In a culture of comfort, entitlement and self-indulgence, the lives of believers in Jesus Christ should declare a very different message. I don't mean only what we say and sing on Sunday morning, but the very testimony of our living sacrifices, our whole bodies—flesh and spirit—presented to God as holy and acceptable (Rom. 12:1). Are our bodies just another means of self-seeking gain and our hope for eternity more of the same? And are our bodies inconsequential to our call as ambassadors to proclaim that God in Christ is reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19)?
If God fashioned man out of the dust of the ground to be a bodily being (Gen. 2:7) and declared this culmination of creation very good (Gen. 1:31), then our bodies can't be inconsequential.
If God created us as material beings made in His image and gave us the mandate to cultivate the earth and fill it with His image (Gen. 1:26-28), then our bodies must have purpose.
If Christ came in the flesh (John 1:14) and in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col. 2:9), then the body bears eternal significance.
If all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, have been created by Christ and for Christ (Col. 1:16), then what we do to our bodies either supports or betrays our worship of Christ.
And if the message of our God reconciling all things to Himself in Christ (Col. 1:20), really applies to all things, then how we treat our bodies is directly related to a right proclamation of it.
The created world, of which human beings are the pinnacle, is no afterthought to God. Therefore, it should be no afterthought to God's people. But in a world of fitness fanatics and diet gurus, how do we reclaim a biblical view of our bodies that both bolsters our worship of Christ and buoys our witness to His gospel?
As believers, we need to not only ask this question but also take seriously the call to embody its answer. We spend much of our short existence like every other person on the planet, tending to our bodies through sleep, food and physical activity. Yet we live in submission to God's Word, which commands all our activity to be done to God's glory (1 Cor. 10:31), by the Spirit and not the sinful nature (Gal. 5:16-17).
But what does this mean for believers in day-to-day life? In an attempt to flesh out (pun intended), we can look at how three routine activities—sleeping, eating and exercising—reflect truth about God's character, convict us when our practice betrays our theology, and compel us to more God-honoring, gospel-authenticating worship and witness in our everyday lives. O Lord, make us doers of Your Word (James 1:22), those who practice what we profess.
Honor God With Sleep
Babies love it. Toddlers fight it. College students belittle it. Working adults covet it. It improves memory, lowers stress, combats disease and increases longevity. We ought to approach sleep as if our lives depend on it—because they do. Our bodies require this God-ordained, God-gifted activity for survival. But is mere survival God's only intention for how we'll spend one-third of our existence?
God created sleep but doesn't need it, desire it or participate in it Himself. He who made heaven and earth neither slumbers nor sleeps (Ps. 121:1-4). Yet His attentiveness to all things never wavers. He rules and reigns over everything, whether we are conscious of it or not. That's not just relief for our weary bodies but cause for praise! God has provided for us in our frailty. He knows our need and meets it. He has programmed into our fallen humanity a daily reminder that He is God and we are not. When we are tempted to think ourselves more capable than we ought, we have exhaustion to convict us and exhort us to praise.
"Our worth isn't in our work or measured in our worldly achievement, and our God doesn't need us to accomplish His will."
Yet we don't simply succumb to sleep when our bodies say, "Enough!" We must approach sleep like anything else, with intentionality in our worship and witness of God, living by the Spirit and not gratifying the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).
For some, this may mean the most spiritual thing we can do is go to bed. In a culture of perceived self-sufficiency and rampant workaholics, there comes a time every day to close our doors, close our computers, close our Bibles and close our eyes for rest. Our worth isn't in our work or measured in our worldly achievement, and our God doesn't need us to accomplish His will.
For others, this may mean the most spiritual thing we can do is get out of bed. God gifts us with sleep, not for our self-indulgence, but so that we may worship and witness to Him. And a major part of that worshiping and witnessing is through our work, mandated from the very beginning of creation (Gen. 1:28). Yet for some, sleep can be an excuse to avoid work and shirk this inherent responsibility. Proverbs warns against the sluggard who falls into poverty, whose vineyards are overgrown and stone walls broken down (Prov. 24:30-34). Such negligence warps our worship by disobeying God's mandate and worshiping our comfort over His call. But such negligence also betrays our witness. Paul urges believers to mind their own business and work with their hands in order to win the respect of outsiders (1 Thess. 4:11-12), as well as work quietly and earn their own living that they might not burden others in idleness (2 Thess. 3:6-12).
