“…her arms are strong for her tasks.” –The Wife of Noble Character
What does it mean to be a strong Christian? Thinking about a powerful faith elicits images of grit in the face of adversity, bravery despite mounting opposition, and endurance in the face of challenge. As Christians, being strong is something we receive from God, too, so that spiritually speaking, we are able to hang onto our faith and live boldly without fear.
Strength is all of these things.
But practically, strength is also being strong and fit. In a world that prizes beach bodies and athletic prowess, is there any spiritual aspect to being physically strong?
I think there is.
Exercise makes me more able to serve, help, and be of use to those in need.
When our bodies—hearts, muscles, bones, lungs—are nurtured and cared for as gifts from a gracious God, they can be used for more than carnal purposes, in pragmatic yet holy ways. Disciplining our physical bodies to be fit and healthy may be an act of obedience. Taking care of what we’ve been given is so tied up in taking care of our spiritual selves that we are wrong to ignore it.
Science backs me up on this. Conditioning our hearts and lungs, and strengthening our muscles improves the quality (and quantity) of life. Of course, there is no guarantee, but generally, people who exercise are less prone to diabetes, heart attack, and high blood pressure, just to name a few.
For instance, when I lift weights, I not only improve muscle mass so I can stand up straight into my later years, but so I can carry my daughter into the emergency room when she is too weak to walk. When we strengthen our frames, we are even more useful and ready to serve. So, why can’t we build physical strength with holy purposes in mind?
I can use this body to serve physically when necessary, to provide more than just lip service, to give more than just money. I can take care of the body God made so he can use it for his glory in practical ways.
Exercise is meditative by nature.
I have exercised and pushed myself physically while calming my anxious heart. I gain perspective by working hard, which helps me focus my thoughts on my Savior.
It’s no surprise that physicians suggest exercise as a way to alleviate depression, and as a way to calm the mind especially when we realize that God gave us this body, these arms, these legs, this heart and lungs for our use, as gifts.
Yoga, which also builds both strength and endurance, is an obvious meditative opportunity. We marvel over the way our frames can bend, hold a pose, stretch, and then relax in his presence. Simply focus your mind there, to the God who is with us, who is with you.
When we engage in physical activity, we understand the spiritual dimension of faith and what it takes to follow Christ. Jesus’ parables were intentionally practical and rooted in the physical world. He gave everyday activities a spiritual translation. The apostle Paul did, too, when he associated faith with labor, with training, with discipline. There is reward in the hard work of following after Christ because we have risen to the challenge and now worship and honor of God.
Exercise fills my heart with gratitude.
In the movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell says so astutely, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
When I use the body God has given me well, I not only get stronger, but I appreciate, am grateful for, and am filled with wonder over the beautiful work of God’s hands—that he would, as David proclaims in Psalm 139, knit us together sinew upon sinew in a wonder-full masterpiece made by the master designer who does not make mistakes. Even if we can’t run a mile in under five minutes, we can run, and it is a wonder to do it at all.
When I stand in wonder over even the small things my muscles can do, I feel the strength of God within me more profoundly. I realize what it means that “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” When I marvel at this, I trust in a God who is stronger yet, because being strong means saying, “Here, God, here’s the best of me; I am going to do my part, Lord; I know without a doubt, you will do yours.”
When I run and feel my strong heart beating in my chest, I understand the psalmist’s wonder about having the feet of a deer who goes onto the heights. I can be swift (for a middle-aged woman) and can run with endurance both literally and figuratively. The writer of Hebrews 11 and 12 reminds us that those who run the hard, winding, and sometimes bumpy path of faith can trust God since he came in Christ to run upon this earth and endure.
So, yes, be strong, be tough, stand up to oppression, show up for those in need, and be willing to carry both spiritual and physical burdens for the benefit of others. The physical and spiritual are more intertwined that we often stop to contemplate. Use your body, train it, work with it so that you can live body, soul, and mind for which they were created.