There is a gaping hole in 2019’s fitness industry that has a huge negative effect on Christians and that is we do not have a biblically driven and theologically sound understanding of fitness.
Allow me to try and paint a picture of America’s current health and fitness situation. The U.S. Health and Human Services published their last report on physical activity and nutrition in early 2017, and the following statistics are the highlights of that report. Less than 5 % of American adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity per day. Only 35 – 44% of adults 75 years or older are physically active, and 28-34% of adults ages 65-74 are physically active. On average, children are currently spending about 7 and a half hours a day in front of a screen. Only one in five American homes has a fitness or recreation center within a half-mile. 28 percent of Americans are considered physically inactive. Food available for consumption increased in all major food categories from 1970 to 2008. Average daily calories per person in the marketplace increased approximately 600 calories. More than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in food deserts – areas that are more than a mile away from a supermarket. US per capita consumption of total fat increased from approximately 57 pounds in 1980 to 78 pounds in 2009 with the highest consumption being 85 pounds in 2005. I will spare you the statistics published on obesity, but needless to say they are… depressing. (President’s Council on Sports, fitness, and nutrition; U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services; January 2017; accessed online)
Some Christians may hear the above statistics and respond with something like, “Yes, well because Christians know to steward our bodies we should expect those statistics to be different for Christians. Right? Right?” That is absolutely not the case! In 2016 Pew Religion Forum published statistics on Christianity and how it affects our typical everyday lives. Here were the findings in regards to fitness and diet, “When it comes to diet and exercise, highly religious Americans are no less likely to have overeaten in the past week, and they are no more likely to say they exercise regularly. (Pew Forum, religion in everyday life, 2016)” That same survey found something interesting about American Christians, “Nevertheless, the survey data suggest that Christians are more likely to live healthy lives, work on behalf of the poor and behave in environmentally conscious ways if they consider these things essential to what it means to be a Christian.” So, what seems to be the problem in regards to health and fitness? Well, I would argue that there just aren’t enough Christians who have a good understanding of why it’s important to live a healthy life just as there aren’t enough Christians who see it important to work on behalf of the poor and to work to care for our environment. All of these issues have to do with stewardship. Health has to do with stewarding one’s body; working on behalf of the poor has to do with stewarding God’s money; and caring for the environment has to do with stewarding God’s creation. The conversation about the poor and the environment is important, but not the subject of this argument, so for now the focus is on what the Bible actually says about health, fitness, and the human body.
The Bible teaches that a huge aspect of our spiritual worship is stewarding our bodies even if the research shows that Christians are not currently doing so. If this were not the case then why would the apostle Paul leave his conversation about the mystery of the Gospel spreading to the Gentiles only to follow it up immediately with, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God to present your BODIES as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The emphasis is obvious and heavy here that for a Christian their body is not their own! This makes sense in view of the doctrine of stewardship. Stewardship is similar to modern management. An owner owns a bar, but employs a manager to run the bar and makes money on behalf of the owner; if all goes well the relationship thrives! The bar is not the manager’s, and therefore, he can’t just do whatever he wants with it, because the owner has asked him to manage it for a purpose, and in this case the purpose is to turn a profit. When it comes to our bodies our God has given them to us and they are not our own, but they have been given to us for a purpose. What is the purpose? In order that we would worship Him-glorify Him-in and with our bodies! This is why we must not (Romans 12:2) “Be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” So, what is “good and acceptable and perfect” for our bodies?
When considering the stewardship of our bodies there are at least three essential truths we need to grasp: 1. Our bodies are good; 2. We learn perseverance in our bodies; 3. Our bodies are not ultimate. So, first of all “our bodies are good……” This is very different from how MANY Americans talk about their bodies. I have heard many well-meaning and respected pastors preach things like “These bodies are no good and one day God will give us a new body that’s good since right now that is not the case!” There is an element of biblical truth in a statement like this, but mostly this statement is Platonic rather than biblical. In Greek philosophy, the soul was imprisoned in the body, but would eventually break free from the bondage of the body, and so it ultimately viewed the body as a prison. John Piper once pointed out, “That is profoundly different than the way that God designed us and the Bible describes us. The body is not a mere prison of a soul which wants to get free. The body is the means by which the spirit, the soul, and the heart express themselves through visible activity in the material world. And God wants to be made glorious in our bodies. Paul longs in Philippians 1:19-20, “O that I might magnify Christ in my body, whether by life or by death.” So the body is a God-given instrument for magnifying Christ (John Piper, “What does the Bible say about the eternal state of our bodies?, 2007).” The body is therefore not a dark prison cell, but is rather a light vessel to be used by God for His purposes. It is actually wrong to say God will give us a new body. Many pastors have preached this view, however, it isn’t so! We are told in Philippians 3:21 that we await a Savior, “The Lord Jesus Christ who will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body.” Even 2 Corinthians 5 does not point to a reality in which we will receive a new body, but one in which we will receive a redeemed existence. Piper points out that if we lose our bodies in eternity then we lose the instrument God has given to us for worshipping Him. We will not lose our bodies, but the Bible tells us we will be redeemed in our bodies. Piper concludes, “It (the body) dies, goes into the grave, it decomposes; but when Christ returns he raises the body. He gives us a body like his resurrected body. He reunites our personality to the body. He makes it whole and complete, and he wipes away every disease, depression and discouragement. And we enter a new heaven and new earth with this body. Therefore it becomes an instrument of praise forever.” If Christians are ever going to capture the importance of health and fitness as we steward our bodies then we must begin with the understanding that our bodies are not temporary prisons that will one day go into the ground and become a part of the nitrogen cycle, but actually our bodies are instruments given to us by God that are temporarily broken, but will one day be fully redeemed, glorified, and resurrected and we will continue to worship God forever in the instruments that He has redeemed… our heavenly bodies.
