Many believers have a spotty history with fitness, and the Bible says nearly nothing about it, so Christians often struggle with how they should approach this aspect of care for our bodies.
“Lord’s Gym: Bench Press This!”
Seeing this 90s t-shirt’s logo of Jesus bench-pressing the cross was the first time I’d ever really thought about God and working out, mostly because Christ in the illustration was…well, extremely buff.
It seems unlikely that Jesus had a Schwarzenegger physique; but in many ways, this t-shirt represents the tension and odd relationship Christians have with fitness.
Does God only care about the state of our soul, or do our bodies figure in somehow?
Treating Our Bodies Like an Investment
“I don't think we realize that, deep down, fitness is a spiritual issue. Instead, we've allowed the reasoning of secular vanity to fill the void,” Kent Wilson, a minister of 26 years, pointed out. “You know, promises of living longer, fewer chances of getting a disease, promises of looking better at your high school reunion and the like.
“Those reasons, while nice, are pretty vain when you think about it. And maybe that's why they don't have staying power even in the general population, let alone among Christians.”
Many believers feel that the Bible’s relative silence on the topic is justification for avoiding “vanity of the flesh” or exercise.
However, it’s worth remembering that the writers of the Bible lived in an agrarian society where very few people didn’t perform manual labor or had the luxury of excess food. They wouldn’t have even been able to imagine the sedentary life many modern believers know.
Besides, God does pay attention to how we treat our bodies.
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV).
While Paul is speaking pointedly against sexual sin here, his instructions also apply to taking care of any aspect of our bodies.
The Spiritual Side of Working Out
“I’d advocate that the spiritual benefit of exercise comes through our mental posture at the moment of our most intense physical exertion,” Pastor Jonathan Parnell muses.
Those moments of labor, where we feel ourselves pushed to the edge, are a stark reminder of how quickly we run up against our own limitations. Our bodies are simultaneously resilient, fragile and marvelous all at once.
Straining through the last rep, I do have a different mental posture—as Parnell describes it—toward the God who knitted together my bones and sinews.
Spiritual disciplines are much easier to see in a different light when compared to faithful physical discipline. One hard workout doesn’t give anyone a fantastic six-pack the same way reading the Bible once doesn’t make anyone perfectly holy. Almost anyone would roll their eyes and agree with that statement, but it takes on deeper significance against the personal experience of regular workouts.
Being in shape, though, has just as many practical benefits that can redefine our spiritual lives.
“I was 30 pounds overweight,” Gary Wilkerson reminisces in his podcast. “I felt lethargic all the time. I was preaching joy and hope, but inside I was exhausted and feeling lost a brain fog. I was killing myself. I really was.
“I ended up with thyroid cancer, and I believe with all my heart that my body just couldn't keep up with all the toxins I was putting in it.”
The entire situation was a wake-up call, and he began eating differently and working out regularly throughout the week. “It was so strange because my whole life I preached, ‘bodily exercise profiteth little.’ You know, it's really not important to our lives. Losing 30 pounds or more, feeling physically fit, eating healthy—it has created a different energy in me.
“I open up the Bible, and I'm not tired after ten minutes. There's a vitality, an energy in me that wasn’t there before.”
Important Questions About Fitness
Of course, as with any good thing, it’s easy to take fitness too far.
It’s all too possible to become obsessed with working out, use “spiritual” justifications for their borderline eating disorder or fat-shame others in the church who aren’t as dedicated to hitting the gym.
“I agree that we are called to be good stewards of our bodies. But does taking care of our bodies mean that we'll be thin?” pointedly asks Christian counselor and dietitian Ashley Smith. “Research is pointing to the fact that we actually don't have much control over our body size and that our weight doesn't have to be an indicator of health.”
Some people’s genetic make-up won’t allow for them to have a supermodel or bodybuilder physique without extreme, unhealthy dietary and workout practices.
Certain individuals may have heavier bones or larger frames that will always put them at the upper end of a standardized weight scale. Others may seem like they’re almost underweight because of low bone density or particular health issues. Most of us will never look like the people in Fitness magazine, and that’s okay.
We can’t take a “one size fits all” approach to our health.
Where to Begin?
Regularly checking our motivations is important. We should honestly inspect our hearts and ask, “Why am I trying to become healthier? Is it to impress other people or boost my own self-image? Or is it to take care of this body God’s given me?”
If we realize that our reasons were becoming skewed, don’t abandon fitness all together. Instead, moderate your approach or find another way to stay fit that doesn’t tempt you in the same ways.
We have to be careful not to lose sight of the real reason for fitness, which is to glorify our maker with the bodies that he’s given us.