Body image is a preoccupation for many, and there are huge dieting and physical training industries in our culture today. So, we have this question from a podcast listener named Jon who lives and works in Washington D.C. and who wonders about what’s really motivating him to get to the gym. Here’s what Jon wrote: “Dear Pastor John, I’m committed to working out at the gym. I have, over the years, become fit because of my consistency. My temptation is in making my body a temple of self-glory. I want others to be impressed with my looks. That’s the honest truth, but I never say it. Few people would. At what point does working out cross the boundary between self-discipline and self-glorification?”
I’ll put my answer in a sentence, and then I’ll try to unpack it for its implications. The discipline of the pursuit of physical fitness becomes sinful self-glorification when it is no longer pursued as a means of, one, overcoming our own sin, two, serving others, three, glorifying Christ.
“I am 70 and I have been jogging regularly since I was 22. Jogging is not the fountain of youth, folks.”
This is a huge issue both for men and women in our culture, because hour after hour, every day, through advertising and other media, we are being told that, to be successful and happy, our bodies must have a certain appearance. Whether we’re talking about the way we dress or the way we do our hair or the way we work out in order to be fit, the Christian needs to be clear about the way Jesus calls us to do this that makes us different from the world. I think he does.
What I’m suggesting is that there are three ways to measure whether our pursuit of fitness is sinful or not. Those three ways are, one, is that pursuit a genuine desire to defeat sin in my own life? Two, is that pursuit of fitness a genuine desire to become more useful in serving the temporal and eternal good of others? Three, is my pursuit of fitness owing to a genuine, expressing a genuine desire to show that Christ is more valuable to me t han my looks or my health or my reputation as disciplined? Let’s take a look at those one at a time.
1. Is your working out at the gym a strategy for overcoming sin in your life? I believe it can be. Paul said that he pummeled his body to keep it in subjection, because he knew that there were powerful temptations that come from the flesh to undermine his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:26–27). Laziness is one of them.
Over and over in the book of Proverbs, we are warned against being a sluggard. Proverbs 20:4, “The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing.” Proverbs 21:25, “The desire of the sluggard” — lazy bones — “kills him, for his hands refuse to labor.” It is a good thing to exercise and eat and sleep in a healthy way so as to subdue the enslaving impulses of the body, including laziness. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” That’s any good thing or any bad thing. It is good to exercise in order to defeat the sin of laziness and the love of ease.
As soon as I say that, every biblically mature saint realizes that Jesus also warned against boasting in that kind of self-discipline. He warned against loving the reputation of being a disciplined person. Matthew 6:16–17, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast . . . ”
“Show that Christ is more valuable than your looks or your health or your reputation as disciplined.”
Fasting here really is any kind of self-denial, right? Fasting from television: so, you don’t have a TV, John Piper. Whoa, you’re so proud of that. Blah, blah, blah. Or fasting from ease. You’re going to pump iron until you’re exhausted. Or fasting from food, or whatever. Fasting stands here for any kind of self-discipline. “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17–18).
Yes, by all means, let’s be disciplined and self-denying in the pursuit of defeating sin in our own lives, and let’s be ever alert to the deceitfulness of sin that causes us to boast in the very triumphs over sin and thus turn triumph over sin into defeat by another sin. That’s how deceitful we are in our own hearts, which leads now to the second way that we measure whether our pursuit of fitness is sinful.
2. Is our pursuit of fitness owing to a genuine desire to become more useful in serving the temporal and eternal good of others? Are you aiming to be fit in order to be faithful? Are you aiming to be healthy in order to be helpful? Is your concern with your looks a concern to love other people better?
When the disciples argued about who was the greatest, Jesus said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). In other words, instead of mirrors in the gym, there should be big signs on the wall: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43). You want to be strong? You want to be fit? You want to be buff? Are you going to use it to be a more faithful servant of people, or are you out to be seen by others? If you are, that’s a damnable attitude and you’re in big trouble. That’s what Jesus would say. He did say it (Matthew 6:1).
3. Is the pursuit of fitness a genuine desire to show that Christ is more valuable to you than your looks or your health or your reputation for being disciplined? Are you seeking to make Christ look great or only yourself? Here’s what Paul said in Ephesians 6:10: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” In other words, it’s true strength when we are seeking to be strong in the strength of Christ: not strength in ourselves, but strength in the Lord. In other words, our aim at the gym is to be strong in a way that makes Jesus look strong. We’ve got to figure that out or we’re going to be idolaters. We’re going to be vainglorious.
Here’s the way Peter put it in 1 Peter 1:24–25: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” The point is, in the gym, the glory that people are seeking is like grass. It withers. It falls.
“Our aim at the gym is to be strong in a way that makes Jesus look strong.”
Believe me, believe me, I am 70, and I have been jogging regularly since I was 22. It is not a fountain of youth, folks. You’re going to sag. You’re going to be wrinkled. You’re going to be splotchy. You’re going to be scaly. You’re not going to be pretty or cool, and if you have invested your life in that, oh, you will look pathetic, like all those older folks in Phoenix with their ridiculous tans and their sagging, wrinkled skin. It’s just ridiculous.
“The word of the Lord remains forever,” and that word says, work out faithfully. That is, work out at the gym to defeat sin in your own life. Work out at the gym to become more useful in serving the temporal and eternal good of others. And work out at the gym — yes, you can! — to show that Christ is more valuable, more precious to you, than your looks or your health or your reputation for being so disciplined.