Not only are our bodies good, but we also learn perseverance as Christians in our bodies. To highlight the importance of this point let’s consider some of the most helpful passages reinforcing this understanding. 1 Corinthians 1:19-20, “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.” I understand the immediate context of this verse is dealing with sexual immorality, so I would never want to apply it in ways the text doesn’t allow (as some do), however, this text clearly tells us that when we are born again we also learn something about our bodies, namely, that our bodies are “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.” If we have been “Crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who lives but Christ in me,” then this is the necessary conclusion: that we no longer belong to ourselves as we once so foolishly believed. This is actually the ultimate reason why you can’t eat what your flesh always desires. You can’t go where your body naturally wanders off to-Why? Because “you are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” So glorify God in your body. How do you do this? You care about your diet, you care about your fitness, and you use your body in whatever way possible to honor God. Put simply, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do all to the glory of God (paraphrase Colossians 3:17).”
Later in 1 Corinthians we are told “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-25).” At times I’ve heard preachers belittle athletics and fitness, but the Holy Spirit does not do that through the Apostle Paul in this passage, but instead we are given a biblical perspective on the importance of stewarding our bodies with discipline and self-control. Paul says essentially, “Look at how disciplined and exercised those athletes are and you Christians can learn a lot from them!” They train their bodies in order to receive a wreath that is going to be dry and burnt up someday, but we train our bodies knowing that we will receive an eternal reward! When Floyd Mayweather boxes for his own glory he is simply “beating the air,” but when a Christian disciplines their body and keeps it under control they do so to persevere in their faith! This maximizes the need to have fitness, discipline, and self-control in every way we can in our bodies empowered by the Holy Spirit. As Christians in the already/not yet tension we live in where we are already saved, but not yet with Christ in heaven, we thus must “make every effort,” empowered by God the Holy Spirit and applied to our minds, our spirits, and our bodies, so that we are people who use our whole beings in order to seek and do the whole will of God. Perseverance entails not only persevering in your Bible study (intellect), and in your prayers (spirit), but also in your body.
Now, since many readers will already be sensing a need for Christian ministry in the health and fitness realm allow me to let my last point drive home this need even more… Our bodies are not ultimate! I have been lifting weights in different capacities (sports, powerlifting, and bodybuilding) for almost 15 years and so I can assure a reader that outside of a Christian worldview the current climate in fitness denies the biblical truth that our bodies are not ultimate! We have a terrible tendency as Christians to believe our bodies don’t matter enough, and therefore, we don’t steward them well, however, outside the Christian community the predominant fitness trend is that our bodies matter too much. If you don’t believe me, just join your local LA Fitness or Lifetime Fitness and remain a member for a month to observe the trend. Just consider that “Instagram fitness model” is an actual occupation in 2019 America and people actually make a decent living doing it. Just attend the Arnold Classic in Columbus, Ohio in 2019 and you will not hear people singing worship songs to their bodies, but in every aspect of their life they are focused ultimately on their bodies for whatever reason. It’s not my job to diagnose the reasons why people do this and I’d argue it’s probably different for each person in this community, however, one thing is for sure that the overall fitness community at-large in 2019 America does not have a biblical approach to fitness, and therefore, there is a gaping hole in the fitness industry for a business or non-profit to exist that executes the ideas that our bodies are good, we learn perseverance in our bodies, and also that our bodies are not ultimate.
My favorite verse to highlight a biblical view of fitness is found in 1 Timothy 4:7-10, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 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. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” Why do cross fit gyms cost $120? Why do many people in the fitness industry obsess over their diets? Why is the culture rapidly and increasingly narcissistic? Because, the hole in the fitness industry is the Gospel and the Gospel is what should shape our view of health and fitness. The biblical view is that bodily training is good and of some value, but being godly is of value in every single way. We need to persevere in our bodies in our current predicament of being already saved, but not yet glorified by Christ, however, there will come a day when that need will be no longer, and all people who waste their time glorifying their bodies rather than Christ will ultimately regret it. It’s interesting how right after saying this the very next thing Paul writes is “For to this end we toil and strive…” Just as a weightlifter toils and strives towards the goal of winning the event, a follower of Christ should toil and strive towards the goal-and Jesus Christ is the goal-the chief end of man is to “Love God and glorify Him forever.” Our bodies are not ultimate; the current fitness industry is telling you and I a very different story; so we need Christians with good biblical theology of fitness to fill the void.