What Martial Arts Teaches Us About Faith

What Martial Arts Teaches Us About Faith

“I have good news and bad news.”

I’m sitting in my local urgent care with a bag of ice on my foot and a bandage on my head, and this is my first interaction with the doctor post-xray.

“Start with the good news,” I muttered.

“Your foot isn’t broken,” the doctor said, “but you’ll need stitches for the head.”

An hour later, I limp into my house. After one look, my wife verbalizes what we both are thinking: “Is this worth it?”

My accident wasn’t due to riding a dirt bike or playing pick-up basketball with much younger men. No, my injuries came from a fight that was scheduled a week in advance. For the past five years, I’ve been working toward my black belt in Shaolin Kung Fu. Every Thursday, as red belts (one below black) we are scheduled to fight the black belts in full-contact sparring.

After propping my sore foot up and popping a couple of Advil, I sighed. Why do I do this?

The surprising value of martial arts

As I ran my hand over the fresh sutures, I am painfully aware of the risks of martial arts. Yet, advantages such as exercise, discipline, learning new skills, and a sense of accomplishment are equally evident.

One benefit, however, has taken me by surprise. Practicing martial arts has deepened my faith.

Studying a thousand-year-old fighting system supplies me with tools and a strategy for energizing my walk with Jesus. Over time, I’ve realized that the same skills and mentality that make me good at my martial art, also help me grow as a Christian. As athletes, the trick is find ways to transfer skills from arena (sports) to a seemingly unrelated one (faith). Good news: the following observations are not merely applicable to martial artists, but anyone who wants perspective to spur on faith.

The value of learning from those who came before us

Visitors invariably come to my Kung Fu school to learn how to beat someone up after watching the latest Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) pay-per-view. After a couple introductory sessions, they leave.

One of the first steps in learning Kung Fu is to practice katas (translated forms). These elaborate forms are thousands of years old and force a student to learn basic moves that have been refined over the centuries. They are done over and over until they become second nature resulting in deeply ingrained mental and physical habits. Those who want to fight quickly get impatient.

“When am I going to learn to break boards or do a flying jump kick to the head? What do these silly stances have to do with anything?”

The arrogance and impatience of young students who can look up “Killer Fights” on YouTube is discouraging. Is there nothing to be learned from thousands of years of tradition? Sadly, has our skepticism for tradition also bled into the modern church?

Christian author David Whitney laments that modern followers of Jesus have abandoned ancient practices. He observes that many Christians he meets are “a mile wide and an inch deep. There are no deep, time-worn channels of communing discipline between them and God. They have dabbled in everything but disciplined themselves in nothing.”

I’ll be the first to admit that many katas I’ve had to learn are frustrating and difficult. Yet, there is something deeply encouraging that I’m walking in the footsteps of those who have mastered the subject I’m studying. It would be foolish to ignore their collective wisdom.

Yet, how often do I consult tradition or the ancient practices of early Christians when it comes to my devotional life? For example, how have my prayers been molded by Christian tradition? For centuries, Christians have studied and practiced prayer. Yet, have I consulted any of these sages?

One of the key problems with prayer, notes Eugene Peterson, is that we are self-taught. My faith has deepened by taking my school’s approach to katas and applying it to prayer. Instead of just creating my own prayers—often dominated by my own pressing needs—I have sought to use the prayers of Israel or the early church. Like katas, I learn to copy the rhythm of prayer from those who have gone before.

Often, I borrow prayers from the Book of Psalms. The psalms are a collection of prayers that guided Israel through some challenging times. My view of God is enlarged as I mimic David’s proclamation:

“Great are the works of the Lord; they are studied by all who delight in them. Splendid and majestic is His work; and His righteousness endures forever (Psalm 111:2).

Like katas, over time David’s words and perspective become second nature to me—his attitudes toward God become mine. Like a jazz pianist who first learns the scales before improvising, perhaps we should first learn these ancient prayers before creating our own.

The value of consistently recurring practice

Each morning, before I check emails or the latest Facebook posts, I go through my forms. First Fist transitions into Second Fist which culminates in a highly technical kata called, Ba Shoo. I do these forms regardless of how I feel. This daily personal practice is in addition to going to class four to five times a week.

Once, when down with the flu, my wife walked into the bedroom just as I was struggling through a form. “Tim, you can take a day off! Get back into bed!” she said accompanied by a firm spousal look. Over the years, my instructor has drilled into us the importance of daily practice.

The writers of Scripture also advocate discipline. In his advice to a young Christian leader the apostle Paul writes: “train yourself to be godly” (1 Tim. 4:7). The word train comes from the Greek word gumnasia from which we get our English words gymnasium and gymnastics. Paul is telling Timothy to begin to exercise or discipline himself in his pursuit of God and the lifestyle he has called us to embrace.

Modern translation: approach your faith with the doggedness and determination found in Olympic gymnasts. The spiritual disciplines Paul is referring to “are habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times.” Many Christians are uncomfortable with thinking of their spirituality as a discipline or habit. Yet, if we consider the life of Christ we observe him regularly taking time out of ministry to engage in spiritual practices such as fasting, prayer, meditation, worship, and solitude.

As my training in Kung Fu has intensified, one thought has haunted me: What would my walk with Jesus look like if I was as disciplined and focused in pursuing him as I am in pursuing martial arts? What if the first thing I did in the morning—before checking emails or doing katas—was to spend time in personal prayer or Bible reading? After rooting myself in God’s perspective, there is still plenty of time for practicing kicks or weapons training.

The value of being tested against a standard

“You’re ready to test,” my instructor informs me. Those words are both encouraging and unnerving. Tests are meant to evaluate, in part, where you should be in the process. After a year of training at one belt or rank, you should be able to perform certain techniques.

A test is the ultimate reality check.

Surprisingly, Christians are also subject to testing. Peter informs us that all believers, after we are reunited with God, must give an “account” to Jesus (1 Pet. 4:5).

But isn’t my salvation settled when I put my faith in Christ? Yes, it is. This test has nothing to do with your final destiny or God’s love for you—all that was settled when you embraced Jesus as Savior. Like testing for a higher belt, this spiritual judgement focuses on how I used gifts and talents God gave me. How does it make you feel knowing that, one day, you’ll be examined by Jesus?

As the test day approaches in my Kung Fu school, I find that it sharpens my focus and diligence. I’m motivated to show my instructor that I’ve put the necessary time in and have dedicated myself to this martial art. The test fills me with renewed zeal.

However, tests also mean the possibility of failure. I failed my first attempt at red belt because I made one mistake at the very end.

The good news about the final spiritual test for those in Christ: While stubborn sins or momentary lack of focus may cause sorrow, no one ultimately fails. In the end, all followers of Jesus hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Before that final testing, we strive to apply the same discipline and attitude in sports to our pursuit of Jesus—our ultimate instructor.