Physical Health is Discipleship
Health is a difficult and complex subject. Recently, I saw a meme that read, “Unless you tripped and smacked your face on the treadmill, no one wants to hear about your workout.” In some ways, I resonate with this sentiment. Nobody likes a meathead or somebody who talks constantly about their fitness. Those people can be deeply annoying and one wonders what the purpose of their conversation truly is.
At the same time, I want to challenge the Church to think a bit differently about health and consider thinking more positively about what it means. It is my conviction that, while culture often abuses and idolizes the image of the body, the Church should be on the forefront of showing the world how to value physicality, health, and fitness as an avenue of Christian discipleship. Admitting up front that there are real and deep challenges for people is key, and I ask that anyone reading this article understand that there is no “standard” being set here and no idolization. Rather, as a Church, we can show the world a better approach to physical health and exercise than it currently offers: one that is deeply rooted in the soul, in God, and love. There are five points I want to make that I think can help the Church adopt a more holistic and positive vision of physical health:
Physical Health is Part of Creation Care
This is probably the most difficult hurdle to get over if the Christian is to adopt a healthy theology of the body. We have, by and large, imbibed a very distorted view of physicality for two millennia! Historically, this is part of what the early church called the heresy of Gnosticism. As N.T. Wright has pointed out in his excellent book, Surprised by Hope, “…the ‘just passing through’ spirituality…encourages precisely a Gnostic attitude: the created world is at best irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking forward to returning to it as soon as we are allowed.”
And this is precisely the sort of view of the body and health many Christians have adopted. N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, and others have called for an exodus out of a Platonic view of physicality and into a historically Christian one where the physical world really does matter, where the earth is not a mere commodity which will eventually be destroyed, and where the body is something to be seen as part of, not separate from, the soul.
In recent years we have done well at establishing and propelling a creation care model for the Church that takes ecology into account. But most Christians, while they might recognize the importance of caring for the earth, give little serious thought to caring for themselves as part and parcel of that creation. Creation is all-encompassing, including self-care. We need to ask bigger questions about nutrition, exercise, disease, addictions, and general well-being. After all, how we take care of ourselves impacts how we take care of and treat the rest of creation.
We Shouldn’t Forget Loving God with Our Strength
Although I’m fairly certain Jesus wasn’t talking about muscles here, he was talking about holistically loving God with every part of our being. Once we get rid of the idea that our “being” is something that exists solely immaterially, we realize that a major component to our being is our physical self. Can one love God with one’s body? Absolutely! Loving God is something that can and should be done with our entire existence. When we speak of respecting the temples that God gives us, are we merely talking about tattoos and piercings (that was what I was told growing up) or are we talking about the whole package?
Healthy Living Practices Discipline
Discipleship for most Western Christians has primarily been seen as a spiritual exercise (for the record, I do think exercise can be a very spiritual experience). We have become very good at producing Bible studies, curriculum, devotionals, and emphasizing worship and prayer. These things are critical to the Christian life. But they are only one facet of discipleship. Discipline, from which we get our term disciple, is much bigger than that. Discipline is a lifestyle, and it means abstaining and engaging in a variety of activities with a heart of submission and guidance. We ask Christians to abstain from porn, drugs and alcohol abuse. We ask Christians to engage in church activities, small groups, and social service. And yet, very few pastors lead their congregations in abstaining from unhealthy foods and engaging in physical activity. But at the end of the day, unhealthy diets and lack of exercise are doing as much damage to people’s health (more so, technically) than cigarettes!
There’s no denying this fact: physical health is hard. And we all come from different backgrounds and levels of comfort with it. There is no “ideal” (that is, after all, Platonic) starting place or ending place. But the same is true of any form of discipleship. Discipleship is difficult, and there are all sorts of variables in place. I am not genetically the most prone to be “ripped” but neither do I psychologically have the benefit of being prone to high attachment. This makes both physical exercise and spiritual connection difficult for me. But since when have we Christians supposed that discipleship of any sort is supposed to be easy and look the same? Never. We all do what we can do as best as we can do with what we got. Some people have very difficult experiences.
Our Physical Health Impacts Our Psychological, Emotional, and Spiritual Health
Though this isn’t the time for my story, my health-focused lifestyle only came about after sitting emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually in a pit of depression for more than a year. There were intense times where the only thing I wanted to do was die. I thank God for my kids who kept me waking up and moving every day, but beyond them, I was completely lost.
Once I began eating well and exercising on a daily basis, I noticed that my relationship with God started to come back into its own. Emotionally, I started to become present again and became a better father in the process. I was able to feel more than just grief and pain. It was the first time that I realized how interconnected our physical health is to all the other kinds of health that we have. And of course, as I began to study the physiology of the body and the neurology of the brain, it all began to make more sense. Our bodies really are part of what we mean when we talk about “the soul.” The Imago Dei is not just an ethereal identity; it is a physical one, and it is one that Jesus came to affirm when he took on all the dimensions of humanity: physiology, emotionality, psychology, and spirituality. They all work together.
Physical Health is a Testimony
Most people don’t think about exercise as something worshipful, but it is. One of the problems that rationalism gave us is a dichotomy between our values and the rest of life. Worship became a thing you do, not a way you live. But of course, as Christians, everything we do should be worship. Your marriage should be worship. Your parenting should be worship. Your work should be worship. And your lifestyle, food, sweat and all, should be worship.
One of the things I encourage people to do when starting out on a health focused lifestyle is to change their mindset. A lot of people walk into it begrudgingly. But use the time to connect with God. There is nothing like exercise to make oneself actually feel, and as Christians, we need to recognize that God gave us that capacity to feel. All pain is not evil; some of it, when you embrace it and allow it shape you, makes you stronger and more alive.