So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
Several years ago I read a book by John Ratey titled “Spark,” which argues that one’s physical well being is directly correlated with one’s brain function. People who are fit, and particularly people who have just engaged in physical exercise, concentrate better and learn more effectively than those who do not. The book begins by citing a study of a school district in Naperville, Illinois, who installed a physically demanding PE class to first period, to see their standardized test scores rise to first in the nation.
I was reminded of Ratey’s book by Paul’s words quoted above. Paul is talking of his calling as a minister of the Gospel—his singleminded commitment to preaching to all men, and living in such a manner that permits no one to question the integrity of himself or his message. What I find interesting about the passage, however, isn’t Paul’s commitment to his calling, but more specifically the manner in which he must discipline his body in order to carry it out. And even more specifically, he disciplines his body so that, in the end, he may not forsake the blessings of the gospel that he preaches to others.
Paul’s words are a bit jarring, at least to those who have neatly separated physical well-being from spiritual well-being. When we think of what it might mean to grow in Christ, many think firstly of such things as reading the Scriptures (with an eye to obedience), prayer, connecting with Christian community, and loving our neighbors. Without denying the importance of any of those things, I suspect not many would say the discipline of our bodies. That’s not to say that we don’t appreciate the importance of keeping fit—most everyone knows that being fit effects everything else, and few of us are satisfied when our bodies are unfit, when we are weaker than we might otherwise be. But I doubt that most of us think of being fit as a matter of spiritual importance.
And yet many of the maladies we often consider spiritual have physical components. Depression, for instance, has been linked with excessive intake of sugar. Lack of exercise has been linked with anxiety, and the ability to concentrate. The links are many, and not difficult to find. And they raise certain questions. For those of us who have a difficult time maintaining concentration during prayer, what if part of the answer may be that we are physically unfit? What if my irritability with my children is due in part to my lack of energy? In other words, if physical activity helps the children in Naperville to concentrate better in science class, might physical activity help us in prayer and in reading the Scriptures? Is is possible that the fruit of the Spirit is connected to the well-being of our bodies?
God did not create us as spirits only. He created us as bodies. Not as spirits with bodies, but as people—body and soul united. That is why we are so disturbed by both ghosts and corpses—we know the separation of spirit and body isn’t the way things should be. Which is also why, in the end, God will resurrect us in our bodies. Our bodies may be different, but we will be bodies nonetheless.
None of this is to say that physical fitness alone makes people more like Christ. Obviously, many with world class fitness want nothing to do with God. But Paul is clearly implying, in his own experience, that the state of his body affects the state of his soul. If you are finding that you are lacking and lifeless in the things of God, perhaps you need to tend better to your body. It may not be the whole answer, but it might be part of it.