We all know that proper nutrition and exercise are important, but our reasons for believing so are not often tied to our Christian worldview. Worse, so many of our motivations in this arena stem from a root of vanity, either in all-out narcissism or in self-loathing (which is nothing but a particularly deceptive form of pride). So how should Christians view the maintenance of our health? What are some practical spiritual benefits to redirect our motivations?
1. Being Creational
A foundational ethic within Christianity is that of being an agent of creation instead of an agent of chaos. We often talk about this regarding children, in being procreative in the sexual ethics of our marriages as laid out in the creation mandate, but being creational also extends to the preservation of human life. It’s easy to see how healthy practices preserve life. A simple Google search on the health benefits of exercise will argue that point for me, but it’s also important to note that stewardship of one’s body through nutrition and exercise increases one’s ability to have covenant children who are healthy and to care for those children. Nutrition and exercise are means God has provided by which we can fulfill our call to be both creators and preservers of life.
2. Demonstrating a Proper Theology of the Body
Unlike in other religions, Christians are not seeking to escape the body. Our goal is not to abandon this world and flee to the skies. Instead, our hope is in the resurrection and glorification of these earthly bodies in the new heaven and new earth at the renewal of creation. To devalue the body through substance abuse, sexual immorality, or even willful neglect reflects a distorted underlying theology that has wide-reaching spiritual implications. In a nutshell, that which is done to the body cannot be disconnected from one’s spirit. The Gnostics believed in such a division, that the material realm was corrupt and evil and that the immaterial was good. This led many to behave in despicable ways. The thinking was: who cares if you abuse that which is already evil? Yet, scripture reflects the reality that we are to honor God with our bodies. Therefore, caring for one’s body through diet and exercise is a demonstration of a proper theology of who we are as defined by God.
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, NIV
3. Disciplining the Will
Discipline, like any skill, requires practice. I find that a lack of discipline in one aspect of my life is seldom contained to that area alone. Instead, the self-serving mindset that launches a thousand sins eventually seeks safe harbor anywhere it can find. Disciplining the will, then, starts with an understanding that we are to exercise self-control in all things. Too often we try to compartmentalize our lives as Christians, believing we can serve God well in the places we deem fit for Him while excluding Him from the places we want to keep for ourselves. This is true whether you’re someone who uses food and exercise as an idol to prop up your own vanity or whether you’re someone who allows idleness and food to rule your flesh. In either case, you have decided that God has no place in the gym or the kitchen. Self-discipline means acknowledging that God will be worshipped in every facet of our lives. Everything, even our diet and exercise regimens, should be done for His glory.
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.1 Corinthians 9:25, ESV
4. Serving the Church
Staying healthy as best we can is a practical way to serve the church and its members. This could be as simple as being able to stack chairs at the end of a service or help someone move. Being fit permits you to help elderly brothers and sisters or those who suffer from chronic illnesses. The care of the body also allows the ability to work which provides financial means for the church and those members who are unable to work. On the flip side, a disregard for one’s health could very well prove to be an additional burden to the church. In this way, what one chooses to do with one’s body has a direct impact on the Body of Christ. We should all seek to be as healthy as we can given the circumstances God has dealt us so we can support one another.
5. Enhancing Lifelong Biblical Study
Christianity is a religion of the written word as God has chosen to reveal Himself to us through Scripture. As such, every Christian understands the importance of biblical study. The benefits of exercise include improved memory, lengthened attention span, and a potentially lowered risk for degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia–all benefits that enhance one’s ability to learn and retain information. Similarly, proper nutrition has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain thereby protecting brain cells. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that care of one’s health can boost the capacity for a lifelong study of Scripture. And who wouldn’t want to have a better recall of key passages when sharing the gospel with unsaved friends and family?
While both Christian men and women tend to view nutrition and exercise in worldly ways, I find that women are often more susceptible to unhealthy spiritual pitfalls in this area. My hope is that a shift in focus and motivation will help us view the care of our bodies through a Christian lens instead of through the snapshots that splatter the covers of a dozen drugstore fashion magazines.
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.1 Corinthians 10:31, NIV