What Does the Bible Say About Exercise?
During a worship service, our pastor recently quoted Eric Liddell, the 1934 Olympic runner who said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” This statement made me think more deeply about the hobbies I enjoy. God gave me passions and interests, gifts from Him that may be simply for my pleasure and enjoyment. But that enjoyment should point me towards God. Do I have an attitude of thanking Him for my gifts and interests?
Nutrition and fitness are hobbies that I am passionate about. God-given passions can easily turn into idols, and because I invest a lot of time and thought in working out and eating a healthy diet, I sometimes think about whether my priorities are in the right place. I decided to see if God’s word (the Bible) has anything to say about exercise and nutrition.
First Timothy 4:8 states, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” Until today, I never realized that God specifically mentioned exercise in the Bible. The Message translation, a paraphrase version of the Bible, of this verse reads, “Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.” Paul mentions physical exercise in a positive light while exhorting us that investing in our spiritual growth has both temporal and eternal benefits. The implication is that physical exercise and discipline over our physical bodies is good, but that it only has temporal benefits. We should practice spiritual discipline (e.g. praying, reading the Bible, worshipping), as well, as the benefits of spiritual health are great.
First Corinthians 6:19-20 reads, “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.” Again, the Message states, “Or didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.” These verses have several implications. If you read the preceding verses, this passage seems to refer to lust and sex outside of marriage. Additionally, our bodies are literally the place where the Holy Spirit is housed. In the Old Testament, qualified officials had to go to the temples to access the Holy Spirit, but after Jesus died, God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to all believers, and now the Spirit resides in each of us who belong to God (Acts 2:1-4). We are now the temples. More relevant to the purpose of this writing, the words, “honor God with your body” implies that we are to take care of our bodies. Maintaining appropriate physical health can give us more physical energy to devote to spiritual endeavors.
Like virtually any hobby, bodybuilding and dieting can become idols. We can begin to put too much priority on our physique and weight on the scale. I ask myself difficult questions: Am I spending at least as much time with God (praying, listening to worship music, reading and studying the Bible) as I am at the gym? Do I find my identity in the way I look, or do I find my identity as a child of God? Am I exercising for fitness and strength, or am I exercising because of my vanity and pride?
At times, I do not have clear answers to these questions. I exercise because it energizes me, it helps me to manage my insomnia, depression, and anxiety, it is empowering and fun, and I desire to be healthy and attractive to my husband.
Yet I have always struggled with body image, and I easily slip into a mindset that my physical appearance defines me as a person. If I don’t like the way I look on a particular day, I feel like a failure. I tend to compare myself to others, either condemning myself or feeling superior. When I catch myself struggling in these areas, I ask God for His help in seeing myself as beautiful because I am His daughter, but clearly there is sin in my attitude towards my appearance. I have begun thanking God for my health and for the pleasure I get from lifting weights, as I have not always been mindful that these are gifts from Him.
Today I am thankful for my health. I have been feeling a bit under the weather, but I am free from major illness or disability. I am thankful for the passions that God gave me: exercise, artistic and creative outlets, writing, and reading books.
Additional Bible verses related to exercise:
3 John 1:2 – Dear friend, I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in spirit.
1 Corinthians 9:27 – I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.