The Christmas story is about incarnation—Christ’s appearance in his body. The gospel pivots around the human body. Christ came in a body. He reconciled us by the offering of his physical body, and it was this body God raised from the dead. So to the Christian the body is never a carcass to be discarded but always as a temple to be redeemed.
Many of us give a nod to this truth this time of year and think about training our bodies. Yet, as health-club attendance seasonally swells, one can overhear gym-rats consoling themselves with jokes about how by April they will have their gym back.
The weakness of our will-power is often attributed to a lack of motivation. Many decide to exercise because they are depressed and ashamed of what we see in the mirror. The fitness industry tries to capitalize on all this, mistakenly assuming that anything that people can use for motivation is positive.
Yet our motivational problem is not one of quantity but of kind. Self-loathing, loneliness and fear of sickness and aging are passions which seldom keep us in the gym. Far more helpful is connecting our fitness goals to a holy sense of lasting purpose.
Eavesdrop on Paul as he spoke of bodily training: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever…I beat my body and make it my servant so… I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Paul’s contrast is not between training the body and training the spirit! The contrast is between physical training for competitions that are soon over, and Christian physical training (gymnasia) which disciplines the body in order to love with an everlasting impact. Christian exercise is about making sure the body serves us in ways that will last. Dads who are in shape can run with children at night, make coffee for the wife in the morning, shovel the neighbor’s driveway and have enough energy at age 80 to show up at the community meeting.
None of this training, Paul insists, will lose its eternal crowning significance. If we continue to train with this in mind, it will attract a different kind of notice…even from some of the younger gym-rats.