Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Cult of the Body: Is Working out Compatible with Christian Modesty?

I'm a gym junkie and I'm perfectly comfortable to confess that. I've been going to the gym multiple times per week for three or so years and in that time my health, strength and fitness have improved significantly. My physical appearance has also changed over those three or so years as - what generally happens with weights and resistance training - fatty mass is "replaced" with lean mass; more muscle.

This topic is sometimes brought up in my classes and there's always one students that asks, "Sir, why do you go to the gym? Isn't that vanity and all that?" So this question got me thinking and forced me to assess why exactly I was going to the gym. I had to then further prompt myself to ask myself, "Is working out compatible with Christian living? Is working out compatible with the Christian concept of modesty?"

There is a culture of vanity and immodesty in the fitness industry and I've certainly seen a fair share of it as a patron of a few different gyms over the past couple of years. Just this very evening I was at the gym and my attention was drawn to a younger man that "checked himself out" in the mirror in between each each set and strutted around like a male peacock showing off its tail-feathers. I could very easily be accused of the same thing since I'm a gym-goer, but the difference is your purpose for working out and exercising; the "why" behind it all. If you're going to the gym because you want to improve your physical appearance and draw more attention from the opposite sex (and a vast number of workout "gurus" exploit this base desire and build an empire on it), then you're working out for the wrong reasons. We read the following in scripture:

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." - 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

The context of 1 Corinthians 6 addresses sexual immorality, but there is more than one way to read verses 19 and 12: our body is a sacred place and it is given to us by God; we are stewards of our bodies and we are to treat it as a temple - a sacred place - so that we may glorify God with it. The Church teaches us this about taking care of our bodies:

"Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good. 

Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance." - CCC, par. 2288

And here's where it gets interesting:

"If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for it's sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By its selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to the perversion of human relationships." - ibid., par. 2289

To "idolize physical perfection" is to treat our body as God, i.e. we, in a narcissistic manner, treat and worship ourselves as God. This, of course, is diametrically opposed to modesty and the biblical understanding of the treatment of the human body. By idolizing the body, we fail to glorify God with or through our bodies, but rather we glorify our body as God; this is idolatry; idolatry is a mortal sin (Exodus 20:3).

In short: it is perfectly okay to workout or exercise to improve your physical fitness and to take care of your body. It is not, however, acceptable to place the value of our bodies above all other things, especially at the expense of our relationship with God and the needs of others.

"... for 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." - 1 Timothy 4:8

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." - 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

To bring Christ to others.


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