I hate running. I did a lot of it in college as part of my military commitment — miles and miles of it, and I still hate it. Some people say they love running, especially when endorphins kick in and you have that gleeful after-effect of joy at the end of your work-out. But I don’t think God blessed me with a proper endorphin system, because I have never felt good or joyful after a strong run or work-out; just miserable, sweaty, and in need of a shower.
Though I hate running, I have been running somewhat regularly since January of 2008 — a couple miles, 2 or 3 times a week. I run on a treadmill at the YMCA because I want to try and preserve my knees and ankles, because I have a sad addiction to air conditioning, and because I prefer to be distracted from my misery by watching TV. I run because I have found that for a man my size, it is the best cardio workout I can get in the shortest amount of time. Most pastors I know are on hypertension medication by age 35, so I pragmatically stifle my hatred and run to avoid health problems associated with my line of work and eating habits.
This week at the gym, as I looked around at my nameless treadmill compatriots wearily trucking away on their own beltways of misery, my thoughts drifted to questions associated with exercise. Why do we put ourselves through this? Is it to live longer by staving off a heart attack? Is it to lose weight? Is it to look more attractive to our spouses or to others? Is it because our doctors or drill sargeants told us to do it? Is it because we lack self-discipline in what we eat? Is it because we want to avoid all possible interaction with our up-and-coming healthcare system? Is it because exercise of some sort is expected of us by our peers? Or have physical health and body image become idols in our lives?
For the overwhelming majority of people, exercise comes down to 2 things: we want to live longer and look better. In large part, this reality is intensely forced and reinforced by our culture. But in terms of what our primary motives should be, both of these reasons are diametrically opposed to what God reveals to us in Scripture.
First, let’s talk about the motive of living longer. For Christians, this world is not our home. We are sojourners, we are spiritual pilgrims passing through this world on our way to the celestial city. For us, to live is Christ and to die is gain. In Scripture, long life is presented as a blessing of God for obedience, but long life itself is never held out to us as a goal. Going back to Philippians 1, the only reason we should actually seek long life is so that we can have further impact for the gospel in this world. Does that mean we should seek death? BY NO MEANS! Not seeking long life does not mean resigning ourselves to seeking death. Life itself is a gift not to be squandered, so we should receive each day as a gift to live for the glory of God, trusting that He knows the number of our days before we are ever born (Psalm 139:16).
Second, let’s talk about the motive of looking better. Right from the beginning, we must acknowledge that God’s first concern is our heart. He says that the one welcome in His presence is “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully.” (Psa 24:4) Thus, we should give our greatest attention to believing in Christ and cultivating His likeness in ourselves in sanctification. In fact, it is this inward spiritual beauty that radiates outwardly amongst the people of God making us “attractive” to one another because we see glimpses of our Savior in each other.
However, this focus on the inward does not mean we can neglect the outward. We should not be unclean, unkempt, gluttonous slobs. We are made in the image of God, therefore we should also seek to present ourselves outwardly in a way that most closely honors His uncorrupted presence. The key here is not letting our secular culture define what kind of outward presentation is acceptable. We should exercise self discipline in what we eat and drink, doing all for the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31) We should strive to be physically healthy so that we are unhindered in traveling about to share the gospel. (1 Cor 9:25-27) We should care for our bodies because each of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 6:19-20) Some of us may be genetically predisposed to larger frames, smaller frames, slenderness, or stockiness, and it is acceptable to be as God has made us. We should want to be physically appealing to our spouses, and we should want to be proactively protect our bodies from disease and difficulty with good habits of exercise. But these biblical admonitions to be good stewards of the physical are starkly different from pursuing a certain dress size or a “six-pack of abs” or a self-image set forth by the latest fashion magazine. Don’t subscribe to the lie that your attractiveness is determined by how closely you match these false ideas of beauty!
In summary, I have had to realize that my hatred of running stems from my own poor motives. I’ve been running to avoid high-blood pressure. I’ve been running as an excuse to not watch what I eat. I’ve been running to make sure I am here to walk my daughters down the aisle. Thus, the exertion of this effort has held no joy for me. These may be good things, but if I am not running for the greatest thing — the delight of my Father and the propagation of His gospel — then I am falling short. Lord, forgive me, forgive us all, and help us to see ourselves as you see us, and to discipline ourselves accordingly.