This week I officially began training for the Pittsburgh Half-Marathon. Last year I ran the full marathon, and this year I’m running the half with my wife Eileen, our plan being that I’ll finish ahead of her so that I can cheer her on as she finishes. With twelve weeks left until the race, training season is upon us, meaning several additional hours of exercise per week. That means several more hours per week at the gym. And even though we go to a gym that calls itself the “judgment-free zone,” the truth is that fitness clubs are not usually places where we can honestly say “we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor 5:16 NIV). For many, going to the gym too quickly becomes a temptation to regard both others and ourselves form a worldly point of view. Working out can easily become an exercise in our culture’s obsessive search for the perfect body.
Nine years ago, I weighed 70 pounds more than I do now. I had always been chunky as a kid and remember frequently being teased on the playground for being fat. By the time I reached my sophomore year of college, a variety of factors left me weighing about 225 pounds. I was unhealthy physically, spiritually, and emotionally, and didn’t want to make the changes necessary to become healthy. But the summer of 2003 found me on a mission trip to Thailand, where for the first time in my life I had no choice but to regularly eat fresh vegetables. Picky eaters starve on mission trips. So, no more picky eating. That later proved to be revolutionary for my health.
The second revolutionary change in my health came near the end of our stay: Two of my English students invited me to join them for Chiang Mai University’s annual walk up Doi Suthep, a nearby mountain, to the huge Buddhist temple at the top. The walk lasts for 11 kilometers, climbing about 1300 meters, or 4,200 feet. Being from Colorado, I was used to hiking, so I agreed to walk with my students. There was just one problem: some students like to run up the mountain. Partway up the mountain, my student Aon turned to me and asked me if I wanted to run. I tried to say no, but he insisted, asking me just to try it. Finally I gave in, and we began jogging. I was dripping sweat, out of breath, jogging up this mountain in Thailand with my student who kept asking if we could go faster, and all I could think was “I can’t wait until this is over.” I wanted to stop, but Aon told me I had to run at least one full kilometer. So, we kept going. And with Aon as my coach, I became a runner.
When I came back to the states that fall, I began running regularly. It wasn’t much – just a slow mile a couple of mornings a week on a treadmill at my apartment complex. I could barely do that at first, but soon it was two miles, with a walking break. Then two miles without a walking break. And soon I became a much healthier person. And I don’t just mean physically. My spiritual and emotional health both improved as well. I learned that our physical bodies are intimately connected to our mental and spiritual well-being. Several months later, I had lost sixty pounds and was a much happier person.
My new life – and that’s seriously what it felt like – was great. Except that now I was haunted by a new obsession. People made such a big deal about the weight that I lost that I became paranoid about gaining it back. Like Peter Sagal described a year ago in the article “A Thin Line“, the memories of being overweight and the fear of gaining the weight back nagged at me. A year later when Eileen and I got engaged, I worked out obsessively and ate sparingly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was close to the disordered sort of eating described in this month’s Runner’s World article, “Running on Empty.” I had swung from one extreme to another, and failed to realize that both extremes were symptoms of my sin.
In all of this search for the perfect body, I never stopped then to ask, “How does God define the perfect body?” Years later, I think I have better sense of how to answer that question. And it has little to do with our culture’s definition of a perfect body.
Consider these scriptures (all quoted from the NASB): “I will give thanks to You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Our bodies are already beautiful because they are God’s magnificent creations. “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. Now God has not only raise the Lord, but will also raise us up through his power” (1 Cor. 6:13-14). Our bodies are for God’s glory, and God’s glory will be revealed in our bodies ultimately at the day of resurrection. In the meantime, we should seek to use our bodies “for the Lord”. “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (James 3:2b). Taming the tongue is more indicative of an inner degree of self-discipline that can tame the rest of the body’s appetites, as well. “. . . discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness, for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Self-discipline and exercise may overlap, but training for godliness is more profitable because its effects ripple out into all of our existence. Whatever “improvements” we make on our bodies pale in comparison to resurrection glory that our bodies will have one day when we are raised with Christ.
From God’s perspective, the perfect body is the body that is submitted to his will. Our bodies are gifts given to us by God, which we can then use either for God’s purposes or for other purposes. To be sanctified in body, as well as soul and spirit (1Thess. 5:23), is to learn how to steward our own bodies wisely and to care for the bodies of others, so that our physical bodies can be used to glorify God. That may lead to health. But more importantly it should lead to holiness. When considered in this light, I think exercise can be a spiritual discipline, but I say this because it cultivates deeper qualities of self-discipline and perseverance, qualities which are within the “purpose of godliness.” And I pray for the grace to seek such discipline for the purpose of godliness the next time I go to the gym.