Why Exercise?

Stephen W. Hiemstra, 1983
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 1983

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:18–20)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Which spiritual discipline should I focus on?

Sin distracts and separates us from God. The spiritual disciplines of highest value target sins to which we, as Americans, are especially vulnerable—sexual immorality and gluttony. Both are sins against the body.

Jesus is clear when he says that sin begins in the heart. On the question of adultery, he says: “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:28) This statement is immediately followed by hyperbole about chopping off body parts that lead to sin [1]. This transition from heart to body is an example of how the body and mind are unified [2].

The best example of the unity of body and mind applied to spiritual disciplines is found in Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out. Nouwen describes our spiritual journey as a unity of three dimensions—reaching inward to ourselves; reaching outward to others; and reaching upwards to God. In ourselves, we move from being lonely to becoming content in solitude. In our relationships with others, we move from hostility to hospitality. In our relationship with God, we move from illusion to prayer (Nouwen 1975, 15). The paradox of this unity in three dimensions is that progress in one dimension makes progress in the others easier.

This linkage of spiritual progress in different dimensions is especially important in dealing with sins of the body. Sins against the body invariably involve mild to severe addictions—obsessive behaviors that we repeatedly engage in. When we allow ourselves our “little indulgences”, they spread to other aspects of our life. Bad behaviors turn into bad habits that turn into bad lifestyles. Undertaking a “fast” in vulnerable areas of our lives can nip bad behaviors early in the process. Gerald May (1988, 177) writes: “It all comes down to quitting it, not engaging in the next addictive behavior, not indulging in the next temptation.” Physical discipline, accordingly, works to cleanse the whole system.

Why exercise? The simple answer is because your body is the temple of God. We are under obligation to ourselves and to God to keep our temple clean. A more nuanced answer is that the physical disciplines grant us strength to discipline other, less obvious, areas of our lives. The body and the mind are inseparable—physical exercise is a kind of beach assault on our island of sin [3]. Beach assaults, like the one on Iwo Jima during the Second World War [4], are risky but the payoff is huge. It is strangely ironic that when we exercise we often exhibit less interest in food, alcohol, even tobacco because we are more relaxed and self-confident.

In clinical pastoral education we were taught to look for dissidence between words and the body language of patients that we visited. This disharmony between words and body language is, of course, a measure of truth. In like manner, the biblical paradigm of beauty is that the truth of an object matches its appearance [5]. Did I mention that body and mind are closely bound together?

[1]  I wonder, which body part is really in view here?

[2] Macchia (2012, 104) writes: “Your personal rule of life is formatted an reflected in your . . . physical priorities (the care and training of your body, mind, and heart).”

[3] Reynolds (2012), who writes almost exclusively on a biblical perspective on weight-loss, notes that the first sin in the Bible is a temptation involving food (Gen 3:1–6).

[4]  Japan is a family of islands. In February 1945, United States amphibious forces landed on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima and engaged the Japanese military in one of the bloodiest battles during the war.

[5] “Our modern images feature surface and finish; Old Testament images present structure and character. Modern images are narrow and restrictive; theirs were broad and inclusive…For us beauty is primarily visual; their idea of beauty included sensations of light, color, sound, smell, and even taste” (Dyrness 2001, 81).

REFERENCES

Dyrness, William A. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Macchia, Stephen A. 2012. Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

May, Gerald G. 1988. Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: HarperOne.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Reynolds, Steve and MG Ellis. 2012. Get Off the Couch: 6 Motivators to Help You Lose Weight and Start Living. Ventura: Regal.

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