The question of whether or not we should take fitness seriously is a modern question. For much of human history, the manual labor required by life kept people naturally fit without the need for additional exercise. But humans in the 21st century can be incredibly sedentary.
In this discussion, Biola professor Erik Thoennes and TGC Council member and pastor Jeremy Treat discuss the dualism that sometimes leads Christians to believe their bodies don’t matter. We are both body and soul, and when we steward our bodies well, we can often extend the years we will be physically able to serve God and others. On the other hand, a preoccupation with fitness can become an idol. We need to ask ourselves hard questions, such as “Is my identity in my appearance or in Christ?” and “Am I focusing more on the outer man than the inner?”
“We need to realize that there’s a holistic view biblically of human beings as body and soul,” Thoennes says. “And so we need to care for our bodies and our souls and also realize that those two work together. That often the health of your body has an effect on your soul.”
Jeremy Treat: Well, when it comes to fitness, sports, I’m going to defer to Dr. Thoennes here because when I was a student at Biola University I would play intramural football and you would play intramural football and he would school all the youngsters. So you clearly must have thought a little bit about fitness, sports, in the life of a Christian.
Erik Thoennes: Well, that was a long time ago. And I think definitely a Christian should take fitness seriously because our bodies are these incredible gifts from God that are masterfully designed. Just the human hands, just the way the body works is a tremendous gift and we are embodied souls and the resurrected state will be embodied. And so we can’t slip into a mentality that overvalues the soul or the spirit or the immaterial over against the material or the physical.
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, that often the health of your body has an effect on your soul. The Psalms talk about that.
Proverbs talk about the effects, the relationship between body and soul. So if we don’t take care of ourselves physically it can have spiritual, emotional, physical effects on us, even relational and practical effects. You just can’t do certain things, go for hikes with your family, play with your kids, do the sorts of things you can. I was thankful that I was able as a young professor to play sports with the students because that had a social, relational bonding effect so I was very thankful for that.
And, yeah. To steward our incredible gift of our physical bodies I think is expectations Christians should have on themselves.
Treat: Yeah. I feel like for me, personally, I’ve wrestled with this question throughout my life because I grew up loving sports, loving fitness, but I felt this tension between my love for basketball and my love for Jesus.
And I felt like I was given categories from the church that didn’t help resolve those at all. It was one or the other and often times what I was doing with basketball, it didn’t matter to God or so I perceived unless I used it for spiritual purposes to share the gospel with people on the court or to win a championship and thank God after the game.
And now I look back on that and I think in a lot of ways I was working with a sacred-secular divide that didn’t value the place of the body and only saw the soul and this idea that God cares about spiritual things and not other things. So for me when I look at the doctrine of creation, you know, you open up to the opening chapters of the Bible and you see God creating everything good, not only in the spiritual and physical but even the dynamic of creativity and developing and all of that.
So for me, I feel like I’ve grown to appreciate sports whether that’s shooting around with a basketball, doing gymnastics in the front yard with my kids. But there’s a tension in that as well because it can quickly veer the opposite way which I think we see in our culture a lot with fitness and sports.
Thoennes: You have to wonder even, I was just thinking if even the question of whether or not we should take fitness seriously is a pretty modern question. I bet for all of human history, going out and doing something in addition to bringing the crops in and doing all the manual labor people would do that would naturally to keep themselves fit. Now, it has to become a separate category to stay fit when it just was a part of natural life for most people very often but it is.
It’s reality. We can be incredibly sedentary. Our lifestyles allow us to be sedentary and so to realize our bodies were made to be used and God has given us the gift of being able to do that and to steward it and to not have a sacred-secular perspective on these things. Obviously, we can be inordinately concerned about our appearance and I think that’s an important distinction, that our appearance cannot be what’s driving it but stewarding the gift God has given us has to be the main thing we’re about.
Treat: Yeah. I think the point about cultures is interesting because even fitness and beauty and health in our culture gets defined in some ways by this unrealistic standard. I mean, LeBron James says he spends a million dollars a year on his body, right? So to aspire to that….
Thoennes: It’s a good investment for him.
Treat: For the time, the resources, the expertise around him. I mean, you think of how different it is for us and how we think of stewarding our bodies. But let me ask you this, if we think that fitness can be a good thing and is meant to be a good thing in sports, how do you see the idolatry of that then playing out?
If an idol is taking a good thing and making it an ultimate thing how do you see that playing out in our culture?
Thoennes: Well, one is being driven in our efforts at what we call fitness but it’s really just an impression, an appearance that we’re trying to give to people of youthfulness which is an idol in our culture of an appearance that is impressive in some ways.
Talk about something that’s affected ministry in really troubling ways is such an importance on appearance. And so, again, that can be idolatrous but to put an inordinate amount of time on something, even fitness, whatever it is can be out of control if we don’t keep it in perspective and realize that our bodies are wasting away.
And it’s tragic to see guys my age clinging to anything that represents their youthful vigor when the outer man is wasting away and hopefully the inner man is growing stronger in the midst of that.
Treat: Yeah. I feel like for me growing up I definitely saw how fitness and sports became an idol. And I wasn’t self-aware enough to see it but wanting to find my identity and success, wanting to build my community around that.
And so for the athlete or for someone who is very involved in fitness it’s not that different that than different realms in life, that the gospel isn’t into that, that I find my identity in Christ, that I care whether I win or lose but that doesn’t crush me or build my whole life around that. So I think the gospel gives us a whole new framework for thinking about fitness where it restores us to a place of seeing our bodies as a gift from God that we’re called to steward but not as an idol that we’re ultimately going to find our identity in.
Thoennes: Amen. Amen.