We live in a culture increasingly obsessed with health—specifically diet and exercise. But just how important is diet and exercise in the life of a Christian? Is this just a worldly fad we would be wise to ignore? Does God even care?
The apostle Paul himself admits that physical exercise is of some value (1 Timothy 4:8), and certainly, laziness is strongly condemned throughout the Proverbs. But I think some of us cautiously wonder if getting too interested in health and wellness might simply be embracing the temptation to become like the culture around us.
And it’s true, healthy-living can become an idol. It would be wrong to pursue a healthy lifestyle out of vanity. There are plenty of people, and no doubt many Christians, whose interest in eating well and exercising regularly is only for the sake of forming an appealing outward physique. Others pursue healthy-living out of an unhealthy fear of illness or even death. They are anxious over the prospect of becoming sick and therefore chase exercise and diet as an attempt to control their fate.
Observing these ignoble motivations for healthy-living in others has driven many Christians to eschew deliberate diet and exercise as a trivial worldly pursuit of the vain. But simply because some people do something for the wrong reasons does not make the thing itself wrong. So, putting aside possible idolatrous and sinful motives, are there legitimate reasons for Christians to seek to maintain our physical health through diet and exercise?
I think Christians do need to give attention to diet and exercise for at least three reasons.
Our Health is a Matter of Stewardship
Your body, like your money or your job, is a stewardship entrusted to you by God. He means for you to make a good return on that investment. And we should, therefore, seek to make our bodies as useful as possible for the cause of Christ by caring for them and not abusing or neglecting them.
God frequently uses bent instruments to accomplish His will (1 Corinthians 1:26–29). He will glorify Himself by accomplishing great things through people whom the world writes off as useless, and that includes those whose bodies may be sick or diseased. That is His prerogative. But as stewards, our responsibility is still to try and make ourselves as useful as possible for God. The believer who is tired all of the time because they never take any exercise and only eat junk food can still be used by God, but how much more so if he had more stamina and was nourishing his brain with better food?
Jonathan Edwards understood the relationship between physical health and spiritual life. In number 40 of his famous resolutions he wrote,
“Resolved, to inquire every night, before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking.”
This was a follow-up to resolution 20, “Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.” Why did Edwards care so much about his relationship to food and drink that it shows up twice in his resolutions? John Piper said of Edwards strictness in this regard,
“Edwards maintained the rigor of his study schedule only with strict attention to diet and exercise. Everything was calculated to optimize his efficiency and power in study.”
Jonathan Edwards took seriously the stewardship of his body and rational faculties and therefore purposed to get the most out of those talents he could for the Lord, and part of that included caring for his body through diet and exercise. We likewise must not view our health as vanity but as an opportunity. Our physical health is to be stewarded well for God’s glory. These bodies are not ours to squander. But that’s not the only reason we should care about diet and exercise.
Our Health is a Matter of Discipline
Second, taking care of our bodies is important for Christians, not only as a matter of stewardship but also as a matter of discipline.
We live in a society full of temptations. Not all of them are overtly sinful, but an otherwise benign diversion, if left unchecked, can turn into an unhealthy indulgence or even an addiction. Discipline is becoming a rarer and rarer commodity in this pampered age. And it’s easier than ever to embrace a life of ease while we let our minds and bodies atrophy.
Discipline is a Christian virtue that should not be dismissed lightly. Self-control is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). And elsewhere the apostle Paul calls us to discipline ourselves not just spiritually, but physically as well. Like an athlete, we are called to fix our minds on the prize and train doggedly toward that goal. We must “exercise self-control in all things,” and “not run aimlessly.” And to accomplish this, we must do as Paul who said: “but I discipline my and keep it under control.” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).
What we put in our bodies and how we keep them in shape with exercise is an outworking of our self-discipline. As we mature in Christ, we will seek to exercise self-control in all things—including our health.
Our Health is a Matter of Productivity
Third, our health is a matter of productivity. Just as Edwards’ purpose in tightly regimenting his exercise and eating was that he might make his study more profitable, so we too when we take care of these bodies are enabled thereby to make a greater return on our time and efforts. A sharper ax fells the tree in fewer strokes.
Our charge from Ephesians 5:15–16 is to live productively—to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” And one way to be productive with the little time we have is, like a master craftsman, caring for the most important tool in our productivity arsenal: our bodies.
So, if you are a believer who is concerned about his or her productivity, you need more than just life hacks and apps. You need to labor to keep yourself sharp and ready for action. In as far as it is up to you, you need to take care of your body—not out of vanity or fear, but for Christ’s sake.
Does God care if we take care if we diet and exercise? If you are not yet convinced, I’ll leave you with this final appeal,
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So, glorify God in your body.”1 Corinthians 6:19–20