Feel His Pleasure

Exercise, Endorphins, and Enjoying God

Inspire 2020 Conference | Des Moines

“When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”

Such were the memorable words of Olympic sprinter and Christian missionary Eric Liddell (1902–1945), at least through the lens of Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Oscar-winning film that told his story.

Perhaps you’ve heard his inspiring line in terms of life calling. In what vocation do you feel God’s pleasure? What role or occupation does it seem he made you to fulfill?

Endorphins and Delight in God

However, at a conference on fitness, and with the last generation of research in view, some of you might be thinking it would be interesting to introduce Liddell (who died in 1945) to the fairly recent discovery of endorphins (in the 1970s), and ask how much they (and now we know it’s other brain chemistry as well) may have played a part in his feeling God’s pleasure as he ran, and after running.

My experience as a very amateur runner is that you don’t have to be a pro to “feel God’s pleasure” in, and because of, intense bodily exertion. And especially when you push yourself to the threshold of what you think you’re able to do. From my limited research, the hormones we know as endorphins do play a part in the so-called “runner’s high,” and especially when we push past our capacity to the point of distress.

However, more is involved in the pleasant effects of exercise than just endorphins — including serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, among others. Pushing our bodies, in fact, does a lot of good, and contributes to layers of joy for us. God made us to move, and made movement to contribute to our health and happiness.

The word endorphins is simply a shortened form of the phrase “endogenous morphine.” In other words, these are morphine-like chemicals that originate within our bodies. They “inhibit the transmission of pain signals; they may also produce a feeling of euphoria.” And they are a gift from God, put there by him to lead us to himself.

Divine Kindness

It wasn’t until as recently as 1974 that two independent groups first discovered and documented this long-undiscovered divine kindness tucked quietly inside the human brain. Endorphins, and their effect of bodily pleasure, subconsciously incline humans toward certain activities, like raucous laughter or spicy foods. But in particular, the most notable and discussed is “vigorous aerobic exercise.” As John Piper writes in When I Don’t Desire God

Either brief periods of intense training or prolonged aerobic workouts raise levels of chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, that produce feelings of pleasure. (203)

And the holy pursuit of pleasure is an unblushing Christian concern throughout the pages of Scripture, and most pointedly so in the words of Christ himself.

I said at the end of the main session I would say more about the five brief reasons I gave for why I exercise. Let me say here, I do this unapologetically as a Christian Hedonist. I’ll say more about this in a few minutes, but I believe that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. So I want my life to be all about glory and joy. God’s glory in and through me. And my joy in and through him. I come to exercise unashamedly in pursuit of my joy in God. I exercise my body for the sake of my soul. I am seeking to make physical exercise serve my spiritual joy, in God. I want to leverage the body God gave me for my joy in God, to his glory, and the good of others.

Five Reasons Why I Exercise

So, let me rehearse again for you why I exercise, and this time, I’ll go into more depth.

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.

Whatever You Do, Glorify God

Let’s not pass over this too quickly. He made you for his glory. And our calling as Christians is to glorify him, honor him, make him look good in and through our lives. This is what it means to be made in his image. What does an image do? It images. It reflects. It displays. God made us to image him, reflect him, display him, in this created world. We are meant to live in this created world as God would, were he a creature in the world he created. And in fact, as you know as Christians, God himself did enter our world in the form of a creature.

The second person of the eternal Godhead came as man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We are in the image of God. Jesus is the image of God (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4). He lived his human life on this earth in perfect fulfillment of glorifying God. He was God himself among us. And that’s our calling as Christians. Not to be Jesus. Not to be God as man. But to increasingly live up to the calling of what it means to be in God’s image as perfectly modeled and accomplished by Jesus. So, that means:

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

Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)

It’s important to accent here that glorifying God with our bodies is not mainly about what we don’t do. It’s easy to focus on the many unrighteous acts from which we should abstain, but glorifying him in our bodies is first and foremost a positive pursuit and opportunity. And, as in the parable of the talents, our bodies are gifts from him to grow and develop, not bury and let languish. 

