I believe scripture calls us to answer that question with a firm "no." While scriptural teaching on the topic is not extensive, it is certainly not absent. Additionally, we are living 2,000 years later than even the most recently-written biblical texts, in a world that presents different challenges than that of even Jesus' day. Modern processed and "refined" foods affect our bodies in ways not previously experienced, and our genetics are more affected by entropy than by "evolution." So it makes sense that the biblical writers would not have addressed our modern American needs for exercise in any detail. Stewardship of our physical health is simply a different ballgame than it used to be, or than it is in other places in the world even now.
This does not mean, though, that we are left under-equipped to think about this topic. God promises that, through Scripture, He has provided everything we need to know in order to be completely equipped for every good work He has for us. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) So it seems that, as we think about life (including exercise) in these physical bodies and find no passages that mention treadmills or basketball, wisdom calls us to search God's word for principles and not just specific topical teaching. The following article by John Perritt, while certainly not an exhaustive discussion, is a good first step...
This Is the Body the Lord Has Made
From the dreaded magazine aisle at the local supermarket to the borderline pornographic advertisements we see while surfing the internet, we are bombarded with images of the human body. 60 seconds to ripped abs. Lose inches from your waistline while sleeping. These constant "promises" tempt us to discontentment and idolatry. And yet we don't talk enough in our churches about what God wants from our bodies.
Is our culture's obsession with the human body completely wrong? After all, we believe in a sovereign God who created our bodies. And we know that God doesn't shy away from discussing physical beauty in his Word. David, Bathsheba, Saul, and Rachel were just a few biblical characters who could have posed for magazine covers. The Bible tells us Esther was beautiful in form and easy on the eyes (Esther 2:7). Absalom, God tells us, didn't have a flaw from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head, and there wasn't another in the land who equaled his appearance (2 Samuel 14:25).
Therefore, it seems that God, too, places a certain amount of emphasis on the physical form. We must not become modern-day gnostics and abhor the physical. So what are Christians to do? How do we begin to think about exercise and body image?
Exercise and the Curse
Some people want to curse when they hear the word exercise, but they don't often consider the effects of the curse on exercise. We know that God cursed our work after the Fall, but we typically think of this cursing in terms of frustration: jammed printers, bumper-to-bumper traffic, difficult coworkers.
However, we don't often think about the curse of our work coming in the form of an air-conditioned office, an assistant for every chore, or a comfortable sedan effortlessly transporting us to the office. Our physical bodies were designed to toil and labor, but our labor isn't all that laborious at times. Don't get me wrong, these things are pleasant graces from our Lord. But few of us burn the energy we were created to exert. The curse is now evident in sore backs and achy joints that aren't sore from physical exertion but atrophy. Our modern professions require that we now supplement this physical exertion in the form of exercise.
Busyness and Priorities
Even though most of us know we should exercise, when can we find time? We're driving the kids to different sports, working more than 50 hours, and serving at church—we don't have time and energy left over.
We need to know our priorities. Don't neglect the Lord in Word and prayer. Don't neglect your family. And don't neglect the church. But so also is physical exertion a biblical call (Gen. 2:15; 2 Thess. 3:6-12). Make room in your schedule. Put exercise on the calendar and plan on showing up to the appointment. Kill two birds with one stone by being active with your family and friends, listening to sermons while running, or praying for others while walking around the block. You're keeping multiple priorities in place without sacrificing extra time.
Here's some extra incentive. God, in his infinite wisdom, gives fully functioning bodies to some but not to others. Some humans will never leave a wheelchair and would love to exert their bodies physically. See the arms and legs we have as a grace from God and joyfully use them. As you run that next mile (or think about working up to a mile), thank God for the many muscles working together to propel you along. Rejoice in the Creator of the human body and boast in what he has done.
Priority Not a Profession
We must, however, be cautious of our idolatrous heart. Nothing is necessarily sinful about training for a marathon or doing CrossFit for a couple of hours every day. Of course, if you're only after a 26.2 sticker, you might want to look discerningly at your heart. God has called us to steward the body, but be careful stewardship doesn't turn into worship. If your day is ruined when you miss a workout, chances are you need to trust God to root out some idolatry. If you attach joy to anything other than Jesus, it will fail you.
There's so much more to discuss, but here are 10 final thoughts for reflection as you begin to make exercise a priority:
- As far as results go, think internal—a healthier heart opposed to abs.
- Think of exercise as a literal way of fighting the sin of laziness.
- Christians are charged to be disciplined, and exercise reinforces that discipline.
- This "job" will sometimes get mundane, just like your current one.
- This investment may keep you from becoming a physical and financial liability later in life.
- Physical fitness assists you in serving others.
- Your body houses the Holy Spirit.
- Physical inactivity is often a sin.
- You will feel better.
- Christians, no matter what your body looks like, Jesus redeemed it and one day soon you will have a glorified one.
John Perritt is the youth pastor at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, Mississippi. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and hopes to pursue his DMin in youth ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in November 2013. He blogs on film and theology at www.reel-thinking.com. John and his wife, Ashleigh, have three children, Sarah, Samuel, and Jillian.