Exercise can decrease you risk of heart disease, increase your energy levels, improve your mood and self confidence, improve your memory, help you sleep better, and slow down the aging process. And yet most of us still find plenty of excuses to not exercise. This seems to be especially true in the church, where dedication to exercise is often mistaken for vanity. The truth is that Scripture encourages us to engage in physical activity in exercise. Considering the numerous benefits of exercise, it is obvious that God created us to be active, that we were Made to Move.
Many people are familiar with 1 Corinthians 6:10-20, in which the Apostle Paul exhorts us to take care of our bodies.
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NAS95S)
While many have heard this verse used to teach that we should avoid promiscuity, alcohol, tobacco and drugs, it is rare that we are taught that this verse is not just a warning to avoid these activities, but is an exhortation to be proactive in caring for our bodies. We should make sure that we keep our bodies in peak condition at all times. That means that we are to glorify God both with the foods we eat to fuel our bodies, but also that we are to engage in physical exercise. In fact, in his first letter to Timothy, Paul says:
“For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8 NKJV)
Some people take Paul’s words that bodily exercise profits a little but that godliness is profitable for all things as a dismissal of exercise, which makes for a convenient excuse for them to sit around on their duff. But that is not what Paul is saying. First, we have already seen from 1 Corinithians that God is greatly concerned with the what we do with our bodies. Second, we have to consider the context.
“But reject profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8 NKJV)
Paul is instructing Timothy to reject false teaching, which is harmful to us spiritually, and to exercise ourselves toward godliness. Paul then reaffirms the benefit of physical exercise to use it as an example of the greater benefit of spiritual exercise. Bodily exercise, while beneficial in this life will not result in eternal life. But it still profits. I am reminded of Jesus’ instruction to the Pharisees.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23 NAS95S)
It is not a case of “either/or” but of “both/and.” We need to exercise ourselves bodily and spiritually. To assume that Paul is teaching in 1 Timothy that Christians should not engage in physical exercise is to fall into the Gnostic heresy and ignores Paul’s numerous other references to the benefits of physical discipline and exercise.
Another fundamental rule of interpreting Scripture is that you have to take into consideration the original audience as well as the distance of time. Paul wrote these words to Timothy nearly 2000 years ago. Paul and Timothy lived in a time and culture where constant physical activity was the norm. It has only been within the last 100 years that labor-saving devices have resulted in a drastic decline of our daily physical activity. A recent study of Old Order Amish populations, who reject modern conveniences, showed that a very high level of activity is integrated into their daily lives. On average, the Amish participated in six times the physical activity performed by participants in a recent survey of 12 modernized nations.
“The Amish were able to show us just how far we’ve fallen in the last 150 years or so in terms of the amount of physical activity we typically perform,” said David R. Bassett, Ph.D., FACSM, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and lead researcher for the study. “Their lifestyle indicates that physical activity played a critical role in keeping our ancestors fit and healthy.”