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

All Joy Is From Him, to Him, and Through Him

Back to the phrase “feeling God’s pleasure.” Regardless of what Eric Liddell meant by it, what do I mean by it when I talk about “feeling God’s pleasure” in and through bodily exertion? I have at least three things in mind:

  1. Our feeling joy that is a joy from God (he designed the body and its chemistry; he is the giver of joy);

  2. our feeling a joy that is in God, not a joy apart from or in competition with him; and

  3. our pleasing him (in a real sense) by doing with our bodies what he made them to do. He designed them. He sustains them. He’s pro-body. And when we put them to work in his service, for our joy in him and for the good of others, he delights in it. And when we put our bodies to work in the service of sin and selfishness and vanity, he does not rejoice in that. Don’t develop your body and waste your life. Exercise for your God.

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. Increasingly now, I exercise to make my brain better. I need it. I use it in especially demanding ways as a writer and editor. I want it to be better and more useful in my calling. And I’ve found personally, and it’s backed up in the research, that physical activity spikes brain activity.

Give Your Brain a Boost

I’m leaning mainly on my own subjective experience here (my head and thoughts just feel clearer and sharper and more energetic and creative and nimble when I’ve exercised), and on Ratey’s book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

Ratey writes about what he calls “the astounding impact of aerobic activity on the brain” and that “exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function” (245).

In other words, “the better your fitness level, the better your brain works. . . . [H]igher fitness levels relate directly to positive mood and lower levels of anxiety and stress” (247).

“Better fitness equals better attention” (26), which is huge in our incessantly distracted age.

“Going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates . . . neurotransmitters. . . . [T]he deeper explanation is that exercise balances neurotransmitters — along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain” (38).

Push Your Body, and Your Brain

Exercise also sharpens and improves learning:

“During exercise, [the hormones needed for learning and brain growth] push through the blood-brain barrier, a web of capillaries with tightly packed cells that screen out bulky intruders such as bacteria” (51). In other words, we need to get our heart rates up, and our blood pumping, to get the hormones our brains need for learning and growth to our brains.

“The body was designed to be pushed, and in pushing our bodies we push our brains too” (53). Note he says designed. Elsewhere he says built. “The human body is built for regular physical activity” (68). As often as he talks about evolution, and comes at the science from a manifestly evolutionary perspective, he can’t help but stand in awe of the brain, be humbled, and imply some kind of designer or builder.

In sum, “exercise improves learning on three levels”:

  • improves alertness, attention, and motivation,
  • prepares and encourages nerve cells to log new information (learning), and
  • spurs development of new cells (53).

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 and eagerness 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.

‘Lean into the Hill’

I said in the plenary I’ve been exercising regularly as an adult with kids since the summer of 2015. This has been a surprising and significant benefit I did not expect. Overcoming my laziness toward exercise has helped me overcome other areas of laziness. Enjoying the benefits of bodily activity in exercise has helped condition me to lean into, rather than away from, bodily activity, rather than passivity, in all of life.

Exercise teaches us to press through resistance in any difficult task and not give in and quit, which is a priceless instinct to develop not just in life and work (work ethic) but also for the soul. After getting in shape as a runner, I learned to push myself in various ways, one of those being “leaning into the hill.” The natural response when running, and tired, is to slow down on a hill. But another mentality is to lean in. Push yourself to get over it. Expend more energy. Get over the hill, then reduce your effort on the down slope, if needed.

Which leads to “leaning into the hill” in the rest of life, learning to press through resistance, rather than back off and procrastinate. It is human and modern to take the path of least resistance and avoid the things we know we should be doing (which relates to our manifest eagerness to be distracted; we are not just being sucked by the attention merchants; we want to be distracted; we want to avoid what we know deep down we really should be doing because those things aren’t easy).

Exercise has helped me develop a mentality to tackle things I resist instead of avoiding them and procrastinating. I want to develop the instinct that when my wife asks if I would carry some heavy boxes to the basement that I naturally jump on it right then, not save it for later. If someone needs to run upstairs, or downstairs, to grab something, that I jump to do it. That I get over the mental hurdle of doing more with my body, rather than less. That I see movement as an opportunity and joy, not a drawback and something to be avoided. I’ve found that exercise has helped me to learn to “take resistance as a spur to action instead of avoidance” (Get Everything Done, 152).

Stressed and Sedentary

I could say so much more here on this topic of “for my will” related to productivity and work ethic, handling stress, creating resilience, cultivating self-control. One of Ratey’s chapters is on stress and perhaps it’s worth saying something about that. He refers to stress, alongside our sedentary lifestyle, as the twin killers of our day. We are more sedentary than ever, and more stressed than ever. And exercise is remarkably effective at helping us gain resiliency, not just emotionally but physically, at handling stress.

