I started martial arts when I was 20 years old. I had become a Christian a few months earlier, and one day went to the Carnival in Herne Bay, where the Jiu-Jitsu club was giving a demonstration. I was very impressed by the control they had over their bodies, and the ease with which they seemed to deal with potential attacks. After chatting to a few of them and making some inquiries, I decided to join them, and so started my experience in martial arts.
Perhaps because both Christianity and martial arts were so new to me, I quickly saw parallels between the two “pursuits” and this book is an attempt to explain how some of the elements of martial arts relate very neatly to the practices of Christianity.
At the outset it is important to note that the style of martial arts I was involved with had no connection to Eastern Mysticism, as some of them do. There was no meditation, chanting, humming “Om” or any other practices more commonly associated with Eastern Mysticism. My instructor was a very down-to-earth police sergeant, and his comments were not generally along spiritual lines. More common would be something like, “Well lads, last Saturday night, this youth came at me with a bottle, so I blocked it, locked his arm behind his back and marched him to my squad car. Let me show you the move I used.” This would then be followed by a practical demonstration, though we used plastic bottles to avoid the potential injuries of novices. It was always entertaining and informative to hear first-hand how these techniques we were learning had actually worked in a real-life street situation.
I was a part of this Jiu-Jitsu club until I moved away to London and went to seminary where I gained my degree in Theology. After college, I moved to Germany, then California, then Florida, where I finally picked up martial arts again, though in a different discipline: Tae Kwondo. In those intervening years I had occasion to use my martial arts skills twice in real life, once to protect myself, and once to rescue a girl who was being manhandled by a somewhat brutal guy. Well, he was brutal up to the point when I put him in a painful wrist-lock, but you’ll read more about that one later.
My hope is that out of this small book you will gain some insights which will enable you to live out your Christianity with more of a warrior spirit, with determination, and with utter dedication to the one who died for you. If you are not a Christian, I hope the perspective of a fellow martial-artist will make sense to you and hopefully make clearer the gospel of Jesus Christ.
2. KNOW WHEN TO TAP OUT
I remember my first Jiu-Jitsu practice very well, probably because it is associated in my mind with serious pain, both during the practice and afterward. The practice started with about one hour of physical conditioning training. I had thought I was in fairly good shape (I played in a table-tennis league, which in England is a real sport) but this one hour revealed to me the reality of the matter. I was a lot less fit than I had imagined. There were countless exercises involving push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, running… and on and on it went. For the first ten minutes I kept up well enough, but then I started to fade and lose my breath. The remainder of that first hour was a struggle, to say the least.
In the second hour, we practiced techniques, for example, how to respond to a punch, someone trying to strangle you from in front or behind, how to escape from a headlock and so on. The general sequence was that your first response would be to strike the attacker in some way. For example, if they were strangling you from the front, you would kick at their knee. This would have the effect of loosening their grip, which would then free you to do your next maneuver. The kick, or first strike was known as “the weakener” and we would usually practice it with just a light touch, since if you really get properly kicked in the knee, that’s going to be the end of the practice for you, and probably for quite a few weeks. So, as their hands wrapped around your throat, you would kick out and just brush their knee with your foot. The person grabbing you would loosen their hands a little, to simulate the actual loosening that would occur with a real kick, and then you would continue, usually with a follow-up strike, or some sort of “lock” which meant twisting one of their limbs into such a painful position that they would surrender.
This was all excellent fun, and I learned so much even in that first evening. There was one key element that they forgot to teach me though – how to ‘tap out.’ For those unfamiliar with martial arts, tapping out refers to a type of signal you give when the other person has you in that painful position, and you wish to indicate surrender. In our club, it meant tapping twice on the mat or on their body so they would know not to increase the pressure any more. As I was on the floor, in some considerable pain from the wrist-lock someone had placed on me, they kept increasing the pressure until I finally cried out. The looked at me and asked, “Why didn’t you tap out?” When I told them I didn’t know what it was, they laughed and then explained it to me. This one explanation saved me a lot of pain in the ensuing years!
There’s a lesson for life there too. How many of us fail to tap out, either because we don’t know it is an option, or we are simply too proud to admit the pain we are in? This pain need not be physical. It can be spiritual, psychological, emotional or any other type of pain. The point is, we can each come to a point in our lives where we are at the end of ourselves. We come to a point where we really need outside help, because our own resources are depleted or inadequate for the challenges we face.
