A Little Theology of Exercise

Inspire 2020 Conference | Des Moines

Perhaps you’re wondering what’s a pastor doing at a conference on fitness.

I’m here because I want to help people know and enjoy Jesus more. As a pastor, that often means I’m speaking and writing about Jesus himself, or teaching portions of the Bible, or commending various spiritual disciplines (which I like to call “habits of grace”). And God made us embodied creatures. The physical body has an important role to play in our spiritual and holistic health and joy. Personally, I’ve found that exercise serves my soul, and I’m eager to commend that to you, and others — to serve your growth “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). To be clear, my appreciation for exercise and “bodily training” is not as an end in itself.

One of the reasons I take “bodily training” with such seriousness, rather than ignoring it, is precisely because of how it serves the joy and strength and stability of my soul.

My Story

I’m excited to share with you what I’m calling “a little theology of exercise,” but perhaps it might help to begin with a little bit of my personal story related to exercise. We all have our own stories related to our bodies. I am not assuming your story should be like mine.

Sports in the Palmetto State

I grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and had, so far as I can remember, an active childhood. It’s warmer in South Carolina, and we could be outdoors pretty much year-round. In the summer I played baseball and rode bikes. In the winter I played basketball. I played tag football daily on the playground at school, and had P.E. at school, and remember having to run laps and be timed in the mile.

Baseball was my favorite, and as a ninth grader I went out for the baseball team. We weren’t allowed to pick up bats and balls until January, but the coach would begin team activities every year in November. Several days a week we would run. And run. And run. That’s all we did in November and December: run. It weeded out all the guys who didn’t really want to play. And for those of us who really wanted to play baseball, it got us in good shape, probably better than any team in our region. And also, at our high school, which was a big-time football school, the baseball players were able to take a special weightlifting class with the football players, in place of regular P.E. My senior year, we had five guys on our infield who could bench press 300 pounds, which was pretty much unheard of in high-school baseball.

Freshman Fifteen and the TC Marathon

I did not play baseball in college, but loved intramurals year-round: flag football, basketball, and softball. I continued to lift weights on and off. I also ran on and off, but senior year I became more regular in my running. I don’t think my motivations were particularly holy. I mainly wanted to lose the weight I had put on in the college cafeteria.

After graduation I moved to Minneapolis to study theology and do campus ministry at the University of Minnesota. Doing campus ministry kept me active, as a typical social activity was meeting up to lift weights or run together. In fact, for the relationships, I signed up to run the Twin Cities Marathon in 2004. I trained all summer. Ran a half marathon that felt delightful afterwards. Ran the full marathon in early October and really hit the wall at mile 20. It was not a pleasant experience. I told myself while slogging out those last six miles never to run a marathon again.

But somehow, come the following April, I forgot about that, signed up again, and in October 2005, while running the marathon again, I again “hit the wall” at mile 20, and then realized, Oh yeah, I said I’d never do this again! What am I doing? I have not run a marathon since.

Basic Habits — and Babies

I kept running a few times a week until 2007 when I got married. My wife and I bought a house in a neighborhood less conducive to running than the trails along the Mississippi River at the University of Minnesota. My exercise fell off. I gained weight and felt heavy and out of shape, and short of breath after climbing the stairs to my fourth-floor office at the church.

In 2010, my wife and I had twin boys. We moved to a house not far from green space in 2012, much better for running, and we got a double jogger. Occasionally I would push the boys in the stroller around the lake, but I never got into the rhythm and habit I needed.

We had a daughter at the end of 2014, and planted Cities Church, out of Bethlehem Baptist, with three other founding pastors in January of 2015, and by the early summer of 2015, I was realizing that in the transitions and stresses of young-adult life, I had lost a handle on something basic. I had no regular pattern of exercise. I thought I didn’t have any time to exercise. At least that’s what I told myself. But over time, and prompted one day by some wise counsel from my wife, I realized this was a lame excuse.

Time for Non-Negotiables

Even with small kids, there is enough time for the non-negotiables: for daily spiritual disciplines and weekly worship and community group, and generous family time and reasonable work hours, and adequate sleep, and exercise. I finally owned up the fact that if I was not getting at least some minimal regular exercise, I must be making some bad choices, and trying to do too many things, or investing myself in some unimportant things. I was coming to grips with my finitude and humanity. Making exercise a priority for me has had a lot to do with embracing my humanity.

