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.
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.
We have been guilty in the church of dividing the sacred and the secular. 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. 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.”
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!
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. 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.