IS EXERCISING SPIRITUAL?
By: Paul Anderson
I first read it in the King James: “Bodily exercise profiteth little” (I Tim. 4:8). Even though the RSV made Paul’s statement slightly more positive (“bodily training is of some value”), we still heard the KJV quoted to those who went overboard: “Remember, bodily exercise profits little,” proving that the jocks needed to adjust their priorities. Maybe you know someone who never misses the trip to the gym, while the spiritual condition remains neglected. However, contrast this with the multiplied saints who don’t forget their devotional life but can only vaguely recall the last time they cared for their bodies.
The apostle does say that “physical training is of some value.” We know the value of consistent spiritual workouts. Let’s look at some advantages of physical exercise. On a trip to Finland, in which Karen and I were struck with the passivity in the church, a new friend confirmed our observation. Jesus observed a slumber in His day and urged people to “keep watch” (three times in Matt. 24 and 25), lest they be excluded from the Party. I exhorted them that exercise might help them to stay fit spiritually. My body often grows tired before my spirit does. A few push-ups bring me back on track. Too bad Peter didn’t lead the disciples in some jumping jacks in the garden rather than giving in to sleep.
Paul was offering counsel to his son : “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (I Tim. 4:7,8). Spiritual training exceeds physical training because it extends into eternity. But since the dress rehearsal counts for the life to come, let’s not neglect our bodies. How we live here does impact how we live in eternity.
We can find evidence that Timothy needed this exhortation. He possessed a servant heart, but he lacked the aggressive character of his father in the faith. Paul twice encouraged him to “fight the good fight,” a phrase he used nowhere else in his letters. The word for “fight,” “agonizomai,” is taken from athletic contests. He urged Timothy not to neglect his gift (I Tim. 3:14) but to stir it up and not remain timid (2 Tim. 1:6,7). He suggested the use of wine because of his “frequent illnesses.” Some have found that physical exercise helps to prevent spiritual passivity. I hope that Timothy discovered this.
Here’s a question: was the apostle putting down physical exercise, or was he simply comparing it to the exercise of our spirits? The fact that he uses the same Greek word for both (“gumnasia,” a word taken from the world of sports), first as a verb, then as a noun, could suggest the latter.
My body is related to my spirit. A Greek would say, “I live in my body,” while a Hebrew would say, “I am my body.” Which is true? The Bible was written in Hebrew and in Greek, which seems to presuppose a dual understanding. When God speaks to our spirit, our body must be prepared to respond in kind. But an out-of-shape body may not be able to fulfill the admonition. Divine mandates often impose stresses on the body that require physical endurance, like travel, staying up late, or rising early. Exercise allows the body to stay tuned so that it can serve the spirit.
“Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” (Deut. 34:7). He took regular walks in the desert (like for forty years). I wonder how many of God’s people have died prematurely because they failed care for their bodies. While some debilitating diseases do sneak up on people regardless of conditioning, killers like heart disease can be overcome, if not fully eliminated, by proper food, exercise and attitude. (My kids all quit drinking pop years ago, not because we told them not to; they just knew how bad it was for them).
We have been guilty in the church of dividing the sacred and the secular. For instance, the call to the holy ministry is a sacred one, while most people enter so-called secular positions. By whose standard? In the same way we have unconsciously taken a Greek understanding of the body, assuming that our spirits count to God much more than our bodies. Such thinking runs counter to our Hebrew heritage. We declare in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” It must mean something to God if He chooses to raise up decomposed matter. It’s time for a healthy theology of the body, and the New Testament gives us one. But we have largely ignored it, and mature Christians are dropping dead because they exercised their spirits and not their bodies. We need vibrant 80-years olds like Caleb.
The context of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy offers us help. He was warning of false teachers influenced by demons, who “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods…” (v. 3). Demons portray the physical realm as unspiritual. To over-spiritualize is to trivialize. Eugene Peterson writes that “the gospel is the enemy of all forms of gnosticism. The gospel does not begin with matter and then gradually get refined into spirit…We are immersed in materiality from start to finish” (Reversed Thunder, p. 170). The test of a true spirit centers on God becoming flesh (I Jn. 4:2,3). To a world trying to get spiritual, God gets physical!
When Jesus said, “This is my body given for you,” the disciples saw His body hanging from a tree fifteen hours later. Our reconciliation came “by Christ’s physical body” (Col. 1:22). We cannot spiritualize the cross; real blood poured out. In like manner, we are called to offer our “bodies as a living sacrifice” (Ro. 12:1). In the Old Testament people were admonished to give the best, not the leftovers. And the New Covenant consistently calls us to a higher standard. Let us offer a body that is properly cared for. (Time out for another ten push-ups).
Jesus was concerned about His body as He walked into the the shadow of death. His disciples didn’t get it and took no care for where His body would be laid. The compassion came from a woman sensitive enough to pick up on His need, and He memorialized her kindness for all time: “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial” (Matt. 26:12). The women who went to the tomb demonstrated caring hearts—they simply arrived four days too late! Fortunately for Jesus, an unlikely member of the Sanhedrin provided the tomb. The religious leaders missed the cryptic statement from Jesus about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days. The disciples found out after the resurrection of Christ that He was referring to His body (John 2:21).
The seriousness of sexual sin is complicated in the damage to our bodies: “All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body” (I Cor. 6:18). Paul goes on to give one of the greatest reasons for keeping bodies physically fit: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (v. 19,20). What a wonderful goal, what a high calling! May this charge give you the motivation you need to make it happen, even with a few minutes a day and with healty food, not junk. After all, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” (I Cor. 6:13-15). No spiritualizing there. Our bodies mean something special to God.
Paul knew the rigor of keeping physically tuned. He wrote, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (I Cor. 9:27). He saw the potential of losing the race, of being eliminated by having a body that made inappropriate demands on his spirit. Rather than allowing that circumstance, he made sure that his body was serving the purposes of God, not living in self-indulgence. He wanted to “run in such a way as to get the prize,” (9:24). He spoke of athletes who submitted to strict training to go for the gold. Then Paul didn’t simply apply this in a spiritual sense as we might have anticipated: he applied it to his physical body.
Sacramental Christians take particular strength in the words of Paul, “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Cor. 10:16). We taste and see that the Lord is good—in a physical way. In Holy Communion God is getting physical with us again!
A physically fit body is a gift we give the Lord—and our family. Why should we cause grief by dying early? Why not go for the long haul and serve ’til you drop as Moses did? Hit the tape on the run rather than retiring to the rocking chair. Exercising means investing in our future, and the dividends accrue with time. Exercise will add years to your life. If you use those years to serve the Lord, then you are making valuable installments, like investing money. And as with finances, a little over a good stretch time pays off. Why not start now, even for five minutes. Exercising is for health, not for looks.
My in-laws, Phil and Margaret, have modeled the clear spiritual value of proper care for the body. She walks and he bikes. He told me not long ago that he might like the idea of working with the elderly—when he gets old!
A physically fit body:
will normally live longer
will fight off disease and depression better
is a testimony as to how we steward the gift of our bodies
enables us to potentially listen to the Lord better
can likely concentrate more fully upon the Lord in prayer
can better stay awake spiritually and sleep better
can potentially deal with suffering better (exercise is planned pain!). Our bodies naturally prefer comfort to challenge and sleep to hard activity. As we test our bodies with exercise, we are preparing our bodies and our spirits for the tests that are coming our way.
My knees complain if I try running these days, so I do push-ups and sit-ups. I often find myself spiritually energized after my short workout, and my children tell me the same thing. We see a relationship between body and spirit. Some take the word “flesh” as used in the epistles to mean “body,” as if Paul is contrasting the body and the spirit in writing about our proneness to sin. The “flesh,” however, speaks of our inherited nature in contrast to the new nature in Christ. It is not contrasting the physical to the spiritual. Many have experienced spiritual growth (in confidence, courage, and peace, for instance) through physical workouts.
Any good thing can be overdone. An hour at the gym and a five-minute devo demonstrates scewed priorities. Exercise is not everything! We are told not to fear those who can kill the body, so we must keep this outlook in perspective. I doubt if we’ll need to do push-ups in heaven when we are given glorified bodies, but I suspect that we will engage in more activity than is sometimes imagined. So let’s stay in shape—and get ready!
Here’s a personal disclaimer: at seventy, I eat more than many guys half my age. But my metabolism has kept me slim. I feel for those friends more godly than myself who struggle with health or weight issues that make workouts grueling. May God grant extra grace for those who greet this article only as fuel for self-condemnation. Would to God that as you have overcome in more critical areas, like loving God and people, you could also find strength to walk in victory here.