every day God will love me.” “I followed all the rules of the Church, received every sacrament I could, and gave money to the poor.” “I did something really bad. I need to do something to make up for it so that God will forgive me.” In each of these statements there is a desire to be in control, to convince God of our worthiness by doing good things. Isn’t that a bit silly when we think about it, though? Surely we could never convince God of anything, and even if we could, there could never be a rule to follow or a deed to complete that would be enough.
So does that mean everything is for nought? If we can’t earn salvation, what does it matter how we act? For our answer, let’s look to the parable of The Great Feast (Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:15-24). In both versions, the great king sends out his servants to tell the invited guests that the banquet is ready. They did not pay to enter the banquet, nor is it implied that they did anything to deserve attendance. What do they do with such a gift? They choose not to come. Caught up with worldly concerns, they make excuses and turn down the free banquet. Enraged, the king sends out his servants to the streets, inviting anyone and everyone, including “the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame,” surely not people that earned a place at the table. This does not mean that nothing is expected of them, however. Noticing that one of the guests came without a wedding garment, a sign of repentance and changed heart (not to mention disrespectful to the host!), the king kicked him out with the others that chose not to accept the gift.
Even though it is up to God who ultimately gets invited to the feast, it is up to us whether or not we accept the invitation and show up with a heart open to conversion. It is an acceptance that we are not in control of our destiny, that no amount of hard work or merit could ever guarantee us a place before God. In the chapel, unlike the weight room, we rely not on our own strength to be great, for our strength is nothing on its own. Rather, it is when we are weak that we are strong, when we allow Christ to lift us up, to take our pain, to direct our lives, that Christ lives in us and we are truly strong.
Ultimately, motivational quotes and inspirational commercials have there place. God has placed within us a tremendous amount of gifts that we often don’t recognize, and anything that aids in bringing them to perfection is alright with me. In our weight room at Holy Name college, we have this poster of Michael Jordan and this one of Rocky Balboa, along with loud speakers to play pump-up songs like this, all to help us dig deep within ourselves. Where does this strength come from? God, and God alone.
(But… just in case we forget, we have one more piece of motivation on the wall)