Faith and Fitness (Gospel Rhythms Series Pt. 3)
by Pastor Mark Smith
During the winter of 2020, I had a personal dilemma. Taking my kids on a walk, they quickly rode past me and straight toward the busy cross street. In a panic, I ran to catch up in an effort to avoid their sudden death, but after about ten steps, my fuel tank of endurance was running out. By the time I made it to the top of the hill, I was huffing and puffing and couldn’t go on! Sweat was rolling, I was dizzy, and I needed to support myself on their scooters to recuperate. So while I was grateful my kids were safe, I had an introspective question- when was the last time I ran? When was the last time I worked out at all? Given the state I was in, it had been a while. I wasn’t embarrassed but rather surprised I didn’t have more endurance. Our family had previously spent two nights a week attending group CrossFit workouts, but gradually, then suddenly, I was not in the physical state I thought I was.
So, I was determined to jump on the bandwagon and make personal fitness goals with many others who find a renewed motivation in the New Year. Losing weight, gaining muscle, and getting more endurance was my starting place, and I took the necessary steps to make sure I could give it my all. However, as I progressed little by little, I noticed for the first time in my life that my rhythms of exercise mirrored the rhythms of my spiritual habits. As I jogged around my block, my mind kept taking me to memories of when I first began quiet morning devotionals with the Lord. The effort was uncomfortable at first, but the rhythm became natural and eventually rewarding over time. Furthermore, the challenges I began to overcome in exercise reminded me of the spiritual growth God had started working in me to be more like Christ. At times it was painful, and yet good nonetheless.
This blog proposes the harmony between our physical well-being and our spiritual well-being. When the two are regularly practiced with Christ at the center, they do far more than one may realize. Another exercise lies underneath physical exercise, where spiritual habits and meditations stir and progress into holistic fitness. I hope to encourage you of these connections to broaden your gospel rhythms for personal growth in fitness as it relates to your faith.
Considering physical exercise as a gospel rhythm may need some convincing, but then again, maybe not. Due to our cultural standards and social imaginaries, exercise is often convoluted and misrepresented. I’m contributing to an ongoing, well-developed conversation amongst many in the faith as I write this. Kevin Vanhoozer is a theologian I first heard address the suspicions and similarities between physical fitness and spiritual “fitness.”
In his book, Hearers and Doers, he writes:
“What is so interesting is not simply the fact that gyms and health clubs have become a multi-billion dollar business, but that the notion that our bodies are the canvas on which we exercise our will to power. That our bodies are our own, to do with what we desire, is an important piece of the contemporary social imaginary, even though it denies Paul’s ‘you are not your own’ (1 Cor. 6:19). Working out becomes one more form of consumerism, where what we are buying into is the conceit that we can through workouts make ourselves over into something beautiful…being fit is like being useful: nothing is useful in general; rather, particular things have particular uses. What is the purpose for making the effort to become fit? Some might say that fitness is its own reward, but what they mean is that self-actualization is a self-evident end. That depends on the self that is actualized, which forces the challenging question, What kind of person do we want to become, and why? And the even tougher question, What is the meaning of life?”
Our rhythms of exercise speak into more areas of our life than we think. If we are to believe Paul’s words and give our bodies to the Lord, how are we treating them? Even so, in an age of body-comparisons and health club conceit, is it possible to align our faith with fitness in an age of body-comparisons and health club vanity? I say yes. I’d like to offer two thoughts of reflection on why faith and fitness are intertwined, followed by three simple rhythms we might adopt to promote this harmony.
First, Our Bodies are Masterfully Designed and Wonderfully Made
Our physical bodies magnify the intentional physical design of an invisible God. Each of us, male and female, are made in His image. While our bodies go through many changes in this life, whether it be the developmental changes of a growing youngster or the beautiful changes a mother will experience rearing children, God is the great designer. He looks upon His creation with love. Therefore, your body is meaningful to God, and you are a physical testimony to His handiwork. In an interview, Dr. Erik Thoennes describes the importance of caring for our bodies well: “We need to realize that there’s a holistic view biblically of human beings as body and soul and so we need to care for our bodies and our souls and also realize that those two work together. Often the health of your body has an effect on your soul.” So when we are unsatisfied with our bodies, our physical performance, or appearance, we must know where these thoughts are coming from. Insecurities around our body image is a dangerous reality and may turn destructive if not interrogated as it can draw one away from contentment and joy in God’s design of us.
Second, Physical Exercise Produces Spiritual Benefits
In an interview on the same topic, John Piper describes the moment he discovered the very real overlap between his physical state and his spiritual state. If he didn’t get enough sleep, he became irritable the next day. If he had enough sleep, he would be less irritable and have more patience. His sleep directly affected his ability to see spiritual fruit in his life. Likewise, the benefits of exercise are astronomical to one’s mental state and overall health.
