And exercise thyself unto godliness: for bodily exercise is profitable for a little; but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life which now is, and of that which is to come (1 Timothy 4:7b-8).
Exercise is not one of those things where there is much middle ground. It is something that you either do or you don’t. If you do it, you either enjoy it or you don’t. If you don’t do it, you probably don’t enjoy it much at all if you ever feel compelled to do it. Exercise is one of those practices in life that also tends to generate a lot of emotion. People get quite passionate about engaging in exercise or in avoiding it.
1 Timothy 4:8 tends to be “ground zero” in religious discussions about exercise. Much is made about how Paul declares that bodily exercise is only profitable for a little, and yet godliness is profitable for all things. And this is quite true, and exactly for the reason Paul provides– the spiritual will endure after the body perishes. All flesh is as grass (Isaiah 40:6, 1 Peter 1:24); if we obsess over our physical appearance and our physique, we are investing too much in what will not endure, and comparatively too little in what will endure.
But let us not distort Paul’s words too far the other way. Paul is not giving license here to gluttony; self-control and sober-mindedness must prevail even in terms of eating and physical exercise (Galatians 5:24, 1 Peter 4:7). Paul does say that there is benefit in physical exercise; yes, it is comparatively lesser than the value of spiritual exercise, but it presents benefits nonetheless. Both Paul and Timothy were far more active than most Americans today; we should not imagine that they would approve of Christians having neither concern nor repentance regarding the care and maintenance of their physical bodies. Just as we should not obsess over the physical condition of the body, so we also should not entirely neglect the physical condition of the body. We are not to be Gnostics; we are to understand that the body has temporal value as the “Temple of the Holy Spirit,” and it is hard for us to “glorify God in our bodies” when we show little concern for our physical health and well-being (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
This entire dispute misses the point of what Paul is really trying to accomplish in 1 Timothy 4:7-8: he is attempting to help Timothy, and us by extension, to understand how to grow and develop spiritually in terms of physical exercise. The metaphor is quite appropriate.
In order to function effectively, a human being must exercise his or her body. If we do not use our muscles, they atrophy and quit working entirely. When we maintain good discipline and work our muscles through exercise, be it through actions in daily life and/or through time we devote to conditioning, we actually tear up our muscles in the process. But when the body works to heal those muscles, they end up growing bigger and stronger. As long as we keep conditioning those muscles, they will maintain their size and/or grow. If we stop exercising at any time, we will experience loss of muscle and will be less strong and dextrous. Exercise must be a continual event– it cannot be done once or only for a short period of time and be successful. Recent studies seem to show, in fact, that the worst thing we could do to our bodies is to exercise in spurts, being active in exercising for a few weeks or months, quitting for a while, and then taking it up again. In such situations it seems that no exercise would be less damaging to the body!
As it is with the physical body, so it is with our spiritual lives. If we are going to live spiritually, we must exercise spiritually. If we do not devote ourselves to spiritual matters– learning more about God’s Word and will, indeed, but also practicing the spiritual disciplines, including prayer, evangelism, service, etc.– we spiritually atrophy and die (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 2 Peter 3:18, etc.). When we seek to develop spiritually, we are going to be hurt and injured at times, having to learn from failures, perhaps experiencing persecution, but it is through those experiences that we experience spiritual growth (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:3-7). We must continue to devote ourselves to the spiritual disciplines lest we lose what we have obtained and grow weak (2 John 1:8). We must devote ourselves ot the spiritual disciplines continually, understanding that we will not automatically spring up to be spiritually full-grown with only minimal effort (Hebrews 5:11-6:4). While we might experience spiritual growth in spurts, we should not spiritually exercise in spurts– we must maintain a pace if we want to make it to the goal (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Physical exercise does have profit; it is good to maintain a body in decent condition, able to meet the challenges of each day, practicing discipline in what is consumed and in effort expended so that the work of God is as unhindered as possible from physical ailment. Spiritual exercise has greater value because it will endure longer than bodily exercise. Nevertheless, notice how Paul indicates that there is always benefit in exercise and the maintenance of the self-discipline that it demands. Let us maintain that kind of self-discipline in terms of both body and soul, working towards self-control and growth in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry