Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Fitness & Health

Is Fitness Next to Godliness?
Other titles this article has been given include:  
Christians in Barbie Land
Does Your Waistline Affect Your Worth?
By Jan Johnson

"Are you working out every day?" asked Jennifer, a fellow aerobics enthusiast. 

"No," I told her, "I'm working out three times a week, and I feel great." 

"But you won't lose weight that way," she protested.

I winced because I knew my reply sounded so peculiar:  "I'm not trying to look like a babe.  I just want to be healthy and average-weight."

Jennifer assumed that I was like many American men and women, 65 million of whom are dieting on an average day.  In our culture which says all men should resemble workout buffs and all women should be pencil-thin, overexercising and daily weigh-ins are common.  The apostle Paul might paraphrase Philippians 3:19 for our culture by writing,  "Their destiny is destruction, their god is their flat stomach, and their glory is in their shame."

Fitness, one of the principal paths to good health, has now become intertwined deeply and dangerously with self-worth.  Supposedly the more fit you look, the more likely you are to be hired for a job, to find a spouse, to be one of the admired and appreciated.  This is especially true among American women, 77 percent of whom believe they are overweight while only 25 percent are. Even among fourth grade girls, 50 percent to 80 percent are dieting. 

Fitness is not an end in itself, however.  It is important only as a tool to help us glorify God in who we are and what we do.  As for thinness, our faith says that true attractiveness comes from the growth of the inner self toward God, not from outward show (1 Pet. 3:3-5).  So as the sales of Christian books and videos about fitness soar, we wonder, Are we listening to what God says about body and appearance or to a culture which tells us to arrange our schedules and budgets around losing weight or body-building and to feel guilty for looking sideways at a baked potato?  Are we striving for good health or is shapeliness now next to godliness?  Here are some paths to consider in finding an attitude toward fitness that flows out of love for God instead of the obsession with our culture's values.

Determine the essence of self-worth.  There one true source of self-worth is God’s view of us.  I am a worthy person because God loves me:  "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!" (1 Jn. 3:1).  Someday I’ll be sitting in a wheelchair and my head will be bobbing.  I may not know my own name and I will not be worth much to society or many people around me. But I will be worth as much to God on that day as any other day.  Believing this truth in our hearts is not an easy task, but following Jesus means that we are in the process of absorbing this truth and letting go of the desire for continual self-affirmation and self-fulfillment.  One step in that process may be to surrender the goal of being eligible to model swimwear.

Honor God with your body.   In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul spoke about using our bodies to honor God as we flee sexual immorality.  The passage presents the idea that, left to our own devices, we will use our body to get what we want, which today might include the admiring glances of a date or the authority that a well-put-together appearance commands on the job.  Part of the Christian adventure is to explore ways to make our bodies a not-so-grievous dwelling place for the Holy Spirit and understand that our bodies are "for the Lord, and the Lord for the body" (1 Cor.  6:19, 13). 

The effects of chronic dieting diminish our capacity for service to God.  Irritability, poor concentration, anxiety, depression, apathy, fatigue, disturbed sleep make it difficult to get out of the front seat of a car, much less walk the extra mile with a hurting person.  Fitness then becomes an important issue we bring before God, asking Him:  What is your will about how I become and remain physically fit? 

Because we each have different physical characteristics and patterns, the answers aren't the same for everyone.  When Randy, who was a wrestler in high school and now lives in a beach community, sought God's will about weight and appearance, he confessed to his small group at church, "I spend too much time and money on looking good:  I work out everyday;  I play outdoor sports to get a tan;  I search for clothing to match my surfer look.  I want to spend more time praying and reading the Bible.  Pray for me in this struggle."  As I've asked God over the years to show me His will regarding fitness, He has shown me that I need to base my goal weight on what the medical charts say rather than what it takes to look eighteen years old;  that I need to use an at-home exercise video instead of going to a gym because of time commitments to family and work;   that I should not have a "shame attack" if I miss my aerobic routine occasionally.  

Accept the body that God gave you as His gift to you.  As each of us was knit together in the womb, we seem to have inherited a certain body shape, as scientists are now discovering.  Adopting our culture's standards can make us wish God had made different choices.  Paul warned us:  "Don't let the world squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, . . ." (Rom. 12:2, Phillips).  As God remolds our thoughts about our bodies according to eternal standards of attractiveness, we can almost laugh at the temporariness of the world's standards.  For example, in the days of the Flemish painter Rubens, pear-shaped women were most appealing.  Today, wide hips are a curse to be worked off, unless of course you live in the Middle East where wide hips increase a woman's prospects for marriage.  Even within our own culture, American men and women in the media are much thinner than their counterparts of twenty years ago, says a study by the City University of New York. We can be liberated from the forces of our appearance-crazed culture only as we learn to be content with whatever state our genetic heritage has pre-disposed us to (Phil. 4:12).

On days when I look into the floor-length mirror and see that my shape doesn't match that of a magazine model (whose average size is 6!), I strain to recall God's great acceptance of me from a phrase in one of my favorite verses, Psalm 18:19:  "[God] rescued me because he delighted in me."  As I put my hands on my hips and lean closer to the mirror, I'm likely to whisper to my reflection:  "This is me -- the one that God rescued, the one that God delights in." 

Aim for self-control, not preoccupation.  When we berate ourselves for gaining a pound or constantly weigh ourselves (or tell a spouse or child to do so), this may be fitness obsession, not self-control.  "I always thought Linda was the epitome of self-control," says Beth.  "Then we went on a women's retreat together.  She complained at every meal about fat grams and threw her food away.  She dressed and re-dressed in the morning, explaining that she used to be overweight and was now very careful with her appearance.  Her kind of self-control didn't have anything to do with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and so on."

The fruit of the Spirit, self-control, flows out of Christians who manage what is within their control and surrender what is beyond its limits.  We can control whether or not we eat proper amounts of food and get proper amounts of exercise, but we can't control whether or not the results make us look like Ken or Barbie. 

Let God help you. It's not an easy task to live so differently from our culture and it seems impossible without prayers such as these: 

Help me to link what I feel about myself with Your unfailing love for me.

Help me focus my life on my growing union with You, not on the hype of the culture. 

By choosing to pray this way, we open ourselves to hear God's answers and let fitness have its appropriate place in our lives.  We move along in learning how to surrender our bodies as tools to glorify God.

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This article orignally appeared in Discipleship Journal.  These ideas are discussed in greater detail in When Food Is Your Best Friend (and Worst Enemy). {link to book}

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