21 February 2012

Bodily Training

We live in a culture of extremes. Consider our approach to physical fitness. At one end of the spectrum are those who seem to care little about their physical health or bodily appearance. At the other end are those who consider their physique and bodily condition as a pearl of great price! While the former live and eat without apparent regard to nutrition or fitness, the latter look like slaves who worship the body in an attempt to maintain some extreme standard of strength and beauty. Gyms, spas and workout facilities of all shapes and sizes are rapidly multiplying. Magazines are replete, even preoccupied, with the physical attributes, both attractive and unattractive, of modern celebrities. Plastic surgeons are getting rich by exploiting the vanity of modern body-worshipers. Granted, the human body is fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:14), but the fact remains: it is made! It is not worthy of worship. Yet in typical idolatrous fashion darkened man has exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an unrealistic and lust-driven image resembling mortal man (Rom 1:23).

Perhaps this has to do in large part with the desire of the flesh, but also I think with the pride of life. For too many, health, beauty and corporal strength appear to be the signs of success. In a bygone era obesity was the tell-tale sign of opulence. Today, affluence seems to be signaled by a tanned, toned and tummy-tucked body. For the contemporary idolater who serves at the altar of physique, the final reward will consist in part of a tombstone which reads, “He was born, lived, ate well, worked out, looked great, and died.” After a few short years, like a vanishing mist, a human life ends. One is forced to ask the question, Does the end justify the means? Wisdom answers with a resounding No! In the whole scope of things, how satisfying is a good looking corpse?

Paul observes, while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1Tim 4:8). He admits that bodily training provides some benefit, but not to the degree ascribed to it in our day by its more extreme devotees. From the apostle’s perspective, the true value of bodily training stems from its serviceability to the Kingdom of God. I think his comments issued in another context are germane: The present form of this world is passing away, and I say this for your own benefit… to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord (1Cor 7:31, 35). Attention to physical fitness is well-founded when it promotes good order and devotion to the Lord! In other words, bodily training can make one more physically and mentally fit in this life to serve the cause of Christ. But far more valuable for this world and the next are the spiritual disciplines by means of which every follower of Christ may grow in godliness. If a Christian devotes himself to the Word, sacraments and prayer with the same kind of devotion, diligence and determination our culture dedicates to bodily discipline, the benefits will be enormous and everlasting. This is because these are the means through which Christ communicates to us the benefits of His mediation (WLC 153). Such saving graces as evangelical faith, repentance, love and obedience are nourished and strengthened by the Holy Spirit through a believer’s consistent devotion to the ordinances of Christ. This is how God ordinarily blesses His people. We wait and pray and hope for His gracious, heavenly influence as we pursue godliness through these means. So let us rejoice and wait patiently at these gates so we might receive according to the promise of our gracious King those most precious gifts of life and favor from the Lord (Prov 8:34-35).