Ratey says that exercise “inoculates” us against stress: “Stress seems to have an effect on the brain similar to that of vaccines on the immune system. In limited doses, it cause brain cells to overcompensate and thus gird themselves against future demands. Neuroscientists calls this phenomenon stress inoculation” (61).

Exercise “fires up the recovery process in our muscles and our neurons. It leaves our bodies and minds stronger and more resilient, better able to handle future challenges, to think on our feet and adapt more easily” (71).

4. For my joy.

It did not take me long to discover, when I really got serious again about running, that when I exercise, I’m happier today, not just later. I’m not motivated by long-term health, but today’s joy. The long-term benefits of exercise are icing on the cake for me. What drives me is I want to be joyful today. 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.

Enjoy God to Glorify Him

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 body stewardship 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.

When I exercise regularly, I feel better. I feel like I can think clearer. I seem to sleep better. I’m generally happier. I don’t know how much of it is just the endorphins or not. But whatever it is, regular exercise puts my body and soul — and their mysterious relationship — into better position to clearly see and deeply savor who God is. Pummeling or disciplining (Greek: hupōpiazō) my body, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:27, strengthens my will, and chases away laziness, in all of life. Regular exercise makes me more active, rather than passive or lazy, in every sphere and every relationship — not the least of which is relating to God through his word and prayer.

Fight and Defeat Sin

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?

My plea at a conference like this is for you to consider seriously how physical exertion can be a means, among others, of your spiritual health and joy.

God made our bodies with an enigmatic connection to our souls. How God stirs our souls in worship and Bible meditation often has tangible and unpredictable effects in our bodies. And what we eat and drink, and how we sleep, in our physical bodies affects our level of contentment in the soul.

God not only means for us to enjoy the long-term benefits of regular bodily exertion, but also the immediate effects that bolster and energize our emotions that day. And having our souls happy in God (with whatever little supplement we can get from exercise) is the premier way to fight and defeat the alluring lies of sin.

To make it explicit, the emotional boost of exercise (or at least avoiding the emotional drag of being sedentary) makes me more prepared for the supernatural joy in God through his word and prayer and the life of the church.

5. For others.

Or I could say “for love’s sake.” I exercise to make me a better servant of others. To be fit for good works.

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.

I believe that exercise makes me a better servant of others. A better husband. Better father. Better pastor and editor. Better friend.

Regular bodily exertion not only assists our personal pursuit of joy in God, and fight against joy-destroying sin, but also readies us to move beyond self-focus and have our hearts primed to meet the needs of others. Here’s how John Piper explains why he exercises:

Today, my main motive for exercise is purity and productivity. By purity, I mean being a more loving person (as Jesus said, “love your neighbor,” Matthew 22:39). By productivity, I mean getting a lot done (as Paul said, “abounding in the work of the Lord,” 1 Corinthians 15:58). . . . In short, I have one life to live for Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:15). I don’t want to waste it. My approach is not mainly to lengthen it, but to maximize purity and productivity now.

Precisely because “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10), we want to cultivate our bodies so that they are a help, rather than a hindrance, in the cause of love. We want our bodies to be an aid, not a net neutral (and definitely not a drag), in readying us to sacrifice our own comforts and energy to do good for others, at home and around the world.

Feel His Pleasure

In conclusion, the biblical take on exercise is not: “Life is short; let your body go.” Rather, with God’s revealed truth ringing in our ears, we say, “Life is too short to not harness the body God gave me.” Our assignment in this age is a vapor. We “are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Too much is at stake, and our days are too few, to limp our way through by not leveraging our bodies (as we’re able) as the gifts from God they are.

Join me in learning what it’s like to feel God’s pleasure in and through bodily exertion. And let’s win our fellow Christians to this. Let’s not be dour and pessimistic and think we’re better because we’re pursuing fitness. Let’s out-rejoice those who are sedentary to win them to better body stewardship for their joy in God.

We won’t win over our churches if we’re all into ourselves and if our more fit bodies aren’t manifesting more fit to do others good, rather than for self-glory. As Christians, God calls us to be a counterculture in the fitness world — how we dress, how we talk, how much of our lives and attention and money we give to training.

God gave us these amazing human bodies, for our joy, to honor him and do others good. Fitness is not the goal. It is a means to doing what he has called us to do.