I came to realize I had little business working overtime, or checking social media, or keeping up with the Twins and Vikings, and Clemson football, if I was not adequately making time for the basics of both being a Christian (through personal and corporate “habits of grace”) and being human, including adequate sleep and regular exercise.

Our Sedentary Age

With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, and the smartphone in 2007, many of us are still coming to grips with how sedentary human life has become. But this has not always been so. God made us to move, and to do so vigorously. And he wired our brains to need it, reward it, and reinforce it. Exercise makes happier humans, and God made humans to be happy — in him — with bodily movement being an assistant, rather than adversary, to our joy.

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. Perhaps we’ve never needed to state the obvious about regular bodily movement and “bodily training” 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. So here we are at a Christian fitness conference, and I want to ask, 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?

To put more of a point on it, and this is the key question I’m trying to answer this morning: How does the joy of exercise become joy in God? At least part of the answer is theology, which is why I want to rehearse for you “a little theology of exercise.” (The other part will come at the end when I give you, briefly, five reasons why I exercise.) What we are asking, in other words, is how do we not only factor in God to our exercise but put him at the center?

Another way to ask it would be: How do I make exercise holy?

Exercise Made Holy

Now, we could come at this topic from many angles. We could just begin with what the Christian Scriptures teach about our bodies and then all turn and seek to make our own personal applications in that light. Or, another way at it is to ask the personal question, How do I make exercise holy? How do I make it count for God? For eternity? For what matters most? How do I exercise with God, not self, at the center? (It’s not enough to love fitness and just happen to be a Christian.)

Let me take you to 1 Timothy 4, which turns on some important truths about our bodies, but let’s not (yet) go where you might be expecting — not to verse 8 about bodily training — but verses 1–5:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods [note the anti-body orientation of the false teachers Paul opposes] that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For 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.

This paragraph mentions, and opposes, abstinence from marriage (implying sex) and certain foods — not exercise, but the embrace of bodily existence is very much in view. And verse 8, as you know, is only a breath away with its mention of “bodily training.” So, I think it’s reasonable to make some application to movement and what we call exercise (much of it was simply normal life in the past) from the very active, moving, walking, non-sedentary culture of the first century, to our digital, driving, riding, sedentary culture today.

Look again at verses 4–5: “For 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.” We’ll have something to say about thanksgiving eventually, but for now, our main concern is what it means to “make holy” the life of the body. How is the marriage bed made holy? How is eating, and drinking, made holy? Paul says, “It is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

There’s the key: “the word of God and prayer.” Now, what does that mean?

What God Says About Our Bodies

“The word of God” is what God has said, what he has breathed out in the Scriptures about our 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 such lies today).

“Prayer,” then, is our response back to God in light of what he has said.

So, that’s our outline: (1) what does God say, in his word, about our bodies that we must live and move in light of? And (2) how do we make bodily exertions and training holy by prayer, by speaking back to God about it?

What does God say about our bodies?

1. God made our bodies.

First, he designed them.

God designed the human body, and it is fearfully and wonderfully made — both in general and the particular body he made and gave to you.

You formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:13–14)

This is not just a pro-life text. It is that. But it’s also a body text, an exercise text. Let me encourage you, as I’m sure many of you have, to do a little study on the human body (perhaps something on the brain), enough that you marvel at what God has made. It won’t take much reading and study until you’re blown away, if you have ears to hear. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I can’t help but hear in that word “formed” how God formed Adam first, and then Eve, in Genesis 2, which Paul calls attention to in 1 Timothy 2:12–13. God formed them both human but not the same — two kinds of humans, male and female. In a world gone mad about gender, the fitness community knows this well, that men and women are fearfully and wonderfully both human and different.

Second, they belong to him.

Contrary to the siren voices sounding at every turn today, your body is not your own.

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. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)

Your body is not your own. It belongs to God — and doubly so for Christians. God both created us, and then bought us back at the infinite cost of his own Son.

Third, they are for him.

They are for use in the service and honor of their Creator, which means, ultimately, our bodies are for God’s glory. This is very strange to modern people. Perhaps especially in the fitness community. Perhaps it’s not often said, “My body is for the purposes of my glory,” but how often, even among us Christians, is this the operative principle?

