“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't.”
It's true, I do MMA, at least in the broadest sense of the term. Although I am unable to train at the moment because I recently had surgery on my hand, I generally train Jiu Jitsu or Muay Thai 4-5 times per week. To be clear, I don't do MMA fights, but I train two different forms of martial arts (MMA stands for mixed martial arts). Jiu Jitsu is primarily grappling and Muay Thai is primarily striking. I've never had anyone challenge me regarding whether it would be appropriate for a pastor to train in these disciplines, but I have had a lot of people at the gym show surprise when they find out I am a pastor, and a lot of people at church show surprise (usually in a positive sense) when they find out I train MMA. So why do I do it?
There are some reasons that are pretty obvious and on the surface, but there are also some deeper psychological reasons. First, the more obvious reasons:
#1 It's great exercise. Exercise is great for everyone, but not every form of exercise works for everyone. I've spent a good portion of my life doing all kinds of exercise. Growing up I played sports and did all kinds of cardio and weight lifting to be a better athlete. I even competed a little bit in weight lifting, but for the most part I lifted and ran track to stay in shape for football...another violent sport. Exercise has always been difficult for me. Putting on muscle wasn't hard, but as I got older a decent amount of fat came with the muscle. During my seminary years I put on a significant amount of weight. At my peak I was close to 250 lbs. I tried just doing cardio with very little weight lifting, but I couldn't take the weight off even spending 1-2 hours in the gym 3-4 times a week. I needed something to engage my mind related to the work out. For me, MMA (specifically the ones I practice) do the trick. For the first time in almost two decades I am under 200 lbs.
#2 It focuses my mind. I am not talking about some kind of meditation or something. That is a different issue. All forms of meditation connected to martial arts that I know of are not compatible with Christianity. When I am speaking of a focused mind, I am speaking of activity that requires my concentration. MMA requires a great deal of focus as you learn new moves, develop strategies, and defend from other people's attacks. A lack of focus leads to getting hit or caught in a submission. Those things happen as part of the training, but the idea is that you learn and grow from those losses and they are not simply the consequence of losing focus. Of course that is its own lesson.
#3 Self-defense. I am not a pacifist and I find that position to be unbiblical, but I realize many of my colleagues hold that position; I respectfully disagree with them. This is obvious, but it leads to some of the deeper psychological reasons. I don't want to turn this into a Biblical defense of the idea of self-defense, although I am more than willing to do that at another time. I'll simply put it this way, I believe that the responsibility for self-defense begins with the individual. Police can't be everywhere and usually show up after it's all over. While there are a lot of different ways to approach self-defense including being careful about what kind of situations you put yourself in, practicing martial arts is one tool that I like to have in my tool belt. Nevertheless, martial arts is one way to be prepared and given the other benefits, it seems like a good way to go for me.
#4 I like competition. I don't compete in MMA. I have no plans of climbing into the cage and fighting someone in that context, but I do occasionally compete in Jiu Jitsu (submission grappling). I have always had some area in my life where I am able to compete in some kind of athletic endeavor. Right now it is Jiu Jitsu. I'm not trying to become a world champion or anything, I just want to walk out on the mat from time to time and compete with other guys. Win or lose, the experience feeds my soul in ways that I can't explain. Usually I end up becoming friends with the competition.
From a psychological perspective there are some deeper reasons why I have chosen to not only do martial arts myself, but have my son do it as well. In fact, I wish I could have gotten my daughter and wife to do it as well. It is related to self-defense but it is more than that. Growing up, my mom's second husband was abusive to my mom in some pretty sever ways. I was very aware of the abuse and witnessed a fair amount of it. We had "go bags" ready for the times when things started to get bad. There was really nothing I could do about it as a kid, and I knew it. Even if I had been trained in martial arts there would have been nothing I could have done about it at the time. Nevertheless, I don't like feeling helpless. I was never severely bullied, but I had a few bullies growing up and it made me feel like a victim. I don't want to be a victim. Regardless of what my profession is, knowing that if things go sideways I at least stand a chance of defending myself, helps me psychologically. Some might suggest that I should just trust God. Fair enough, but lets just agree that even with all kinds of training my life is ultimately in God's hands and I am well aware of that.
Similar to the previous paragraph, I also see it as my responsibility to defend my family. My mom was unable to defend me and I was unable to defend her. My family isn't always with me and I am not omnipresent, I realize that...I can't defend my family all the time, but I don't want to feel helpless should the need ever arise. Given my background, this is important to me.
I am by no means suggesting that MMA is for everyone, but it is for me. From my perspective, there is nothing contradictory about being a pastor and doing MMA in the way that I do it.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.