By Pastor Jonathan Pernell
Both bodies and souls are important to the Christian.
We know that God created humans with these two interconnected parts, and that the health (or sickness) of one can influence the health (or sickness) of the other. God made us and redeems us as whole persons, and it’s a Christian distinctive to care about it all — not just the soul, but the soul and body.
But valuable as both parts are, the apostle Paul goes a step further to help us understand the priority. The central passage on this topic is in his first letter to Timothy. Exhorting him to be “a good servant of Christ Jesus,” Paul writes,
[T]rain yourself for godliness; for 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. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. (1 Timothy 4:7–9)
Many commentators point out that “bodily training” is an athletic allusion similar to 1 Corinthians 9:25. Paul’s point there and here are identical: he contrasts the superior benefits of spiritual training with the limited benefits of physical training. Spiritualtraining is for the imperishable wreath and procures value in the present life and in the one to come.
Both kinds of training are important, but spiritual training — godliness — is most important.
Help to Keep Caring
Now, at this point, let me be clear (or perhaps confess): For whatever incentives the Christian value of the body brings toward exercise, Paul’s words here about godliness can tend to mute them, at least for me. So yes, it is good to do physical exercise because God cares about the body. But actually getting to the exercise — actually picking ourselves up to devote the time toward bodily training — is made even more difficult when we know that, at best, physical exercise is only second best. Our question becomes:
How do we bring ourselves to consistently do something that is difficult when we know there is something else we could be doing which the Bible says is explicitly more beneficial?
Workouts take time. And every workout is the product of a choice to work out rather than, say, read your Bible. One way or another, as over-simplified as this might come across, we must come to grips with the fact that we are expending strenuous effort into a “second-rate” enterprise. And that, at least to me, presents a problem for continued motivation.
Therefore, it seems that the best sustainable solution for continued motivation in physical exercise is to target spiritual benefits in the actual event of the working out.
So what are they?
Our Mental Posture
So now I have to step away from generalities to refer to some personal trial and error. One quick answer to our problem, it might seem, is podcasts. “If you want spiritual benefits while exercising,” maybe you’re thinking, “just listen to good preaching on iTunes.” While I have no doubt this is helpful for some people, I’d venture to say that it isn’t for most, not if you’re exerting, at least in some points, peak physical effort. My past attempts to listen to podcasts typically led to a deflated workout and a distracted mind. Trying to get that last rep to the cadence of Keller’s voice just didn’t push me. Furthermore, I came away from amazing content having only given it a superficial hearing (which I think could be more detrimental than not listening at all).
So beyond podcasts, beyond stretching ourselves too thin by simultaneously overwhelming multiple faculties, I’d advocate that the spiritual benefit of exercise comes through our mental posture at the moment of our most intense physical exertion.
This gets down to the details of what is going through our minds when we step beyond what’s comfortable to do what’s necessary. This is when we go from easy to difficult.
And that’s where grace comes in.
Grace and Effort
The reality under everything in our lives is the grace of God in Jesus. What do we have that we did not receive? (1 Corinthians 4:7). Physical exercise is no different. In fact, perhaps the best way to start any workout is to recognize this in prayer. One practice is to remember three simple truths in the form of thanksgiving.
First, thank you, God, for my body that, though imperfect, works now and will be resurrected one day.
Second, thank you for the common grace behind such a facility like this that understands the importance of the body (admittingly, we do the YMCA, which may make this prayer easier than if at other gyms).
Third, thank you for grace even when things are hard, and help me, in the toughest moments of this workout, to wrestle gravity in the strength you supply.
This last prayer characterizes the mental approach which yields the spiritual benefits of physical exercise. It has to do with grace and effort.
Human exertion, at some level, is necessary in just about all our waking life, but it is especially felt in exercise. Consider the scenario of exercise when it’s most challenging. Maybe it’s that last uphill mile, or the final three reps of the shoulder press. To be sure, we feel the finiteness of our resources in those moments. And we will absolutely go somewhere to find the fuel that will help us finish. There are ten reps here, and you just barely pushed up the seventh. How will you get the next three? You must find motivation somewhere.
Without even trying to, the mind, like a starved dog on the scent of a bone, starts digging, frantically trying to find something to hold before our failing bodies as a worthy incentive. The easiest fallbacks are typically self-absorbed: because we want to look a certain way, or because we don’t want to whimp out, or because we used to be this strong, or because we plan to write an article about all this. The mind, working in tandem with the body, will default somewhere like this if it’s not occupied somewhere else.
3x10s for Godliness
But what if we train our minds, our souls, to default on grace? What if, in that moment of intense exertion, our motivation became the demonstration of God’s grace in our sweating, straining, desperate effort? We can’t lift that bar. We can’t breathe on our own. We didn’t create ourselves. And yet, we will lift that bar. We will breathe. We are God’s creatures. By his grace.
And when we lift that bar — the very moment of lifting that bar — we are bearing witness to our person that God’s grace mobilizes us to do things. Everything in that moment is given to us, and yet, we are working. Grace and effort. When we set our minds on the demonstration of God’s grace, in the actual experience of his grace behind our effort, the gym becomes a spiritual training compound.
Exercise becomes an experience, a practice field, that can be transposed into weightier matters. The more and more we prove to ourselves the presence of God’s grace in our work, the more and more we will be equipped, for the sake of our sanctification, to press in on that grace whenever and wherever the going gets tough. And this becomes our goal. This transposition becomes the fuel for that final push.
We can do hard work, knowing that we are counted righteous by faith, not works, and that we’re commanded to work out our salvation in God’s strength (Romans 4:5; Philippians 2:12). We can walk away after a good hour of physical exercise, thirsty and heart pounding, learning to say about that, and then other things: I just worked hard, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Bodily training, after all, is of some value, but godliness is of value in every way. So let’s aim for both, at the same time.
Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is the lead pastor of Cities Church in Minneapolis–St. Paul, where he lives with his wife, Melissa, and their seven children. He is the author of Never Settle for Normal: The Proven Path to Significance and Happiness.