God made us to move, and to do so vigorously. And he wired our brains to reward and reinforce it with chemicals called “endorphins.” Exercise makes happier humans.
Regular human movement has been assumed throughout history, but the innovations and seeming progress of modern life have made a sedentary lifestyle more normal than ever before. We’ve never needed to state the obvious about exercise as much as we do today.
Countless unbelievers experience and consciously enjoy the gift of exercise, but they do not adore Jesus or have the Holy Spirit. Should there be anything distinct about how a Christian exercises? How do we experience God’s natural gift of exercise in such a way that we benefit spiritually?
Receive Exercise with Thanksgiving
Paul’s charge in 1 Timothy 4:4–5 bursts with implications for authentically Christian living in God’s wonderfully physical world. Here marital intercourse and everyday meals are in explicit view, but exercise is manifestly relevant.
Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4–5)
Receiving exercise, and its joys, with thanksgiving begins with recognizing it as a divine gift and receiving it with gratitude. And gratitude is directed toward a Giver.
It is all too easy for those of us who are still relatively intact physically, and enjoy some measure of good health, to fail to marvel that we can walk for half an hour, or even run several miles. In this fallen and cursed creation, many great saints are terminally kept from the pleasures of God in exercise. Disabilities abound in this age.
But God’s grace is sufficient for our thorns (2 Corinthians 12:9), and he has his alternate ways of communicating natural pleasures to inhibited people. One dear brother I know more than makes up for every mile he doesn’t run with a monstrous belly laugh, the kind of laugh only known by those who have suffered greatly.
Step one in making our exercise holy is receiving it as the gift it is, not taking bodily movement and physical expenditures for granted, but explicitly thanking God. We say, “Father, thank you that my legs and lungs work like they do. Thank you for arms that swing and lift. Thank you for balance, and that I don’t have an ailment or other condition that confines me to bed.”
In the groaning world in which we live (Romans 8:22), it is a remarkable thing to have a body that works enough for meaningful exercise. None of us thank God nearly enough for such mercy.
Make Exercise Holy
Receiving the ability to exercise thankfully is a vital starting point, but there’s more to say than just that. “It is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:5). What does it mean to make bodily activity, and its endorphin rewards, “holy by the word of God and prayer”?
“The word of God” is what God has said, what he has breathed out in the Scriptures about our physical bodies. Our exercise and exertions will not be holy if we think about our bodies in ways that are not true, in subtle and overt lies not in accord with what God has revealed (and our society is teeming with them today).
“Prayer,” then, is our response back to God in light of what he has said.
What God Says About Our Bodies
First Corinthians 6 may be the first place to turn. Verse 12 challenges us to flee enslaving habits (“I will not be dominated by anything,” 1 Corinthians 6:12), while verses 19–20 make this powerful declaration about our bodies:
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. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)
1. Your body belongs to God.
Contrary to the siren voices sounding at every turn today, your body is not your own, but belongs to God — and doubly so. He both created you and then bought you back at the infinite cost of his own Son. So God emphatically means for us to honor him by making use of the bodies he had given us (to the degree of our capabilities), and to not leave them unnecessarily inactive.
2. God commends bodily exertion.
God plainly commends the exertion of our bodies through the effort of work (Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:10), even hard work (2 Timothy 2:6) — that we not be idle, but “busy at work” (2 Thessalonians 3:11). Laziness is sin, and a physical and spiritual danger (Proverbs 21:25). And in particular, 1 Timothy 4:8 affirms the value of bodily training.
3. Spiritual health is ultimate; physical health is not.
Yet the charge to bodily exertion is always chastened for the Christian. In appropriating what God has said about our bodies, and the training of them, it is essential that we observe the balancing word of 1 Timothy 4:8: “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 recognition that “bodily training is of some value” cuts both ways. Those who are voluntarily sedentary need to hear that God does indeed value the exertion of our bodies, and those who are prone to make exercise an idol need to hear it is only of some value, relativized by the pursuit of godliness which “is of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8).
How to Pray for Our Exercise
Finally, then, according to 1 Timothy 4:4–5, it is not enough only to thank God for bodily exercise and view it in light of what he says. Making it holy also involves prayer — asking God for help. But what do we ask? Here’s a few suggestions to get you started as you consider your own:
- Father, please give me the will to overcome laziness tomorrow morning, lace up my shoes, and take the first step — and then work such discipline throughout my life in the fight against sin.
- Father, give me the drive to push my body beyond what is merely comfortable, to “discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:27), and work in me, by your Spirit, so that physical training serves the ripening of the spiritual fruit of self-control (Galatians 5:23).
- Father, loosen my grip on my own performance and results and personal goals. May my exercise not ultimately be about me, but about my increased enjoyment of Jesus.
- Father, guard me from valuing bodily training more than godliness. Rather, make these efforts holy, through my acting in faith, so that this exercise serves my holiness, instead of competing with it.
- Father, grant that I would know you and enjoy you more through pushing my body in this way. Let me feel your pleasure through this natural gift so that I am spiritually satisfied enough to sacrifice my own preferences and personal routines to meet the needs of others.
As Christians, our final aim in bodily exertion is not weight-loss or maximal long-term health — and definitely not mere physical appearance. Rather, we aim at greater joy in God, and greater love for neighbor. What makes exercise holy, and loving, is the prayer that our expenditures of energy will lead to our increased readiness to expend ourselves in sacrifice for others.