I recently came across an article from a popular evangelical website attempting to defend exercise as a faithful activity for the people of God. The article loosely follows the argument Paul uses in 1 Timothy 4:8:
“for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
Oftentimes, in evangelical circles, when teaching this passage the emphasis is to highlight and reiterate Paul’s dismissive tone toward bodily training. While the article I’m referring to does not take this stance, I’m not sure the author completely grasps the real practical gain of bodily discipline in holiness.
Paul’s use of dismissive language about exercising the body is only for the sake of comparing bodily training with the exceeding value of training in godliness. The positive effects on godliness are in the argument – good for now and forever, while exercise is only for now.
While it must be acknowledged that bodily training is for the benefit of the physical nature, which lasts only for a brief moment in eternal history, most professing Christians are falling off the complete other side of the horse.
For every Christ-follower who is too keen on their muscles and gym life, there are dozens more with a bulging gut, heart issues, and decreasing overall health from the neglect of the physical form. So I want to be utterly practical when I outline all the benefits of exercise and watching physical health for one’s discipline in godliness which Paul in the text seeks to commend.
The Body is a Temple
First, the Christian’s body according to the New Testament is as holy to God as the Temple of Solomon. The neglect of Christians for their physical form is telling of how they feel about the meeting place of God and man in the New Covenant. This doesn’t mean every Christian needs a gym membership to “keep the Temple looking good.” It does mean that it maintaining physical fitness and health should be a top priority. The Christian’s body is, after all, not just a temple, but not theirs. The Christian’s body, like everything else in the Christian’s life, does not belong to them. It is merely a stewardship to oversee faithfully every other area of their life like money, time, and intellect.
One day every Christian will have to answer for “what they did in the body.”
An Unwell Body Hinders Godliness
I do mean the statement above, how often was Paul and Church History’s missionaries hindered from preaching, teaching, travel, and their godly duties due to sickness and physical infirmity? Studies show that exercise along with a healthy diet and sufficient sleep are among the key components to avoiding serious illness.
Timothy was told by Paul to “add a little wine” (1 Tim 5:23) to his diet to avoid frequent stomach illnesses. Chrysostom was noted for interpreting that text about Timothy drinking wine to mean that Timothy was prone to fast often and Paul’s recommendation was to address too much poor health from spiritual disciplines on his health.Unwell bodies, if avoidable, do not help us become and stay holy. They impair our ability to think clearly – to “train” in godliness due to the weakness of the frame. This is not a rebuke of illness itself, as some have deficits that make physical activity hard or impossible. We have plenty of examples in Scripture of how to glorify God in the midst of physical difficulties. But where one may become and stay healthy and strong – one must.
A Well Body Works for God
Given the clear connections between caring for your body with a good diet, sleep, and exercise (things we could categorize as disciplines of the body), the healthier the body the more work can be done for Jesus. We can also give more to our loved ones who depend on us for financial welfare, and our community can reserve resources (EMS, cardiologists, etc.) for those whose need for them is more critical.
Furthermore, exercise activity, according to some studies, has an antidepressant-like effect on our brain chemistry, allowing us to be more emotionally resilient to disappointment and maintaining our mood through bouts of seasonal and clinical depression.
How many saints were shackled by their low mood? Perhaps Spurgeon, Cowper, Brainard, and many other souls could have worked more and harder had the shackles of depression been less severe. If such a fate can be mitigated by exercise, diet, and sleep, then why refuse God’s medicine for the soul?
Exercise is a Help to Godliness
Exercise is a function and help to godliness, not an obstruction to it. It is a tacit acknowledgment that the body in the new covenant is where we meet God and Christ. It is the lips that call on the name of the Lord and are saved. The body is the ultimate stewardship we will hand back to Christ on the last day, and our treatment of the body says something of our value of the place we call upon the Lord (our frame) and trust that our bodies will one day be beyond the envy of Michelangelo’s David when they are transformed into bodies “like his” [Christ’s].
Therefore Christian, dare not to steward only your soul as though it had nothing to do with a physical world, where you live in God – moving and having your being. You are like Christ in the sense that your spiritual nature is otherworldly enough to one day go through walls, but you will still – even eons into eternity – be able to eat fish with the disciples.
Therefore, live in the body in such a way that when you receive the glorious body to come, you have no regrets about things as trivial as food, exercise, and sleep and their ability to help you do more for the kingdom now.