“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
Have you ever heard a sermon about caring for your body? I have not. And this strikes me as odd, given that Paul tells us that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that we are to honor God with our body. Indeed, it is through the body that all aspects of our spiritual life are mediated. We think, we feel, and we act, for better or worse, through our body. There is no physical or spiritual action that we undertake that does not involve the body. Moreover, our physical condition can materially affect our pursuit of Kingdom virtues. For example, consider how difficult it is to show kindness and compassion to others when we are tired. Jesus described this when three of his closest disciples could not stay awake with him as he walked in garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified. His plaintive yet insightful words, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) Our willpower is at a low point when we are weary, which makes us more vulnerable to temptation and sin. Or consider how our stamina declines when we are overweight or out of shape. Jesus’ command is, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (Matthew 5:41) This is assumed by the modern reader to be a metaphor. But Jesus’ reference was from real life at the time, because a Roman soldier could force a citizen to carry his load for up to one mile. How many Christians could even walk a single mile today, let alone two while carrying a heavy load? The point being that our ability to serve is directly impacted by our physical condition.
Others have noted that our body is made by God, and that we are to use it to glorify him. According to Rick Warren, “Your body is holy because God made it, and everything God makes has a purpose. We are to bring glory to God with our bodies, so we can’t compartmentalize our lives and think that we can divorce our bodies and live as if only our spirit matters. God owns your body!” And yet most of our Christian leaders seem reluctant to teach a theology of caring for our bodies. The reasons are no doubt complicated. I suppose that a principal one is that failure to care for our bodies is self-evident. Given that roughly 2/3 of adults in our country are now considered medically obese, one does not have to look very far on a Sunday morning to identify the guilty. This is not a trivial concern because shaming people is itself contrary to the love we are committed to show to others. And yet it is this same love that compels us to kindly speak the truth to those who may be on a slippery path. It is ironic that we Christians crusade for the sanctity of human life, from the preborn to the end of life, and often take a stand against selected substances we put into the body such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs, etc. And yet, as soon as anyone suggests that caring for our body is a moral imperative, we quickly change the subject.
The practical reasons to care for the body are well known. The medical justifications alone are overwhelming – everything from preventing heart disease and diabetes to averting many cancers. Moreover, there are affirmative health benefits – from increased energy and stamina to quality and length of life. It can also have a positive impact on our emotions. When I started running regularly in 1979, I found that the mood swings I had experienced for many years disappeared overnight.
But is caring for our body a Christian virtue? Or is it a purely private matter? I think it is fair to say that many people in the church consider it to be the latter, with no more right or wrong to it than the color of socks they pull out of a drawer in the morning. On the other hand, there are some who look at how we care for our body as a matter of honoring God – being more akin to other Christian virtues that are commanded in God’s word. Consider the three most critical areas of proper body care: rest; exercise; and diet.
Rest is so important in the Bible, that there is an entire Commandment directed to it. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) This command emerges directly from the nature of God, who after six days of creative action, rested on the seventh day. The most well-known comfort psalm starts, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:1-3a) Notice that the Lord makes me lie down. He doesn’t suggest that I lie down, just as he doesn’t suggest that I rest on the Sabbath, he commands it. Not to put too fine a point on this, but I believe God understands the tendency of many of us to shortchange our time of rest. We are either too busy, or too distracted, or too preoccupied with other things and our rest is sacrificed.
Proper rest is essential for spiritual growth. According to Christian author Jim Smith, “The number one enemy of Christian spiritual formation today is exhaustion… The human person is not merely a soul housed in a body. Our bodies and souls are unified. If our bodies suffer, so do our souls. We cannot neglect the body in pursuit of spiritual growth. In fact, neglecting our bodies necessarily impedes our spiritual growth… If our bodies are not sufficiently rested, our energies will be diminished and our ability to pray, read the Bible, enter solitude or memorize Scripture will be minimized.” (The Good And Beautiful God)
Physical exercise per se is not mentioned very much in Scripture. No doubt this has a lot to do with the times in which the Bible was written. For the most part, the common people were living a hardscrabble existence. Whether making bricks for their Egyptian masters, wandering in the desert, or struggling under Roman rule, daily life inherently involved hard physical labor. The idea that one day large numbers of people would live sedentary lifestyles – from desk jobs to computer games – was incomprehensible to the ancients. Of course, physical training for sporting events was understood in the Roman world, and while Paul knew it had value, he framed it within the broader issue of holiness. “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8) Still, Paul believed that our bodies are to be offered as a sacrifice to God. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)
Sloth, which is laziness and the avoidance of work, has long been viewed by the church as one of the seven deadly sins. There are a number of teachings regarding sloth in the Bible. For example, “Through sloth, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks.” (Ecclesiastes 10:18) “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway” (Proverbs 15:9) The virtue that stands in opposition to sloth, is diligence, which speaks to the ability to apply oneself to the task at hand. Although not uniquely applied to physical exercise, sloth and diligence often form the battle lines in the fight for our body.
