Exercising the Body (For the Sake of the Soul)
Pastor John, in your book Brothers We Are Not Professionals, you have a chapter on exercise. What have you learned as you have thought through why exercise matters?
For starters, 1 Timothy 4:8 shows that bodily training is of some value. Now, if you have to choose between bodily and spiritual training, choose spiritual training, because it is of value in every way. But Paul does say bodily fitness has value. I know in Paul’s mind there is some good in this. He says in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything,” which means Christians should never be in bondage to food and drink.
Piper: "I govern my eating, sleeping, and exercise to maximize my life and soul for the kingdom.”
So we should ask, “What is the guideline?” I’m with Jonathan Edwards in resolving that we eat and drink in a way that doesn’t deny the sheer pleasure that God intends us to have, but we also shouldn’t jeopardize our own faith or another’s faith by undercutting our ability to serve him.
Years ago, I remember seeing for the first time that 1 Corinthians 6:13 says, “The body is . . . for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” I always heard “The body is for the Lord.” My mother taught me not to smoke because your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and you don’t treat your body that way. That argument worked for me as a kid, but I never noticed that “the Lord is for the body,” which means God is very pro-body. He is not a Platonist. He created the body, and he is going to raise the body from the dead. He wants us, therefore, to take care of the body.
The Body in Sanctification
When I was in Germany, between 25 and 28 years old, I realized for the first time that when I lack sleep I get irritable and impatient, and with enough sleep, I am less irritable and more patient. This was theologically problematic for me, because the Bible says that patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, not a fruit of sleep.
It’s crystal clear that my sanctification level rises and falls with eight hours of sleep versus five hours of sleep. How can that be biblical? Well, the Holy Spirit, who knows that we are soul and body, not only gives us supernatural power to be patient when we haven’t gotten enough sleep, but also gives us the humility to stop playing God and go to bed so we can get enough sleep.
Piper: "I know depression hurts my ministry, my marriage, and my parenting. So for the sake of kingdom purposes, I am off to the gym."
I also know that I am prone to depression and discouragement, and I have discovered that if I go to the gym three times a week and hammer my body, I simply don’t get depressed as often. Now, I am sure there are physiological reasons for that. But whatever those are, I know that they work. I know depression hurts my ministry, my marriage, and my parenting. So for the sake of kingdom purposes, I am off to the gym.
The need for exercise may be controversial, but eating is not — everybody has to eat and sleep to live. You can live without exercise, but you can’t live without eating and sleeping. So the question becomes, how do I govern my eating and sleeping to maximize my life and soul for the kingdom? Everybody will discover the connections as they think about it.