And, for a few, this may mean the most spiritual thing we can do is surrender our sleep for a season. Whether it's nursing a newborn, battling an illness or warring in prayer, we may voluntarily or by necessity set aside normal sleep patterns. In such seasons, we still submit our bodies to Christ, boasting in our weakness as we call upon God's strength amid an unwelcome thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-10) or standing in God's might against the devil's schemes (Eph. 6:10-11).
There is a Sabbath rest coming for the people of God, a future day when all the toil of work will cease (Heb. 4:8-10). But that day has not arrived. Until then, we labor. We employ our bodies for the glory of God and good of others. We fight the temptation to dethrone God by our striving or by our slacking. We confess and respect our mortality. And we accept sleep as more than mere survival. We receive it daily as a gift given for these ends, praising God when our head hits the pillow and praising God when our hand silences the snooze button.
Honor God With Food
God cared about food long before Hamburger Helper and Whole Foods came into the picture. In the first chapter of the Bible, God created men and women in His image, blessed them and gave them the weighty charge of filling the earth and subduing it (Gen. 1:28). That was no small task, and God knew it. So He immediately offered them help they would need: food (Gen. 1:29). God made food as a provision for His creatures. He gifted us with good fuel to sustain, nourish and energize our bodies for worship and witness.
Fast forward to the present age of drive-thrus and microwave dinners. Do we view food today in the same way, as fuel for fulfilling God's call to worship and witness Him across the globe? The culture around us markets food according to different criteria:
Quick: You have more important ways to fill your schedule.
Easy: You have more important ways to exert your energy.
Cheap: You have more important ways to spend your money.
Tasty: You deserve to satisfy your cravings.
Healthy: You want to look good in those jeans.
Yet if every single thing we do and even our very lives depend on what we digest, should we gauge our consumption by such short-sighted standards? Or would we do better to consider the criteria set forth by the writer of Hebrews: "Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith" (12:1-2). We look to Jesus, our Savior, who could say to His Father, "I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do" (John 17:4). We look to Him so that we might accomplish the work He gives us to do. And we lay aside every weight and sin that hinders this perseverance.
Does what we eat at the dinner table qualify as a weight or sin God is calling us to lay aside? Paul wrote to the Corinthians about their freedom surrounding food: "'All things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor…So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God…just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved" (1 Cor. 10:23-24, 31, 33). Paul's decisions regarding food were measured, not according to personal freedom, but according to worship of God and discipleship of others. Do the dishes on our dinner table fuel that same end?
"God cared about food long before Hamburger Helper and Whole Foods came into the picture."
Disciples of Christ ought to be asking this question and obeying accordingly. The Bible reminds us that our freedom is not "to indulge the flesh" but instead to "serve one another humbly in love" (Gal. 5:13, NIV). The Bible reminds us that we are not our own but that we have been bought with a price and are to glorify God in our body (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Yet the Bible also reminds us to eat and drink with enjoyment because these are from God's hand (Eccl. 2:24, 9:7). We are not slaves to our dietary decisions. Celebration calls for feasting to the glory of God while fasting is for abstaining to the glory of God. Availability, affordability and allergies answer to the sovereignty of our good God, who doesn't promise tomorrow, no matter the kind of cooking we consume.
There is a feast coming for the children of God, a future day when we will rejoice around the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-9). But that day has not yet arrived. Until then, we run the race with perseverance. We fuel our bodies for the glory of God and good of others. We fight the temptation to dethrone God by our gluttony or deprivation. We receive it daily as the nourishment given for these ends, praising God for the delicious dishes we can enjoy and praising God when we choose some to avoid.
