By David Timms
A month ago we celebrated Christmas. A month before that, Thanksgiving. A month before that, Halloween. It’s been candy, ham, turkey, and pie for nearly three months! We’ve attended family gatherings, church potlucks, and company parties in constant succession. And now we’re carrying a few extra (and unwanted) pounds. We didn’t ask for them or look for them. They seemed to just sneak up on us and attached themselves to us.
Perhaps those five pounds arrived a year or more ago and before we knew it—far too quickly and easily—it grew to 15 and then 50. And we’ve started noticing weight-loss commercials.
Most people don’t say much (if anything) to us. After all, many of them face the same dilemma as they look in the mirror each day. If none of us say anything, nobody’s feelings get hurt. But the spiral of silence doesn’t help.
It’s Gotta Change
At some point, we decide that we’ve had enough. There’s nothing enjoyable about not fitting into our clothes. Finding ourselves breathless when we go to the park with the kids—if we go to the park with the kids—may distress us. Running for the bus is out of the question; so is the beach or the pool. Living with heightened self-consciousness is exhausting. So with determination we resolve to get back in shape. We read up on diets—the DASH diet, TLC Diet, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and dozens of others—and decide it’s time. Things have got to change.
As we read about good and balanced nutrition—no, the major food groups do not include chocolate, soda, French fries, and donuts—we also find that exercise forms a core part of the process. If we want to lose weight long-term, we must eat less, eat better, and exercise more. Perhaps we’ll subscribe to Runner’s World and read inspiring articles about folks who started running and lost 60 pounds in a year. Sounds great!
More than Weight Loss
Physical exercise is not simply about weight loss, better skin, or improved health. When it comes to our bodies, Rick Warren is quoted as saying, “God created it. Jesus died for it. The Holy Spirit lives in it. I’d better take care of it.”
Gnosticism, an early heresy in the second century, taught that the physical world is evil and the spiritual world is good. Adherents wanted to separate the two worlds completely. But our physicality and our spirituality are closely linked.
Jesus quoted from Genesis when he reminded his hearers that in marriage “the two become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5). A physical marriage forms a spiritual union. The apostle Paul later declared to the Corinthians that physical immorality “is a sin against our own bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:18). The physical and the spiritual are closely intertwined.
This makes physical exercise more than just a fitness fad. Our physical state can, and often does, deeply impact our spiritual journey.
The apostle Paul informed his young protégé, Timothy, “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things” (1 Timothy 4:8). Of course, the spiritual value of physical training—exercise—depends entirely on our attitude toward it.
Those who pound the pavement as runners may discover some helpful spiritual parallels.
First, it takes time to build fitness. Nobody prepares for a race in just a few days. It requires steady effort over a period of time. Preparing for a six-mile race requires many miles on the streets and paths in the weeks and months before. In the same way, spiritual fitness requires time. No shortcuts. No epiphanies or visions. No voices from Heaven or instant spiritual super-strength. Prayer muscles take time to develop.
Second, fitness requires consistency. Runners cannot hope to run well (or compete) if they roll out of bed for a short jog once a week. Four days off running inevitably means some small decline in fitness. Consistency is crucial. Similarly, intimacy with God cannot be well-nurtured by occasional efforts alone.
Third, running teaches us that what works for others may not work for me. We’re all different. Shoe companies manufacture a mind-boggling array of running footwear. Each model of shoe takes into account the particularities of the runner—weight, running surfaces, mileage each week, foot width, foot strike patterns, and more. In the same way, one size does not fit all in our spiritual lives. Some folks will meet Christ more in the faces of the suffering than a glorious sunset. Some will find him in deep study of the Word while others discover that music and the arts transport them beyond themselves and into his presence.
In some ways, physical exercise can provide a mirror for our spiritual lives. But it can also serve as a pathway to spiritual growth.
A Spiritual Discipline
Physical exercise, whatever we may choose—for example, walking, running, swimming, or biking—can teach us valuable lessons about our spiritual life. But they only become spiritual disciplines when we use them to create a space for God. That’s the purpose for all spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are actions we take to increase our attentiveness to God.
We don’t pray, fast, or study Scripture to catch the eye of God. He is never under obligation to our actions. Rather, we find the spiritual disciplines far more satisfying when we see them simply as opportunities to grow with God. Physical exercise can certainly function this way. Here are some specific ideas:
• If you walk, ride, or run with earbuds, tune in to Christian music or download some sermons, Christian podcasts, or an audio Bible to listen to while you’re out and about. If you like noise then control the noise and step out the door with the desire to hear God speak through song, speech, or Scripture.
• If you exercise without the ubiquitous buds, listen and pray. Perhaps a lap of listening to God, followed by a lap of talking to him would produce a powerful time of prayer for you. If you’re not doing laps of some kind, you might use street-lamps as prayer markers.
• Some of us may choose to exercise with a friend. What a great time to have some spiritual conversations. You don’t need to resolve the theological conundrums of the ages. Just talk about faith and life and family. Perhaps use the time to practice Scripture memorization together, and talk about the text a little. This would make a wonderful spiritual discipline.
Exercise creates space in your life, and you can be sure that Christ will meet you there—probably not with flashes of glory the first time out, but over time. He walks, runs, swims, and bikes with us. Will we see him there on the trail, in the park, at the beach, in the water, and around the neighborhood?
Of course, all of this assumes that you have embraced outdoor exercise, not a workout at the gym. It’s somewhat more difficult to engage in spiritual disciplines when you’re watching yourself in a mirror or listening to the breathing and heaving of people beside you!
What next steps will you take?
Physical exercise may help you feel better, look better, lose weight, and drop your cholesterol count. That’s all good. But with some small adjustments it might also grow into a rich spiritual classroom—teaching a lot about the spiritual life—and a meaningful spiritual discipline.
Researchers constantly pump out statistics affirming that the average lifespan for those who exercise exceeds the average lifespan of those who remain sedentary. But exercise is not about just living longer. As Christ-followers exercise can be about living better. Let’s nourish the body and the soul at the same time.
David Timms (@growingdeeper) teaches at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
1. A pound of muscle burns up to 50 calories a day; a pound of fat burns only two.
2. Starting around age 25, most people’s metabolism declines between 5 percent and 10 percent per decade, but those who are very physically active have only a 0.3 percent metabolic decline per decade.
3. Dehydration slows metabolism. Drinking cold water increases it more than room temperature water because your body expends energy to warm it up.
4. The capsaicin in chili peppers increases metabolism.
5. When you’re sleep deprived, your body produces more ghrelin—the hormone that tells you to eat—and less leptin—the hormone that tells you to stop eating.
6. Women who sleep fewer than 5 hours each night are 30 percent more likely to gain weight.