I believe physical exercise is a virtue because a well conditioned body best positions us to live out other Christian virtues. There is a tendency I think for us to see physical exercise only from the perspective of our own health – to view it as a means to feeling better in and of ourselves. While this is a benefit, a properly functioning body enables us to serve others. It can determine whether we have the strength to walk with a friend, help a neighbor, play with a child, travel on a mission trip, or serve in a food pantry.
What we eat and drink are of concern to God. He gave the Israelites very precise guidelines on what they were to eat and how to prepare it. And also what they were to avoid. The story of Daniel proposing and following a diet that avoided certain foods is a classic example of the importance of what we eat and drink in our spiritual journeys. Indeed, many of our Christian brothers and sisters who fast, do so as a so-called “Daniel Fast” (vegetables in lieu of meat, wine, and other rich foods). Gluttony, which is over-eating, has classically been viewed by the church as one of the seven deadly sins. This is supported by various references in Scripture. For example, “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.” (Proverbs 23:20-21) Abstinence is one of the seven contrary virtues that has historically been recognized in opposition to gluttony. These days, abstinence has taken on a decidedly sexual connotation, which all but hides its broader meaning to control those desires that would tempt us to overindulge in any area of our life.
Self-control, which is mentioned by Paul as a fruit of the Spirit, is one of the key virtues involved in regulating our eating habits (and for that matter, rest and exercise as well). I particularly like this description of self-control: “Self Control is dominance over all desires. It is one of the most important spiritual virtues that are essential for growth in the knowledge of God, pursuit of the Truth, and attaining of our future destiny.” (Anonymous) The Biblical image is powerful, “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.” (Proverbs 25:28) Although self-control has a more expansive meaning for Christians, it nonetheless is a gateway virtue for the care of our body. If we lack self-control in what we eat and drink, it seems probable that we will lack self-control in other areas of our physical and spiritual lives as well.
For those who agree that caring for one’s body is important for spiritual health, there are several caveats that must be mentioned.
First, we must be ever vigilant that in caring for our body we don’t drift into sin. Too much rest can become laziness and sloth. Too much focus on what we eat can become an eating disorder. And too much exercise can lead to idolatry of our body. We live in a culture that worships the perfect human body and those fortunate enough to have the time and underlying physical abilities can easily turn any of these virtues into a vice. And, of course, overhanging all of these sins is the greater sin of pride, which is the complete anti-God state of mind.
Second, many of us also have significant limitations related to our health and/or aging. For us, our temple of the Holy Spirit has sprung some leaks and is slowly perishing. Indeed, we can never escape the fact that the “body that is sown is perishable.” (1 Corinthians 15:42) It is also certain that at one time or another each of us will enter a season of life where obligations and duties leave little time for exercise. At such times, we need not add any measure of guilt to already stressed out lives. Rather, our goal should be to provide whatever care we can give with the time we have.
Finally, we must not elevate the care for our body above other Christian virtues. Who among us would not rather live with a spouse who is out of shape but kind hearted, rather than perfectly fit and mean spirited? The adage that beauty is only skin deep is a good reminder. Not dissimilar from the words of God to Samuel when he was looking for a replacement king for Saul, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
I am convinced that care for our body is a Biblical imperative. God provides simply too much direction for its care for us to ignore. As in all areas of our spiritual lives, we must be on guard against compartmentalization. Everything must be consecrated to God, to his will and his glory alone. William Law, 18th Century Anglican author of the classic Christian devotional “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life,” wrote the following: “The devout are people who … consider God in everything, serve God in everything, and make every aspect of their lives holy by doing everything in the name of God and in a way that conforms to God’s glory.”
Whether our focus is on caring for our body or any other Christian virtue, what matters is whether our actions are pleasing in the sight of God. Our touchstone must forever be found in the words of Paul, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)