But when we open the Book, and hear what God says, when we seek to make our bodily movement and training holy by his word, by what he says about our bodies, we see that our bodies — indeed all our lives — are for his glory. We exist to glorify God. God made us to make him look good. That’s the last part of 1 Corinthians 6:19–20:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Not: escape your body to glorify him. But: glorify God in your body. Your body is meant for glorifying God, not self. For making God look good, not self look good. You exist for God’s glory, and you have a body, however able or disabled, for his glory. So Paul says,

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

And, then, in Colossians 3:17, he makes it explicitly Christian, explicitly about Jesus:

Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

As a Christian, you have a body for Jesus’s sake. As a Christian, his name is on you. In coming to Christ, we have taken his name. We are called Christians. His name is on us, and what we do with our minds and hearts and mouths and bodies, either directly or indirectly, makes Jesus look good, or is in vain. And the third commandment says not to take his name in vain. You can avoid every cuss word in the book, and still take his name in vain. Because “taking Jesus’s name” on ourselves, as Christians, is not just about a few things not to say, but everything we say, and everything we think and feel and do.

If you confess Christ as your Savior and Lord, you have taken his name. Do not take it in vain. His name is on your person, your mind, your heart, your mouth, your body. Do not take the name of Jesus in vain. Which is why we ask, How do I make my exercise holy?

So, God made our bodies. He designed them, owns them, and they are for him. But as we know, what he has to say about our bodies does not end there.

2. Sin affects our bodies.

Adam sinned against God’s command. And God, in response to human rebellion, and as an ongoing reminder of it, cursed the creation, including our bodies.

The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:20–23)

We ourselves! Because of human sin, originally Adam’s, this world, and our bodies, are wasting away (“Our outer self is wasting away . . .” [2 Corinthians 4:16]). Our bodies strain under sin. They are not what they once were. They break down. They get injured — sometimes oh so easily.

However, even though marred by sin, they are still a marvel. 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 stand and move, to 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. And God has his particular manifestations of mercy for the disabled, and their caregivers. Disability is a big deal; it is a burden to bear; and those of us who have the ability to move and exercise our bodies would do well to be more regularly and consciously thankful to God. An able body, in this sin-sick world, is a precious gift not to be taken for granted.

For the disabled in Christ, 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.

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 thanks God nearly enough for such mercy.

3. Christ keeps our bodies.

The Christian life is an embodied life. God doesn’t free our bodies at conversion. He leaves us in them. Glorious as they are, and broken as they are. The Christian life, and Christian growth, and Christian ministry and love, happens in the body. This is our tent for life in Christ this side of eternity. And in particular, three truths are important clarifications for us for the bodily existence of the Christian life.

First, God is for the body.

God is not opposed to our bodily existence; neither is he uninterested. He is for the body

The body is . . . for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (1 Corinthians 6:13)

Second, 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, as you know, 1 Timothy 4:8 affirms the value of bodily training. And that on top of the assumption, in ancient times, of a far greater degree of bodily exertion in the course of normal life. Significant daily movement in travel and in occupation is presumed. And then, even in this active, non-sedentary context, bodily exertion is commended.

Third, spiritual health is ultimate; physical health is not.

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:

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. (1 Timothy 4:8)

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 designed them to work best, and happiest, when moving), 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).

The health of the soul being ultimate doesn’t mean that the health of the body is insignificant or marginal. This is where many Christians have gone wrong. Rather, bodily movement and exertion is important, and as Christians we should put the body to work in service of our souls and the souls of others.

4. Christ will transform them.

Contrary to the bad pop theology of some, Christians have believed for two thousand years that our future will be embodied.

Not only is God for the body in this age, but also in the age to come. Earlier we saw 1 Corinthians 6:13: “The body is . . . for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” The very next verse reads, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Corinthians 6:14).

The creative brilliance and glory of God’s design in the human body will not be discarded at Christ’s second coming. Our future is embodied. Faithful Christian theology does not diminish the importance of our bodies, but heightens it — from God’s creative design, to his ongoing affirmation, to his promise to raise them, to his calling to use them.

In Philippians 3:20–21, Paul writes,

Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Jesus will one day soon transform our lowly, earthly, natural bodies to be like his glorious, heavenly, supernatural body. Jesus has a body. He rose again bodily. He ascended bodily. He now sits at the right hand of God in heaven, in his fully human, glorified body. And when he comes back bodily, and brings with him heaven to earth, and establishes the physical, embodied new world, we too, like him, will enjoy what it will mean to have a fully human, glorified body.

