Does the Bible Downplay Physical Exercise?

BodyBuilderShould Christians put much effort into physical exercise? The question is prompted by a perplexing phrase in the Bible.

The church our family attended when I was young used the Old English translation of the Bible known as the King James Version, (KJV).  The KJV translated the phrase this way, “For bodily exercise profiteth little.”* Therefore, we could conclude the Bible downplays the value of physical exercise. But does it?

If the Bible deemphasizes physical exercise then many of us have a problem.

I am a proponent of physical exercise. As a member of the Metro-Atlanta YMCA, I regularly engage in “bodily exercise”—and my current level of Platinum, earned by workout points, evidences my commitment. I also have a drawer overflowing with t-shirts earned from running races. And hanging on a wall are medals that were gently placed around my neck after crossing the finish lines of marathons. My passion for wellness is further evidenced by my Raving Wellness Blog and periodic presentations on corporate wellness.  I believe in physical exercise. Yet, is there a conflict for me and others who profess an adherence to the Bible and who are also committed to physical exercise?

There are several angles from which we can come in answering this question. First, what is the Bible passage saying? When the Apostle Paul wrote “bodily exercise profiteth little,” what did he mean? Second, do the contrasting lifestyles of first century Christians and ours of today have any relevance to this question? And finally, what affect does spiritual discipline have upon our physical health?

Let’s start by addressing the second question: Do the contrasting lifestyles of the first century Christians and our lifestyles have any relevance to understanding this brief phrase in the Bible?

A Contrast in Lifestyle

The typical American lifestyle is overwhelmingly different from the original recipients of the Apostle Paul’s writings. Unlike the majority of us today, the people of the first century did not lead sedentary lifestyles. They walked most places and did not travel by sitting in cars or taking the train. They did not spend their days working at a desk staring at a computer monitor. They didn’t squander their evenings and weekends lounging in surround-sound dens for hours. They didn’t need physical exercise to augment their lives because daily living required activity.

FruitNutsFurthermore, their eating habits were significantly different. Their food choices were limited and healthier. Breads, nuts, fish, fruit and vegetables were the norm. Red meat was reserved for special occasions and eaten sparingly. However, today we have fast-food, processed food, abundance of fatty meat and we consume it all regularly and in large portions.

These first century residents generally led healthy lives because of their normal and regular active lifestyles and fewer poor eating options. As Dan Buettner, in his book Blue Zones demonstrates, there are still pockets of people around the world whose old world lifestyles give testimony to its benefits of health.

Therefore, we can conclude that there wasn’t as great of a need to encourage physical exercise to people who were not overweight or battling high cholesterol and who walked five miles a day as a part of daily living.

The Ouch!

Another thought worth contemplating is the understanding of how much of our exercise is prompted by the neglect of other Biblical instruction. Let’s face the harsh truth; many of us are compelled to exercise as an antidote to poor eating habits. I’ve heard more than one runner say “I run so I can eat ice cream (or insert some other unhealthy tasty delight).” The Bible denounces gluttony and demands self-control. If I had more self-discipline in my eating I wouldn’t have to jog to reduce my BMI, cholesterol and blood pressure.

Sadly, we have a tendency to confine “spiritual disciplines” to activities such as prayer, church attendance and reading our Bibles. Yet, spiritual discipline encompasses all areas of our lives including our eating habits, taking proper rest and how we respond to difficult situations in life.

Spiritual discipline encompasses all areas of our lives including our eating habits, taking proper rest and how we respond to difficult situations in life.

Anyone who has delved into the root causes of poor health knows stress is a leading cause of illness. For us as Christians, we should have an advantage when it comes to health because we are given the tools to ward off stress. Instead of harboring bitterness, we are told to forgive. Rather than fighting, we are commanded to make peace. In lieu of worry, we are encouraged to “cast our cares upon the Lord.” Instead of fretting over the future, we are told to trust. Guilt can be supplanted by freedom and hope. In the place of the worry that results from all-consuming greed and lust for “more,” we can relish the peace and joy of contentment.

The ever-present need for exercise could be diminished if basic spiritual disciplines were operative in our lives.

The Meaning

I began writing this article over a year ago and it sat untouched for months. Why?  I had a preconceived direction on what I was going to write. However, as I took the time to contemplate this Biblical passage I realized my intended “direction” didn’t do justice to what the passage has to say. I was forced to reexamine what I was writing.

ITimothyMy original intent was to focus on why this passage doesn’t negate physical exercise. In addition to drawing attention to the contrasting lifestyles of first century humanity to those of us of today, I wanted to demonstrate how physical exercise can support our spiritual aspirations.

There is no doubt many Christians have diminished their ability to serve God because of poor maintenance of their physical health. Overeating leads to diminished energy.  Lack of physical stamina prevents us from focusing on important tasks of life. Heart attacks, brought on by obesity, cut short the life of ministers and lay-people alike. A multitude of research has concluded the majority of healthcare is the result of lifestyle choices. This means our “down time” is often the result of poor decision regarding our health. This leads to increased spending to correct our health, stealing money from other worthwhile purposes. Many of us would be more effective in serving God if we took better care of our “temples of the Holy Spirit.”

While we can engage in physical training for vain purposes, our physical fitness can be a tool to serving God. I like how S. Michael Houdmann pens this:

Our goal in exercise should not be to improve the quality of our bodies so that other people will notice and admire us. Rather, the goal of exercising should be to improve our physical health so we will possess more physical energy that we can devote to spiritual goals.

Therefore, I am still convinced that physical activity plays a role in Christian living, but what does this passage have to say? The New International Version (NIV) translate it this way: For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

There are some scholars who will tell us “physical training” (“bodily exercise” in the KJV) is referring to “physical abstinence and penance” by devout ancient religious zealots. In their interpretation, this passage has nothing to do with “exercise” but is referring to fasting, abstaining from sexual activity or some other physical deprivation. Perhaps the Apostle Paul had this mind as he penned these words, yet the plain interpretation appears to fit best. In the first century there were Greeks who prized physical training. Paul knew this, and even used imagery from physical achievement in his writings. Yet, here, he warns that while physical training could produce some benefit, the lasting effect of physical training is undervalued in contrast to lives lived devoted to spiritual discipline.

The primary point is spiritual training makes an eternal difference far beyond physical training. This is a comparative statement—a study in contrast of impact. Spiritual activity such as prayer, meditation, holy living, service and worship has an infinite lifespan. Our physical training, however, has limited value.

The Bottom Line

More important than setting aside time to go the gym or hit the pool, is our commitment to set aside time to nourish our spiritual development. More critical than logging our miles is a commitment to be attentive to our time spent focused on serving God through the gifts and talents with which he has equipped us.

Should we be concerned about our physical health? Absolutely. Should we be concerned about our spiritual health? Absolutely—but at an enhanced degree of devotion.


*I Timothy 4:8

Disclaimer: This post is a classic example of how I will often write about things I am learning and needing to learn. My public confession is that the commitment to spiritual disciplines is a journey in which I have far to go.

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