Pleasing God in Our Fitness, Part 1
Can we then please God with our health and fitness?
Pleasing God in Our Fitness, Part 1
My beef is not so much with the fact that we can please God in our bodies, because the New Testament makes it clear that we do indeed please God, which we will get to. My beef is with the starting point of many Christian fitness conversations. The starting point of the Gospel is that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Many Christians take the starting point and then go on to a religion of works or then move to a self-help religion. These are the types of self-help books with tips on how to make yourself a better person with only a hint of Christianity sprinkled in. It is health and wealth Christianity, the prosperity Gospel, or moralistic-therapeutic deism, all wrapped into one.
Augustine aptly makes the distinction: “In the city of God, things are used and God is enjoyed. In the city of man, God is used and things are enjoyed.”
It is, quite simply, the truth of the Gospel, that is the distinction.
The Gospel says that there is no condemnation, and this is the starting point for (and also the conclusion of) our pursuit of God. When this is the starting point, all fears are removed. The one who truly grasps this point is freed to pursue the God who has broken their bonds.
Some would feel that they have arrived or can arrive on their own in the Christian life. For those that feel they are pleasing to God on their own, they do not and cannot comprehend the Gospel. If one feels that they are pleasing to God and a generally good person that God is accepting, then they do not grasp their need of the Gospel, even if they would call themselves Christian. This appeals to the broad “faith” and liberal Christianity in America today that makes large, but empty claims. It isn’t cool to accept that we are all broken sinners, dependent upon God.
The Heidelberg catechism makes this clear that in our sanctification process, we are only beginning the process while in our life here on this earth (question 114). We continue to struggle with sins daily. The one who truly grasps the holiness of God, realizes that they cannot please God on their own. The wrath of God cannot be satisfied by their efforts. The justice of God must be satisfied because God is perfectly holy. The justice of God has been perfectly satisfied by the perfect One, God the Son, Himself becoming a man and suffering our punishment on our behalf (2 Cor 5:21).
In this way, we get back to the starting point, which is also the climactic point of the Gospel, which is that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
From the starting point, we are freed to pursue the pleasures of God in every arena of life, which helps us to escape the self-righteousness of those who believe that we can or should arrive. This frees us from the pride of self-help or the confidence of humanism mixed in with Christianity in many of the Christian fitness advocates’ message. It frees us when we realize we are not actually the captain of our fate or the master of our soul (contra “Invictus”).
So how then do we please Christ in our health and fitness? It is not by setting the Gospel aside and then trying to follow a new law. If we take Christ as the starting point and then move on to simply try to follow biblical principles, we will only be frustrated and discouraged by our inabilities yet once again. The point of the Bible is that we cannot follow the rules on our own and need Christ who has satisfied the Father perfectly.
Yet when we look beyond our experience and beyond our ability to follow his ways perfectly and when we then look at the objective reality that we are in Christ (2 Cor 5:17), then we can come freely to the Father, wanting to please Him, knowing that our daily sins do not separate us from Him eternally. By his grace, He looks at our meager efforts, which are simply the beginnings, and He sees the perfect obedience of his Son.
Some Christian fitness advocates would have you look at every bite of food as a new law in the choice of food as potentially sin, thus creating a new law. Although most certainly all of life is either worship or sin, the Bible is much less concerned about the type of food you put in your mouth and more concerned with whether or not you are worshiping God or the food or your own body, etc. We can be released from condemnation with every bite because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. There is freedom as the starting point for the Christian, freedom to pursue wisdom in our eating, freedom to pursue healthier long-term lifestyle choices, freedom for individualized palates and pleasures. However, the Gospel does not allow the pleasure and condemnation scales to continue to tip back-and-forth from bite to bite or the decision to exercise or not exercise on a certain day.
The scales continue to be tipped toward no condemnation forever. This is objective reality for the Christian – that the scale has forever been tipped. It will never turn back. Some will brand Christianity as though the scale is tipped back-and-forth throughout the day based upon your subjective feelings of pleasing God or not. However, pleasing God comes from the fact that there is no condemnation for the Christian, no matter what your feelings are, and then He works within us that which is pleasing to Him.
This does not mean that we do not strive, which we must vigorously do. And when we happen to see that He is conforming our lives to that which pleases Him, we don’t look to ourselves and pat ourselves on the back, but rather we cry out in thankfulness for His grace that was poured out on us, such that we are not condemned, such that He has glorified us and is changing us, though we but begin to taste more and more of that which is pleasing to Him during our life on this earth, which also ironically becomes that which is more and more pleasing to us, as we taste of the pleasures at His right hand (Psa 16:11).
Practically speaking, let us not set up new laws for Christian fitness, as though anybody could please God by them. For example, let us not think that because we are skinny, we are necessarily more pleasing to God. Likewise, let us not think that because we are strong, have bulging or ripped muscles, eat rabbit food, or can run a marathon, that we are necessarily more pleasing to God.
These things may be part of our pursuit of the enjoyment of God and the journeys that He has given us, and we all may step back and consider how we may be better stewards and make healthier choices in our lives. However, let us recall that many of the standards we are directing for our fitness and health goals are heavily influenced by our own cultural and generational standards, when the Bible does not put forth one body type or fitness regimen as being more pleasing to God than another. Certainly our physical bodies may display some underlying sins or may manifest as being quite unhealthy, which we should be open to change.
However, my concern is that we may be giving the wrong impression, as though conforming to the American 21st-century picture of good health is necessarily more pleasing to God than a missionary who may be giving up the ability for maximal health benefits in order to share the gospel in a less-than-ideal setting where he or she does not have access to a 24 hour gym and a Whole Foods Market. Or even worse, God forbid that the “fittest on earth” CrossFit athletes are ipso facto, godlier than the patient suffering from cancer on his/her deathbed!
While I am advocating for the pursuit of better physical health in general, as part of our worship of God, in opposition to those who say that the body doesn’t matter, but only the spirit, I am also fighting against the new legalism of standards that are not in the Bible, trying to bring a reality check and a freedom to our bodily life.
When it comes to pleasing God, our pleasing Him is based then in the objective reality that we are not condemned by God, which leads to greater freedoms, not greater restrictions. We can then be freed to pursue God, wanting to pursue better stewardship of our bodies, in whatever lot we find ourselves, realizing that pleasing God is in Jesus Christ and not in our ability to conform to somebody else’s new standards.
These subjects are incredibly important to my wife and me because we have dealt with the extremes. We have dealt with the self-righteous feeling that we were pretty good people, before we understood the extent of the holiness of God and the lavishness of His grace. We have dealt with the Gnosticism of tending to the spiritual life while neglecting the body, thus not grasping the full pleasures of life by the fact that all of life comes under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and all is to be enjoyed. We have dealt with the false images set up by our culture, claiming that a skinny woman is more healthy or beautiful, or the muscular man is more masculine. We have been freed to eat broadly, to enjoy different body types, to enjoy the ability to lift heavy or to give up muscle mass to run far or more energetically with our children, freed to enjoy Christ in the midst of suffering, to continue to hope when we have been injured, freed to realize that we are dying, but yet He is making all things new (Rev 21:5).
We are passionate because we have felt the hopelessness of any other path which leads to self righteousness, humanism, and narcissism.
We are in the process of being freed to want to please Him daily, knowing that we fail Him daily in all of our pursuits, yet we rejoice that He graciously looks on us as pleasing to Him in Jesus Christ, which makes us long all the more to want to please the One who has been so good to us, despite us.
More practically how we please God in the next post…
P.S. Thanks for your feedback and encouragement as we continue to write. The last few months slowed our progress, as we have moved and bought a puppy!