When exercise is balanced and regularly implemented in a daily schedule, the consistency will bring about positive results that will aid one’s awareness and satisfaction in other areas in life. Exercise also promotes spiritual resilience. As I’ve said before, working through pain and discomfort during exercise to reap the benefits is a fulfilling experience. When your exercise is practiced as a gospel rhythm, the benefits move beyond the physical into spiritually rewarding growth. God’s grace for giving you strength is not only expressed but felt. Joy begins to have a new dimension. Gratitude rises to the surface as daily activities once longed for meet reality. Playing freeze tag with your kids, competing in a race with friends, or reaching goals you struggled to hit is that much sweeter.
Whether you’re an athlete, fitness enthusiast, or beginning to take your physical exercise seriously, I encourage you to create gospel rhythms to help draw you closer to Lord. Here are three rhythms to get you started as you consider your gospel rhythm of exercise:
1. Intentionally bring Jesus into the moment
There can be several ways to do this. You can start and end with a short prayer of gratitude, listen to sermons instead of the news or podcasts, and switch your “Get Amped!” playlist to high-energy worship music. This past spring, my schedule only allowed me to work out or run in the mornings. I can still remember the tranquility of running to a rising sun listening to “Awake My Soul” by Hillsong Worship. I can’t wait for the spring sunrises, so I can run and spend time with the Lord. I will acknowledge that many may not agree with playing music while exercising. If you are an athlete training, it may not be ideal for you as you get distracted. That is perfectly acceptable. Those out there who do want to be distracted from your huffing and puffing and sore muscles, go ahead, listen to your techno Jesus music.
2. Exercise in community and solitude
Like our faith, we need both moments of shared experiences and personal reflection. Exercising in a community brings healthy accountability and fun to the mix. You realize you are not the only one facing challenges and can turn your introspective tendencies toward celebrating a friend’s achievements. There are many creative ways to exercise with others, but if you haven’t done it before or feel self-conscious about working out with others, the most challenging part of working out with others will be laying your expectations aside. I remember when a friend invited me to a group workout at 6 a.m. The gym was filled with people I didn’t know, and I was a bit insecure. My friend encouraged me the entire time and wouldn’t let me compare myself to others. By the end of the class, I threw up in the bathroom. And everyone knew it. By that point, the music stopped, so all you could hear was my hurling sounds from the other room! It was terrible. Thinking I’d be taking the walk of shame, I came back to a group of friendly faces who had also vomited their first workouts! They knew (before I did) that my first workout would be hard but they made sure I wouldn’t experience embarrassment, only comradery.
Still, if I only exercised in community with others, I would miss out on the personal moments of reflection and spiritual connection I receive during workouts alone. God is able to bring up thoughts, feelings, and memories when our minds are cleared from the distractions of life. While some may consider working out a distraction, I would argue the consistent pace of movement and the repetitive “flow” effect has on the mind. If you have time, following up your workout with devotions, prayer, or scripture reading may help you receive this benefit.
3. “Consistency is key” is not just a fitness term but truth to spiritual longevity and growth
As with any new rhythm, striving for consistency is always more beneficial than believing change comes quickly. Sometimes it can, but most of the time, long-lasting change takes consistent movements in the right direction. Compare exercise to praying. Is it more beneficial and consistent with Scripture to reduce your prayer to two hours once a week? Of course not! Consistent daily prayer will reap far more benefits. It’s the same with exercise; a little goes a long way. If you desire exercise to be a fulfilling rhythm whereby the spiritual gifts are experienced with the physical, then consistency is the key to intimacy with the Lord. Only when we have traveled can we look back on where we’ve been. That is where growth is discovered.
Christian, I hope this encourages you toward Christ and not away from Him. Our stories are our own, of which only Jesus knows the intimate details. As we seek to discover the difference Jesus makes in all of life, let your conceptions of fitness be planted in gospel realities. Let gospel rhythms seep into your workouts so your benefits of exercise can be felt in the body and the soul.
Striving towards Christ in all of life, including the areas we think are our own, will demonstrate His goodness and grace in ways we have yet to experience. There are many ways Jesus meets with us, don’t underestimate His power during exercise.
Pastor Mark Smith is among other things an enthusiast by nature–about theology, God’s Church, his family and as may now be apparent, fitness. If you haven’t yet met Mark leading our West Seattle Expression, look for the guy likely dressed to the nines on Sundays or in a Kettle Bell graphic shirt the rest of the week.