To admit that we need help can be humbling and so many of us shy away from it. Both cultures with which I am familiar have a strong tradition of independence, rather than inter-dependence. Growing up as a young boy in England, I was regaled through comics and other media, with stories of our triumph over the evil of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. In many of these stories, it was the plucky Brits who, like an earwig cornered, refused to give up despite the odds, and fought on, eventually winning the day. It was only later in life that I realized how incredibly dependent victory was. Without the assistance of the other allies, particularly the USA and Russia, we would not have prevailed.
In the United States, the pioneer spirit has fueled movies and literature ever since the colonists starting moving West. This was a time when the hardy survived, through their own ingenuity and sheer grit. Freedom and independence are still powerful currents in American society, and even depending in part on the government for assistance smacks of socialism to many, and is looked down upon.
The fact is that most of us, especially men, are taught a lesson early in life, that we can only depend on ourselves. Our individual ability and prowess is paramount. Only the weak need help. Only the very weak admit that they need help.
For me, the lesson that I need to admit it when I am powerless and need relief came most painfully in that martial arts lesson. But it had also come a few months earlier, as I had to make a similar admission, but this time, in the spiritual realm.
I was on the outside, a reasonably confident 20 year old, working in real estate, interested in girls, cars and making money (which I assumed would help with the girls and cars.) Inside though, there was a different story going on. There was a spiritual gulf within me. I knew something was missing; I just didn’t know what it was.
I had been brought up in the Catholic Church, and had gone through the rites of passage such as First Communion, and Confirmation. I learned to say the right things, and when to stand up, when to kneel, and was even an altar boy at one point. My primary (elementary) school was Catholic and we were taught in some classes by nuns. On Wednesday afternoon, as part of the school day, we were taken to church for “Benediction,” a service which included prayers in Latin and incense (which I unwisely told the headmaster I didn’t like). I was steeped in Catholic practice, but honestly, for me the ritual obscured the spiritual reality behind it. For many, it can be that this ritual assists them in sensing a connection to God, but for me it did not. When I left primary school at age 11, I had nothing more to do with religion or church. I did study Religion in Secondary (High) School, but it was merely an academic pursuit.
When I was 20, I joined a table-tennis club, and soon became friends with a player named John. As we talked, he was quite open about the fact that he was a Christian, and to my surprise, did not seem embarrassed by this fact. What was more confusing to me was that he seemed quite normal! I don’t know where my mental image of a Christian had come from, but somehow they seemed to be weak and wimpy characters, soft-spoken, apologetic, pasty-white and somewhat otherworldly. John was not like that at all. He embraced life with a sense of wonderment and great humor, and I was drawn to him. He spoke about his relationship with Jesus as though he were a friend.
Often, after our table-tennis practices, we would go back to his mother’s house and discuss the questions I had about Christianity. I guess they were much the same as most people have:
- why does Christianity claim to be the only way to God? What about other religions? (I had studied Buddhism at school, and was impressed with it as a philosophy)
- if there is a good God, why is there so much suffering in the world? If he is good, and if he is all-powerful, why doesn’t he do something about it?
- isn’t the Bible full of contradictions, and out of date? How can you trust it and think it is relevant?
With great patience, and a good deal of intelligence John attempted to answer my questions. He was a lawyer, and knew how to structure a logical argument, and for the first time, Christianity was presented to me as a rational step. There were some questions he could not answer and I appreciated his honesty in that. When he told me there were some things I would have to accept by faith, he was not advocating that I check my brain at the door. He was pointing out that there are some things about an infinite God which, since we are finite human beings, might be beyond our comprehension. I could accept that. I wasn’t arrogant enough to think that if there was a God, he would be within the power of my brain to fully understand.
After we had been friends for a few months, John invited me to attend a church service with him, at his local church – Tankerton Evangelical. At first I was hesitant but then finally agreed, thinking to myself that I could endure a 1.5 hour service, however bad it was. If I could sit through Catholic services in Latin where I didn’t understand a thing, I would be able to manage this.
Unknown to John, before I attended that first time, I made a deal with God, along the following lines: “God, if you exist, which I don’t know for sure, then I’ll make a deal with you. You have one month to convince me that you are real, that you know me and that you love me. If I don’t sense that after going to church with John four times, then I’m done with you.” I felt pretty confident that I had set the bar high enough that God would not come through, and I could with a clear conscience tell John that I had tried it, and that it didn’t work for me.
