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The Some Value Of Exercise

For physical training is of some value but godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.  1 Timothy 4:8

It didn’t surprise me a bit.  

Elizabeth Elliot exercised daily. This bold-meek saint and spiritual mother to so many trained her soul and her body. The eulogy said that Elliot made a practice of “walking, biking or swimming in the ocean” near her oceanfront Massachusetts home.

Ann Dirks is another spiritual mother. At 83, she is as spry as most are at 33. This week she leads 25 kids through a sweet, savory maze that is the church’s Cooking Camp. Kneading, rolling, and mixing are no match for Ann. And having sat beside her in Bible study, I vouch for Ann’s gracious, godly wisdom. Ann also happens to be an avid gardener. 
Elizabeth Elliot biked. John Piper jogs. Ann Dirks gardens. And Jonathan Edwards* broke up his Great Awakening sermon prep with walks and horse rides and chopping wood. A thread emerges.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that so many Christ-exalting, fruitful servants exercise their bodies. It might have been a throw-away line in Elizabeth Elliot’s tribute- the bit about her daily exercise-but I won’t toss it. I think it was a rare glimpse at an usually unseen thread.

Three Disclaimers

Disclaimer 1: The paralyzed man dropped in from above and Joni Eareckson Tada prove it. Physical training is not a necessary means to God’s grace. It is not even close to the plane where prayer and the Word and assembling together rest. Some saints simply cannot exercise. No matter. It is only of some value. 

Disclaimer 2: Physical training can easily turn idol. Because the return is visible, we put some value over the great value of godliness. When we’re slave to our workouts-or the bodies they forge-we’d best take a time-out. One wise friend “gave up” exercise for Lent, seeing how work-outs were taking priority over all else, even time alone with the Lord.

Disclaimer 3: This side of heaven, our motives are mixed. God ordained that there would be outward gain to exercise. The mirror motivates. Buff biceps and lean legs please our eyes. It feels good to look good. (But maybe God ordained that, too?) Or we work our bodies to buffer our gluttony- an extra mile for a second slice of pie. 

Ann Dirks at Cooking Camp


Yes, let’s do ask God to search our hearts and reveal wrong motives. But mixed or multiple motives is no excuse to toss in the towel. When God’s glory is our chief goal, and gladly loving our neighbors is key to that end, there is some value in physical training. 

Go Where Grace Flows


The body…is for the Lord and the Lord for the body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God with your body. 1 Corinthians 6:13b, 19-20

The best reason to work the body is the best reason to work the soul. Not to avoid being caught, but because we were bought. It’s a means, not an end. The goal of training is to glorify God; to love him heart and soul, mind and strength. Glorify God in your body. 

Like the spiritual disciplines-the Word, prayer and fellowship-physical disciplines can be a means of God’s grace to us. I can’t make the water flow, but I can turn on the faucet. I can’t make the electric current flow, but I can flip the switch. We can’t supply it, but we can go where grace flows. 

Wee Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46) placed themselves on the path of grace. When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was passing by, he begged mercy. And Grace, through faith, healed him. When Zacchaeus heard Jesus was passing by he climbed a tree to see. And that very day, Grace brought salvation to his house.

We can never earn God’s grace or make it flow, be we can position ourselves to get should He keep giving. We can put the barrel under the spout and be in place ready to receive grace. We can line the paths where he might pass.

Four Right Reasons For Second-Rate Training

For me that place is biking the backroads when weather and children allow. It’s on the treadmill with some good sermons and a duct-taped notepad when they don’t. Wherever your place is, go there, and glorify God with your body. 
1. Serve strong. 

If anyone serves, let him serve with the strength that God supplies, so that God in all things might be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:11

The obvious first: when you’re strong and fit, you’re better equipped for physical service. Fit people don’t get injured so easily or get sick so often. That means they have more energy to care for others. I can set up tables and chairs and help a friend move her boxes. I can bend low to pick Mom’s strawberries or help Dad hoist hay into the mow. Being physically fit opens doors for service.

2. Remember more. 
Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgements he uttered. Psalm 105:5

Christians are called to remember. Over and over we’re warned not to forget how God worked in the past. Since we have such short memories, He even sent a Helper to bring to our remembrance all he said (John 14:26). The Helper doesn’t only remind- or always remind-while I bike or jog, but He does a lot. The memory boost, like the calorie burn from weight training, is twofold: during and after.

My mind is more clear, more thoughtful and creative, while I bike than when I rest. I reflect, I remember, and memorized verses come to mind. But exercise helps us think straight after our heart rates go down, too. Over the long term, aerobic exercise reduces memory loss by reversing age-related shrinkage of the part of the brain largely responsible for memory.  

3. Dry run
[S]training forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13b-14

When the hill is steep, do you get off your bike and walk it up? Or turn around and coast down? Or gear down and press on up? Exercise can be transposed to weightier matters. Physical work-outs can be the practice field for living strong in God’s grace in soul matters. 

I’m not sure if Jonathan Parnell runs or bikes, but he writes,

The more and more we prove to ourselves the presence of God’s grace in our work, the more and more we will be equipped, for the sake of our sanctification, to press in on that grace whenever the going gets tough. And this becomes our goal. This transposition becomes the fuel for that final push.

I can’t prove it, but somehow making my body gut it out up hills strengthens my soul press on through the valleys. God can use the grueling, gut-it parts of our work-outs to fuel the fight of faith.

4. Serve glad.
Serve the LORD with gladness. Come before Him with joyful song. Psalm 100:2

You know what happens if Mama ain’t happy. Same is true about Papa. Or Auntie. My “sanctification level” fluctuates with the sleep I got last night and the jog I took this morning. I know the Lord loves a cheerful giver and I know patience and gentleness come a lot easier when I’ve had a good dose sleep and some exercise. 

That connection is central to why John Piper jogs:

I know that I am prone to depression and discouragement, and I have discovered that if I go to the gym three times a week and hammer my body, I don’t get depressed as often. I am sure there are physical reasons for that…I know that it works. I know depression hurts my ministry, my marriage, and my parenting. So, for the sake of kingdom purposes I am off to the gym.

I have one life to live for Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:15). I don’t want to waste it. My approach is not mainly to lengthen it, but to maximize purity and productivity now. I want to show as much gospel truth and publish as much gospel truth as I can. I have found…that exercise helps. I think God set it up that way. 

And I think Elizabeth and Ann and Jonathan were onto it, too.

That thread of some value. 



*Author Philip Gura describes how early in his pastorate, Jonathan Edwards established routines he’d keep for life.

He typically spent thirteen hours a day in his study but always punctuated this labor with some sort of recreation, usually walking or riding or, if the snow was too deep, chopping wood for half an hour or so. In the warmer seasons he commonly rode two or three miles “to some lonely grove,” where he would dismount and walk for a while, sometimes jotting his thoughts on small pieces of paper that he would pin to his clothes for the ride home.(Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical, pp. 58-59)