Honor God With Exercise
Jesus didn't need a Fitbit. Some scholars speculate He walked 20,000 miles or more in His 33 years. But I wonder what He would think of its marketing: "Every moment matters and every bit makes a big impact. Because fitness is the sum of your life. That’s the idea Fitbit was built on—that fitness is not just about gym time. It’s all the time."
For many of us, "exercise" gets its own box. We drive our car to the gym, hop on the elliptical for 30 minutes and then drive our car home just to ride the elevator up to our third-floor apartment. We check the "exercise" box and then sit behind our computers, around the conference table, at the drive-thru, at the coffee shop, in our small group. We make it to the gym in the morning but we're sedentary the rest of the day.
For many of us, "exercise" can no longer be equated with fitness and vitality. We may burn a few extra calories, strengthen some muscles and raise our heart rate on occasion but how we see physical activity incorporated into our entire lives hasn't changed.
The Bible uses the body as an illustration for God's people. The Church is the Body of Christ, one body with many members (1 Cor. 12:12). God designed it this way, giving each member specific gifting to contribute to the vitality of the body as a whole (1 Cor. 12:7, 18-20). This isn't just for Sunday morning when God's people gather in church buildings. This is for every day, all the time, as God's people flex their gifting for the flourishing of the Church everywhere.
This illustration works well when we understand the physical body in its God-given sense. Our physical bodies have many members. Each of these works in conjunction with the others for the vitality of the body as a whole. Just as the Church won’t flourish if it only exercises its gifting one day a week, so, too, the body won’t thrive on an occasional 30 minutes a day. The members need to be used, flexed, strengthened and built up as the habit of life. The folks at Fitbit have something right: Fitness is indeed the sum of our lives.
And the fitness of our physical beings is a spiritual exercise, an expression of how we respect what God has created and walk in a manner worthy of the calling we have received (Eph. 4:1). We view our bodies as vehicles of vitality that they might be used for the building up of the larger body.
"The fitness of our physical beings is a spiritual exercise."
For some, this may mean the most spiritual thing we can do is start moving. Instead of disciplining our body to subdue it for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:27, 23), we concede to complacency. The lethargy of our limbs handicaps our whole body. When one part suffers, all suffer, as Paul reminds us regarding the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:26). The same is true of our physical bodies. The biblical charge to flee ungodliness, pursue righteousness and fight the good fight (1 Tim. 6:11-12); to be steadfast in prayer, watchful, bold proclaimers, wise walkers and gracious talkers (Col. 4:2-6); to be going, making disciples, baptizing and teaching (Matt. 28:19-20) requires a mental acumen and physical proactivity uncharacteristic of the listless and lazy.
For others, this may mean the most spiritual thing we can do is slow down. We wear the self-disciplined label with pride, the trophies on our shelves showcasing our successes. Yet, at some point we crossed the line from godly discipline to idolatry. We worked for the win, not to honor Christ and benefit His body, but to garner attention for our own appearance, praise for our own performance and approval for our own activity. Our bodies become vehicles for vanity instead of vehicles for kingdom-building. We elevate our bodies to savior as if their submission will stave off death. We forget that through death our Savior destroyed the devil to deliver us from the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15).
And, for a few, this may mean the most spiritual thing we can do is receive our restraints with thanksgiving. An illness or injury may inhibit activity, but the charge to glorify God in our bodies remains the same. Where the outer self is more visibly wasting away, the renewal of the inner self day-by-day (2 Cor. 4:16) is all the more poignant. We steward whatever frame He forms for each one of us. Yet where functionality fails, we remember that the momentary affliction of our aging bodies points us to "an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17).
There is a resurrection coming for the people of God, a future day when the body will be raised imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42). But that day has not arrived. Until then, we move. We employ our bodies for the glory of God and good of others. And we accept fitness as more than mere "exercise." We receive daily activity as a gift given for the vitality of our bodies and Christ's body, praising God with our hearts pumping and muscles flexing.
Instruments of Worship
The Church needs to reclaim what the world prizes in good health. Not because we idolize our bodies or fear our death, but because we value the imago dei and human flourishing. We value God’s image displayed and Christ’s kingdom advanced. So may we reclaim sleeping, fueling and fitness as spiritual worship for the glory of God.