The first Sunday I attended, I walked into church worried. I wasn’t just worried about the unfamiliarity of the church service. I was worried about financial issues. I had a job in real estate that was mostly commission-based, and it was not going well. The most pressing issue on my mind as I sat down for that first service was worry about finances. After the songs, the preacher, Rev. John Bishop came up to the pulpit and said that he was going to preach about our attitude to material things and money. This caught my attention, as I was certainly in the right frame of mind to hear something encouraging about that issue. The passage he spoke on was from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus is preaching. Here are the nine verses that rocked my world:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:25-34)
For the first time in a long time, I started to consider the possibility that maybe there was something more to life than money (or specifically, my lack of it). It was as though my head, which was weighed down in anxiety, was caused to look up and consider that there was perhaps something more out there. I was also impressed that the preacher had “luckily” hit on the very issue that was occupying my mind that morning. I had to grudgingly admit to John that what was preached that day was actually relevant to me.
The next week, I entered with a little trepidation wondering if the preacher was going to get lucky again with his choice of topic. The issue that was most on my mind that week was my relationship with my girlfriend, which was going through a rocky patch. In fact, I wasn’t sure we would be a couple for very much longer. Again, after the songs, Rev. Bishop got up, and said: “Today, I’m going to talk about God’s guide to relationships.” Gulp. Not again. How did he know? I whispered quickly to John, asking him if he had told the preacher what I was dealing with, but he assured me he had said nothing, and as I thought about it, I didn’t even remember mentioning my relationship troubles to John, so that couldn’t be it. Through that sermon, I started understanding that God’s blueprint for relationships was very different than mine: living selflessly rather than selfishly; considering others needs instead of just my own… This was starting to hit a bit close to the bone.
I went back the third week, and again, the sermon was precisely on the issue that was troubling me. The fourth week it happened again, and I couldn’t take it anymore. It could not have been more clear to me that God had won my wager. Through every one of those sermons I had heard, he had shown that he knew my situation, cared about me, and wanted to show me a different path.
This was my crisis point. This was where I had to decide to tap out, to admit to God that I could not run my life on my own; that doing it my way was not working out, and that I needed him. As I made that decision, as I called out to God to rescue me, to lift me out of my troubles, to relieve my guilt and shame, a physical sensation washed over me. It was as though my heart was burning within me. I later found a Bible verse which described what I had felt:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26).
That was exactly how it felt, as though my stony heart had been made soft. As the service concluded, I told John that I had decided that I wanted to follow Jesus. He offered to introduce me to the preacher, and together we prayed a prayer where I gave my heart to Jesus and told him that I wanted to live his way rather than my way.
Twenty-seven years later, I am a pastor in a church in Florida, having studied theology in London, served as a missionary in Berlin, and as a pastor in California. I am still in touch with John, and remind him that he seriously messed up my life by inviting me to church!
The interesting part for me is that I still need to remember to tap out. I still drift into believing that I can lead this life with my own strength and wisdom. I think that I have what it takes, and God has to remind me that I need him. He reminds me that I was not designed to be independent, but to be in relationship with him. When I live that way, it goes better. When I tap out, when I run to pray, when I acknowledge my own weakness, then He is made strong in me.
I don’t know where you are at. Perhaps you would not call yourself a Christian, but you are feeling the pressure. Maybe some crisis has come upon you or maybe just the regular pressures of life (bills, parenting, job stress) are weighing you down to the point of feeling overwhelmed. The good news of the gospel is that you don’t need to walk this path alone. This is Jesus’ invitation, in the Gospel of Matthew:
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
I have heard the oft-repeated criticism that Christianity is a crutch for the weak. To which my answer is, if you have a broken leg, or even a twisted ankle, a crutch is a good thing, and there’s no embarrassment in having one. For each of us, we experience a degree of brokenness. We are people who are wounded and broken. We are sinners, and we are sinned against. Life does something to us, and there is no shame in getting to the point of admitting that we need help, that we cannot walk this path alone. The truth is, we were never designed to. Life was intended to be a partnership between the created and the Creator, in harmony together.
It is my experience that only the very proud or foolish will state that they never need any help. If ever I hear this, I know that I could come back in 10 years and probably hear a different answer. Life has a way of teaching us that our resources are finite, and that our individual strength is not enough.
For me, on that dojo, all those years ago, there was no embarrassment about tapping out. When I did, the person released the grip, and offered a hand to help me up. Will you be honest enough, humble enough to take the hand of Jesus that is reached out to you?
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