So, there’s my summary, my “little theology,” of what God says about our bodies: He made them. Sin affects them. Christ keeps them, and he will transform them.

How to Pray for Exercise

Finally, then, as we’ve seen, according to 1 Timothy 4:4–5, it is not enough only to hear what God has to say about our bodily exercise. Making it holy also involves prayer — asking God for help. We consecrate our bodies, and our exercise, to God “by the word of God and prayer” — through what he says and what we say back. But in addition to rehearsing his revealed truths about our bodies, what do we say back?

1. Receive exercise as a gift.

We thank him. “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). Step one in responding to what God has said, and 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.” 

Receiving thankfully the ability to exercise is a vital starting point, but there’s more to say than just that.

2. Ask God for help.

But we do more than just thank him, for what we have and he has given and he has done. We also turn to the future with faith, and ask him for help:

Perhaps you pray the night before: “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.”

Or maybe at the beginning of your workout you pray, “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).”

Or: “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.”

Or: “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.”

Or: “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.”

Pray before. Pray at key moments during. And pray after, thanking him.

Five Reasons I Exercise

Which leads to why I myself exercise. Let me end, very briefly, with five reasons why I exercise. Why I make it a priority. Why I don’t hesitate (too much) to give a few focused hours each week to it. Here, I’ll just list them briefly, then I’ll go into more depth, for any who are interested, in the breakout.

1. For my God.

I exercise to glorify God, in my body, and one way, among many, is putting it to work. Not working for salvation, but working out my salvation. God made our bodies. They are his idea. And it pleases him when we put them to work in service of him. And when my muscles and lungs are in good shape, I’m better prepared to glorify him in my body, not just while exercising, but in all of life. Fit is a good word for us to use as Christians. Fit for what? Fit, ready, prepared to answer God’s call. To obey him. To help others. To honor him.

2. For my mind.

For years, I could discern that I thought clearer and better, and seemed to have more mental energy and creativity and stamina, when I was exercising regularly. Then I found some of the science behind it. In particular, John Ratey’s book Spark on the science of exercise and the brain. I’m excited to share some of these discoveries in the breakout.

3. For my will.

Over time, I’ve also discovered that pushing myself in exercise has served to strengthen my resolve and will and confidence to push myself elsewhere in life. In spiritual disciplines. As a husband and father. At work. Around the house. Exercise teaches and reminds my body that exertion produces reward. There is often greater joy with greater work. Laziness is not satisfying. So, I exercise to improve and sustain my work ethic. More on this in the breakout.

4. For my joy.

When I exercise, I’m happier today, not just later. I’m not motivated by long-term health, but today’s joy. But that doesn’t make it Christian — not until the joy of exercise serves joy in God. Which brings us back to how exercise glorifies God.

One of the key truths for which we stand at Desiring God — and perhaps the most distinctive one — is that we believe enjoying God is essential to glorifying God as we ought. To enjoy him is to glorify him. To be bored or uninterested in him is to dishonor him. And so, vital for our fulfilling the very purpose and calling of our lives is our enjoying, delighting in, being satisfied with who God is for us in Christ.

This means stewardship of the body stands or falls for me on whether it supports the pursuit of joy in God. The little bit of intense exercise that I do is in its highest and best form about enjoying God, which glorifies him. I would go so far as to say that any exercise regimen or diet that purports to “glorify God” but does not aim to support the pursuit of greater enjoyment of God, is at best inadequate, if not deeply flawed.

I am not mainly motivated (to exercise) by the thought of living longer. And I am not motivated much by looking fit and healthy. For me, as a Christian, those motivations are inadequate. For me, the driving motivation is under the banner of enjoying more of God.

Regular exercise puts my body and soul — and their mysterious relationship — into better position to clearly see and deeply savor who God is. How might it change your exercise routine if you did not exercise for mere weight loss, or long-term health, or improved physical appearance, but you did it to enjoy God more?

5. For others.

I exercise for others, or I could say, “for love’s sake.” I exercise to make me a better servant of others. To be fit to serve others.

When my life is joyfully active, and not sedentary — when my legs and arms feel strong, and the truth feels strong and clear that the happier life comes from activity, not passivity — I’m more ready to spring into action to help others. My whole orientation on the world is not passive, but active. Ready to move. Ready to respond. Ready to hear. Ready to help. Ready to love.