A few evenings ago, I stood in the kitchen peeling a yam. Eileen and I were making dinner, using what we had available.  The previous Saturday, I had taken a friend to a food distribution event sponsored by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Foodbank, where he had received a generous amount of free food including frozen chicken, potatoes, apples and yams.  “I won’t use the yams,” he said, “Do you want them?”

So I stood in our kitchen, peeling a yam for Eileen to roast with some other vegetables on a night when I frankly would have preferred to be at D’s, our favorite local bar and hot dog restaurant.  Eileen and I had just had a conversation about our finances in which I tried to romanticize making do with less. “God is faithful to provide for all we need,” I’d said. As I peeled the yam in the kitchen I realized: This is how God’s providing. It’s not what I wanted or what I’m asking for, but it’s feeding us tonight. That yam was a gift of grace.  But the more I thought about it, the more my thoughts landed on the but it’s not what I wanted part of the sentence, rather than on God’s providing. I felt like one of the Israelites in the wilderness, complaining, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.  But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4-6 NIV).

Manna was not what the Israelites wanted. And in their grumblings, they blamed God for not meeting their desires. But the problem wasn’t on God’s end. The problem was that they measured the goodness of God’s provision by Egypt’s standards. Today I fear that in an affluent society like America, we don’t even recognize how often we measure God’s goodness by Egypt’s standards. Maybe manna is all we need, but we’re not going to be content with it if our minds are focused on the things the empire tells us we need. To learn to receive God’s provision with gratitude, many of our worldly appetites have to first be put to death.  Back in Egypt we may have lived the high life.  But God has called us out of Egypt.

As Jan at A Church for Starving Artists wrote recently, there is a cost to following the call God has placed on our lives.  Eileen and I are feeling part of the cost of God’s call right now.  We’re not at home in Colorado, not near family, not making much money, not taking much time to rest, and not always happy. But along with the cost also comes a certain joy.  It’s the joy of looking at a yam and realizing that God really is providing for our every need. It’s the joy of seeing the beauty of creation in the daffodils blooming in our yard right now, a sight we’d see less if we went out every time we wanted to.  It’s the joy of having several friends cheer my soul by visiting me at my cafe on a day where our espresso machine was in need of repair and where I’d started my shift by dealing with a leaky milk dispenser. It’s not always what I would have chosen, but there is room for joy in this life.

And I’m finding that the joy increases when I measure the cost by God’s standards rather than Egypt’s. Egypt may tell us our manna is flavorless and that giving up the delicacies of Egypt was a high cost to pay for following this call. But the Lord can gives us eyes to see manna as the “grain of heaven” and “bread of angels” (Psalm 78:24-25), even to seek the Manna which is the “bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).  Egypt may tell us we need a second car, a new computer, a real vacation, etc., but these are small costs compared to the life of the One who “had no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:21). Egypt may say that the Lord’s provision of yams is laughable, but by the Lord’s standards it was confirmation that he is faithful to provide abundantly more than our daily bread (Matthew 6:11). May the Lord continue to multiply our joy by exposing Egypt’s lies and leading us toward the Promised Land of his goodness and truth.

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.