What does it mean for a Christian to be sanctified or set apart “wholly,” as in “spirit, soul, and body” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)? A lot has been written over the years on disciplines geared toward inner sanctification (that of spirit and soul), but I wonder if we sometimes neglect discussing a Christian’s duty to discipline his outer man, his body. Now that I am in my 40’s, consider myself to be approximately 40 pounds over my ideal weight, and feel pressure to perform about 40 different responsibilities, I find myself tempted to avoid important physical disciplines. My conscience, however, tells me that Scripture demands that I be a responsible steward of the outer vessel that God has “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). How can I best take care of this body that God owns? This question is one that every Christian must answer. Here are five ideas for taking care of the “tent” (2 Cor. 5:1) in which you are currently clothed.
1. Find a Fitness Friend.
Going it alone in the Christian life rarely works, so it’s not surprising that when it comes to working out, “two are better than one” (Ecc. 4:9). Not only does a fitness partner provide accountability for sticking to an exercise routine, but a Christian friend can provide encouraging fellowship while you workout. Two months ago, I began working out three days a week with a Christian who lectures at the university where I teach. Although he and I attend different churches, we seek to sharpen each other (Prov. 27:17). We also laugh with each other, particularly when I do a face plant into the mat after trying one too many push-ups. Unfortunately, not every believer can readily get together with a like-minded workout partner. If you cannot find a Christian friend, you might want to develop an evangelistic relationship with a workout partner. Consistent, regular contact with a lost person during a workout can produce repeated opportunities to share Christ.
2. Ditch your Drinking Addiction.
This recommendation refers primarily to soda and sugary drinks. People who drink alcohol are not the only ones with chemical addictions, you know. My workout buddy just so happens to have been the former manager of a fitness center in California. He told me that the number one way to take off calories is to stop drinking in calories through sugar-laden drinks. For me, this piece of advice has meant cutting back on drinks that I love—apple juice, grape juice, and Sprite—and replacing those drinks with water. Yes, water is boring to me; the only time I crave it is when I have cotton mouth after the first five minutes on the treadmill. Nonetheless, I have found been humbled to learn that I am something of a sugar addict. Just like I don’t want my mind to be controlled by alcohol, I don’t want my body to be dependent on sugar. I have not gone so far as to abstain from all sugary drinks, but I am striving to be master over my intake rather than letting my intake master me (1 Cor. 6:12).
3. Stop Staying up Late, and Stop Sleeping In.
Somehow, these words sound like a distant piece of advice from my mother during my freshman year of college. Not surprisingly, Mom’s words have proved to be golden. I know a missionary who has been going to bed like clockwork at 10:00 p.m. for the past twenty years. His body wakes up automatically between 4:00 and 5:00 each morning. He gets the day’s most difficult work done before anyone else in his neighborhood wakes up. Then, during regular “business hours,” he has time to focus on people, schedule a time to exercise, and plan for the future. I confess that I have not attained to the same degree of discipline that my friend has, but I have to admit that I’d like to. By the way, I think my friend has lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, and better overall health than I do. Of course, “early to bed, early to rise” wasn’t discovered by Ben Franklin, or even my mother. It goes all the way back to Solomon. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise” (Prov. 6:6).
4. Watch out for Worldliness.
Believers are “in the world,” but not “of the world” (John 17:14-19). Beware of adopting the world’s example of how to treat the body. The world vacillates between two extremes: lazy gluttons and vain supermodels. We should be neither. Here are two examples of when these extremes appear in everyday life. First, when I travel through airports, I am always struck by the number of obese people in the corridors. Some might have physical conditions that predispose them to carrying a lot of weight, but perhaps others are just living life without controlling their appetites. For testimony’s sake, I want to avoid looking like I was the inventor of super-sized meals. Second, when I travel on subways, I am regularly assaulted with suggestive advertisements for plastic surgery, weight loss, and facial makeovers. The people in the ads seem proud to display their beauty secrets (from applying cucumber slices on their faces to letting tiny minnows eat dead skin between their toes), but I wonder if any of them would say a heartfelt word about the beauties of Christ if given the opportunity. All of these ads remind me that some people are simply obsessed with outward appearance. A fitness nut can be just as full of self-centered cravings as a food lover. I don’t want my life to testify that I value the external more than the internal. Balance is my goal. I want to honor God by being a man who looks like he takes cares of his body but is not obsessed with it.
5. Get up and Get Out.
One of the drawbacks to modern living is that much of it is spent behind a desk inside a building. The Lord designed us as physical beings, and He entrusted us with the mission of subduing the earth. For many Christians, especially those who live in large cities, that process of subjugating the world around us involves managing people and paperwork. Although these activities are good, they often involve more mental and emotional exertion than physical. As a result, we miss out on physical activities that God intended to make us whole. The value and joy of getting up early, going out to the woods, and chopping wood might be forgotten in our modern age, but this sort of activity is still necessary. No, everyone does not need to cut wood (especially if you have only one tree in your yard), but everyone needs to engage in activities that involve physical dexterity and exertion. Those who engage in regular physical activities almost always find themselves feeling mentally and emotionally refreshed. The human spirit responds positively to physical motion.
As with most disciplines, my dedication to physical activity tends to start and stop, succeed and fail, ebb and flow. After years of neglect, I am getting back to stewarding the physical side of my being. I’m still not in shape, but one ESL student looked at me last week and said, “Teacher, you weight lose!” For a fleeting moment, I thought, Note to self: give that student an A, regardless of syntax. Now, however, a more permanent thought is in my mind—I’m not getting in shape for people’s praise; I want to get in shape for the glory of God. The more I have focused on physical discipline this semester, the more I have found myself wanting to get more serious about spiritual disciplines. It suddenly seems less strange to me that the Apostle Paul desired God’s people to experience whole sanctification—spirit, soul, and body.