Let’s revisit that quotation from M’Cheyne, about being given a message and a horse, but killing the horse. We’ve seen that our bodies, our ‘horses’ in MCheyne’s picture, need food and fuel, a job, and rest; and the last physical need for our bodies is exercise.
Before the last fifty years or so, most of life provided the exercise needed to remain reasonably healthy. People walked or rode, they used stairs and carried things. There were always the health-conscious who engaged in more serious exercise, of course, but general life used muscles and burned calories, even for people who had more sedentary jobs, like pastors.
That’s not the case today – which has serious benefits. It’s so much simpler and quicker to use an online supermarket than to have to trek to the shops every day, or milk our own cows and bake our own bread. We are able to be so much more productive because we do have a deal more time.
But, as we know, our bodies are paying a price for that. And if they are designed to be good tools to serve God, then even our fallen, fragile and finite bodies need looking after.
Pastors do a lot of sitting down, whether it’s for reading, writing, praying, counselling, planning. Inevitably therefore, our backs and shoulders ache, our legs and arms grow weaker. When we are in our twenties and thirties that doesn’t flip on our radar – but remember: in your thirties, you are building the body you will use in your forties, in your forties, you are building the body for your fifties, and in your fifties you are planning your retirement.
It is, therefore, good stewardship to remain fit and active – it’s a key contributor to how long we can be effective in ministry.
Let’s get the caveats out of the way. Yes, we do live in a narcissistic age, where the ideal body is a gym-honed, photoshopped thirty year old, of unattainable perfection. Yes, the bible tells us that our bodies will decay and die, and that that is a critical spiritual perspective. And quite explicitly we are told that God has a different set of standards:
‘His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the legs of the warrior;
the Lord delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.’ (Ps. 147:10-11)
A warrior’s legs, of course, deliver strength and speed, two reasons why any normal king would pay close attention to his soldier’s physical regimen, and show the result off in public. Doesn’t any army need to be fast and powerful? The real King, though, ‘delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.’ A weak, sick, elderly saint can please her Lord that way. And I deliberately refused to illustrate this blog post with pictures of six-packs, push-ups and biceps. (Even mine. Ho, ho).
But, with those cautions noted, there is another side to it. With eternal values in place, others can be established, and so Paul writes to Timothy, ‘For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come’ (1 Tim. 4:8). In other words, going to a gym is a stupid reason for skipping a Quiet Time, but it’s not a stupid thing to do in itself.
Some of us are life’s gazelles – we’re naturally skinny and fit. Sorry; you’re naturally skinny and fit. Enjoy it, and use it for God’s glory.
The rest of us have to be realistic about the bodies we inherited from our parents, and their God-given limitations. Nevertheless, to be brutal, and without beating each other up about not being in our twenties any more, can we really preach convincingly about self-control, if we’re seriously over a sensible weight for our size and age?
Can we really preach convincingly about self-control, if we’re seriously overweight?
These days, there’s no excuse for not knowing what we should be doing on an everyday level. The web can easily inform you, and if you keep your head screwed on while you search, sensible and safe advice is not hard to find. Getting deliberately out of breath, lifting, stretching, standing rather than sitting, not smoking – they’re all good disciplines.
Life gets in the way, of course, and with a serious illness in my experience, I know that this is not straightforward advice for many people. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for most of us. Staying fit and healthy is an option that most of us can make choices about, and if they increase the chances not just of living longer, being married longer, seeing our great-grandchildren, but of being useful in ministry for longer, I reckon most of us would make an effort if we thought about it.
So think about it.
- Leaving aside the physical perfection of the fitness magazines and websites, how is your physical fitness? When did you last go for a run, or a brisk walk? When did you last choose to lift a heavy weight?
- Some people like a plan to keep healthy – do you track your weight, monitor your heart rate, keep a record of your distances?
- Some people like tools to work with – do you have health apps on your phone, or you wrist?
- Do you need a running mate, or gym buddy? What about another pastor?
- Do you need so spend some cash on a gym membership, or some running shoes?
- Have you thought about converting your office or study to have a cheap standing desk?
- If you’re reading this sitting down, when did you last stand up, or use the stairs?