Health — October 5, 2015 at 11:02 pm

The Spiritual Gift of Physical Exercise

by

Lining up to race my father on the pavement is a favorite pastime. When I was young, he’d always win, only slowing down every now and then to let me think I was fast. Then, one day, I took off, one quick foot in front of the other, and that was the swift end of my father’s winning streak.

My love for physical fitness began as a young child, adoring my father’s presence and involvement, and grew into a lifelong love of sports: gymnastics, dance, track and field, cheerleading, cycling, and more.

When I became a Christian at age 22, I discovered a new dimension to my favorite activities. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 4:8, “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.” As Paul advised Christians to be trained in good doctrine and discernment, he knew it required diligence and effort—as does physical training.

More Americans than ever know the rigor of exercise firsthand. We have become a nation of athletic hobbyists: runners, cyclists, yogis, and CrossFit devotees. About half of US adults meet current federal guidelines for aerobic activity. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s the highest figure on record. Millions of kids play organized sports, so much that the question hasn’t become if your kid will participate, but which ones. This year, my kindergartner was thrilled to don pink shin guards and start soccer.

We’re right to be concerned about what happens when our love of fitness gets taken to extremes—over-exercise, pressure, competition—and the church should continue to caution us against any hobby becoming an idol. But before we roll our eyes about another fitness challenge or workout of the day a friend posts on Facebook, we would do well to celebrate what our growing embrace of physical activity gets right.

Study after study points out the benefits of exercise at every stage: a healthier body, happier mood, clearer thoughts, deeper sleep. But there are also spiritual benefits. As fitness continues to carve a greater space in our daily routines and our cultural discourse, there’s potential for us as Christians to better appreciate our God-given bodies, our efforts, and God’s creation. The disciplines involved in exercise are similar disciplines that we can use in the Christian life—endurance to finish the race.

Soon after my conversion, I began to couple my love of fitness with a new purpose, but it was magnified after I had my son. I realized that my body would never be the same. God turned any potential anxiety over stretch marks or post-baby weight into excitement to see how he might use me in new ways as I trained.

God is gracious to allow us to enjoy exercise while here on earth. Growing up, fitness of any kind was generally centered on me—how I felt and how I performed. Now, I realize that I can bring God glory, enjoy him and his creation, serve my family well, and enjoy the activity itself. God uses the idea of training, running a race, and enduring as ways to direct our attention to our faith (Isa. 40:31, Heb. 12:1, Rom. 3:5, 2 Tim. 4:7). It’s no surprise that the actual physical activity would remind me of the race set before me and God’s goodness in it.

I’ve taken up cycling, and I find myself appreciating God in new ways. When I ride through a greenway and look at the bright yellow flowers lining the paths, spot that rare white squirrel in our local park, dodge the baby snake scurrying across my path, I know there is a God. His creation calls out his name, and it is glorious. He is creative. He has made a world for us to enjoy, subdue, and exercise dominion and care (Gen. 1: 28-28).

Just as God gives us various gifts, he also gives us various interests for the good of others. Through exercise, I find myself more alert—more attentive to my work and daily life. I have more energy to serve my family. My mind is clearer for ministry. I’m able to get away and pray. I strengthen my muscles for service as well as for general health benefits. And like Olympian Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, I sense the pleasure of God.

Liddell said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” We all experience this at our own levels. When I cycle and use my quadriceps that God gave me to push up a hill that seemed impossible to conquer, I sense God’s delight. I was built for speed and strength, if only to a small degree.

In God’s kindness we can pursue fitness and find rest knowing that we were built for a purpose. And by his grace, we can glorify him in it.

Trillia Newbell is the author of Fear and Faith: Finding the Peace Your Heart Craves (2015) and United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity (2014). She is currently the director of community outreach for the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. A former fitness instructor, Trillia enjoys group fitness, cycling, and listening to music. She is married to her best friend, Thern, and they reside with their two children near Nashville. You can find her at trillianewbell.com and on Twitter at @trillianewbell.

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