fitness pic

I caught a glimpse of scripture at my health club recently. Thanks to a bodybuilding college student who’s workout attire had received a skin-baring makeover from a pair of scissors, I couldn’t help but notice he’d tattooed “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” across his ribcage. Always on the lookout for a conversation starter, I inquired about the nature of the “all things” he was seeking to accomplish with Christ’s strength. His response left me wondering if his understanding of Jesus more closely resembled a cheerleader obsessed with our prevailing in sports competitions or the source of our strength in enduring hardships as we labor to build a Kingdom that is not our own.

This conversation brought to mind a spiritual principle my Pastor has shared regularly as our church leadership has sought to find a worthy direction and focus for our local church body. “Satan doesn’t always come at you with obviously destructive choices” he reminds us. “He’s also great at using positive opportunities and choices and pushing us into those activities to the point of obsession. Either way, we end up compromised.”

Convinced of the destructive nature of poor lifestyle choices and behaviors, some Christ followers make needed adjustments to their eating and exercise habits that produce positive changes in their energy, focus, confidence, and vitality.

For many, a domino effect often follows: observant friends and co-workers supply compliments and encouragement, new levels of fitness are achieved, previously foreboding moments in front of the mirror are embraced, and results-producing behaviors are reinforced.  Much of this has the potential to be very positive.

There comes a point, however, when physical transformation reaches a critical juncture. If we’re not careful, we can allow the maximizing of our availability to God to morph into the pursuit of an elusive cultural ideal or personal obsession.

A female Christian friend described her college fitness experience to me the other day. She was a leader in a college campus ministry at the time.

“I knew I needed to lose some weight, and since a couple of my friends were into running, I started running with them. I dropped ten excess pounds and the compliments started pouring in. I thought to myself ‘If ten pounds produced this kind of response, imagine what losing another 5 would do!’ Soon I was too weak to exercise, so I started obsessing over every mouthful I consumed. Before I knew it, something positive in my life had become a life-controlling addiction.”

An out-of-town workout last week in a “musclehead” gym provided another flavor of excess. It was hard not to stare at female bodybuilders who no longer resembled the feminine gender. Men waddled through the weight room unable to move normally due to their muscle mass. Long ago they passed a point of no return and now are simply playing out the hand they’ve dealt themselves. The illicit and dangerous hormone cocktails necessary to achieve these results are already compromising their future health.

While an eating disorder or steroid abuse are obvious examples of unbalanced and excessive behavior, many Christians are able to rationalize their pursuits as they have become part of the cultural mainstream:

  • Followers of Jesus who view weekly corporate worship, fellowship and service and daily time in scripture as an option while their daily workout routine remains a non-negotiable.
  • Bucket List goals that suggest Jesus has a special “Well done” commendation afforded to triathletes and Ironmen.
  • Thousands of dollars spent annually on out-of-town weekend competitions that leave no margin for charitable giving.
  • Husbands, wives, and children who pay a high price for the “me time” that consumes an increasing number of our finite family hours.

A long-time ministry associate of mine will be paying a high price for his admittedly misplaced physiological passion. After receiving a life-prolonging organ transplant, he funneled his newfound energy on training for a first-ever triathlon just five weeks after the procedure. In the course of achieving this feat (for which he was cheered on by his many friends on social media), blisters on his feet became infected with aggressive bacteria that went untreated and eventually necessitated the partial amputation of one of his feet. This ministry leader and passionate servant of Christ will never walk normally again and is now largely wheelchair-bound.

Deciding to fight against a tide of destructive lifestyle habits to faithfully steward our body is a worshipful response. If we’re not spiritually vigilant, however, the very means of our liberation can become a snare that enslaves us again. “Eat, Train, Sleep, Repeat” is no more sanctified than “Eat, Work, Sleep, Repeat” or any other cultural hamster wheel we choose to jump on.

How do we know when enough is enough in our pursuit of a healthy lifestyle? This is the purview of the Holy Spirit, not a fitness writer. One thing is clear, however: that which our lives revolve around and our minds obsess over; that which consumes our resources and our energies – that is what we worship.