Remember the Body

The Pastor and His Exercise

Overeating and laziness can be sensitive topics. For that reason, they are not raised often in the church. As far as I can tell, preachers do not preach on these vices as much as other sins. Yet ministers need to be conscious of dealing with these sins, not only in their preaching ministry, but also in their personal lives.

One way to get at these issues is to observe their relevance to the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). This commandment is not to be limited strictly to murder but also includes the need to lawfully preserve life, both our own and the lives of others. The faithful preservation of our own life includes, in some sense, and among other things, aiming to eat well (if possible), refraining from gluttony and drunkenness (Deuteronomy 21:20), and engaging in appropriate bodily exercise.

Good Gift of Exercise

The apostle Paul acknowledges, as we all should, that “bodily training is of some value” (1 Timothy 4:8). Naturally, like other divine gifts, exercise can be a form of idolatry, especially in our day, to the point that some people would rather Paul have said, “Bodily training is of the most value.” But clearly the apostle was not unaware that bodily training has certain advantages to our overall health and well-being. And countless modern studies have confirmed the positive effects that exercise can have on alleviating anxiety, stress, and depression.

Physical exertion is an important part of normal human life. Yet it is becoming rare to see kids playing together in neighborhoods, engaging in games of their own devising. Today our playdates typically occur in highly controlled environments. Often the kids are not allowed to climb trees, wrestle, or do anything with any moderate risk involved. Gone are the days of seeing our children walk around with multiple scrapes and cuts on their hands and knees due to imaginative exercise.

And the apparent lack of activity among kids, along with technological innovations and the digital revolution, seems to create lifelong patterns as they enter adulthood. Many children are addicted to video games and lack adequate exercise; they turn into zombies and develop intense emotional reactions to the wrong things. But of those children in that position, how many of them who go to church have a minister who could, in good conscience, tell them they need to exercise more?

Respectable Sin

Based on observation at various ministerial conventions and conferences, some ministers may be overweight because they do not eat healthily or exercise much. There are also some ministers who do not set a good example. Of all the people in the church who should be most conscious about exercise and healthy eating, should it not be ministers of the gospel? God calls pastors to be examples in our conduct — that is, in our overall lifestyle (1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Peter 5:1–3).

It amazes me that some ministers rail so strongly against the evils of alcohol from the pulpit, but they are overweight themselves due to what may well be a combination of physical laziness and immoderate use of food and drink (soda/pop). Imagine the minister being the type of person that Solomon warns us not to be among: “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Proverbs 23:20–21).

We know there are some people who have weight issues that are not simply a result of laziness and gluttony. Being large is not necessarily a sin. The human body is complex, and there may be other health factors at work that limit a person’s ability to exercise. We should be careful not to judge too quickly, especially since poor eating can actually be the result, in many instances, of socioeconomic factors.

Nonetheless, I’m persuaded that overeating, as the fruit of a generally indulgent lifestyle, has become a tragically acceptable sin among many Christians in North America. I’m also equally persuaded that a lot of pastors should jump on a bike, go for a run, walk, or build some modest muscle, and they’d likely get more work done. A lack of discipline in areas such as food, exercise, and drink typically reflects a lack of discipline in other areas of the Christian life.

Rules of the Good Life

As a minister, there are many reasons to eat well and exercise frequently. You may extend the duration of fruitful ministry, you will find yourself more energized for the vocational labor God has called you to, and you will set a good example to your flock. But if you’re lazy, and make a habit of eating too much bad food, then you’re effectively telling God’s people that they can do those things.

Often, I’ve found that exercise can be a unique way to enjoy God. We can enjoy his creation by walking, running, or biking. We can use this time to pray or meditate upon his goodness to us. Exercise is a friend of the Christian, and one that, unless prohibited by health reasons, should be part of the ordinary Christian life. Remember, the apostle Paul instructs Timothy to take an intentional physical step (“use a little wine,” 1 Timothy 5:23) in order to help with his ailments so that he may, one would think, be able to better serve the Lord and the church.

We all have particular sins that we struggle with and need to mortify (Romans 8:13). Some struggle with attraction to persons of the same sex; others struggle with pornography; many struggle with gossip; and, it seems, laziness and overeating are also prevalent among God’s people. Like all of these other sins, mortification by the Spirit in obedience to God’s commands is our calling, and leaders in the church should lead the way. God gives us his commands to help us, not hinder us. The sixth commandment offers us the good life — the life where we not only care about others but also ourselves.

So, do not kill: that is, preserve your life, within reason, as you are able. You’ll be happier in God, and he will be magnified in your life and church by your enriched joy in him.