Despite being a non-believer (indeed, an outspoken critic of the faith), I find myself still drawn to and intrigued by Christianity — in particular, to theology as an activity. The field seems to be a bottomless well of questions and subjects for contemplation, which is sustenance for the curious mind.
But the real value of theology — or any kind of spiritual study — is where study finds application in action and day-to-day living.
Beginning about six months ago, I began hanging out with a small group of Christians online. Coming from the pagan perspective, I began trying to push physical training as an alternative to the internecine squabbles between Catholics and Protestants and the more general “spirit of flippancy” (a phrase I borrowed from C.S. Lewis) that tended to flourish in the shit-talking banter-culture online.
It seemed more constructive, and spiritually superior, through both pagan and Christian lenses. Specifically, I had been pushing weight-training (perhaps in the pagan spirit of Paul Waggener and The Golden One).
I even argued that perhaps there was a Christian theological basis for taking care of one’s personal temple — that this care extended beyond the sexual restraint Paul references in Corinthians, and into building it into a thing of power and beauty.
But eventually, I had to ask the question that all Christians should ask themselves in matters of theology: am I reading true doctrine from the text, or am I reading my own desires and opinions into scripture?
Even for a non-believer, it is a valuable exercise. But for the faithful Christian, perhaps much more is at stake.
Christians will have to judge for themselves if my conclusion here rings true, but I believe that there is a Christian theological case for strengthening the body through fitness.
However, that case is not for strength-training specifically — for lifting heavy objects in short, violent bursts of energy for gaining explosive muscle and mass.
The Christian case for training the body lies instead in running.
I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith2 Timothy 4:7
All Biblical virtues are virtues of endurance.
The Christian is called to be — perhaps above all — forgiving; a mirror reflection of the forgiveness they themselves hope to receive from God. In practice, forgiveness is a virtue of endurance.
The Christian is called to be patient — indeed, love is defined as patience. Endurance.
The Christian is called to maintain faith and hope — commitment, fortitude, and grit in the face of doubt. Endurance.
Insofar as physical exercise trains the virtues required by the nature of the movement, one would expect running to train the virtue of endurance as a more general character trait. This would make running a “more Christian” exercise than weight-training, in its development of the core Christian virtue.
But the connection runs further than the mere virtue of endurance.
Modern Christians don’t like to talk about this, because it runs contrary to the scientific utilitarianism that dominates our consumer society. But an intensely important part of Christian theology is pain. Pain reminds the believer of the transience of the flesh and of this world, and can — hopefully — remind the believer not to attach themselves too closely to it. It reminds them of what is truly real. But it also connects them with the experience of Jesus suffering on the cross. Christians wear the crucifix and hang it on the wall to remind themselves of Jesus’ death, but it could just as legitimately and meaningfully be viewed as a reminder of Jesus’ suffering. This is why mortification of the flesh in Christianity (literally “putting the body to death”) sometimes takes the form of self-flagellation.
One of Christopher Hitchens’ criticisms of Mother Theresa was that she was “not a friend of the poor, but a friend of poverty”; that she was, in a sense, spending time among the suffering not to alleviate their suffering, but to experience their suffering by proximity, however vicariously. Such a motivation may seem distasteful to the philanthropic secularist, but is entirely theologically correct in the Christian framework.
From my own experience, I can recall nothing more painful than the cross-country races from high school.
Running long distances is intensely painful.
Strength training is stressful, but the pain of a heavy lift is nothing compared to the duration of running as fast as you can for 20 minutes, or 30. Or hours.
Is it a mystery that the greatest masochists are drawn to running?
But I think it is not enough to emphasize the “Christian-ness” of running. I think it is also worth pointing out a certain “un-Christian-ness” to strength-training, specifically body-building.
I would never want to discourage anyone — including Christians — from weight-training. I myself train with weights, and think it is physically, cognitively, and spiritually valuable. However, from the Christian perspective, there is a spiritual danger to the gym, and that concerns the sin of pride.
Strength is a feature of the human body, and great strength is a glorification of the flesh. It feels great to be strong. It makes you feel powerful. The experience of lifting a heavy barbell is the fulfillment of your own will, the Nietzschean feeling of one’s own power increasing.
And let’s be honest: it looks good too.
I believe these are totally valid, human (all too human?) reasons to pursue strength-training.
But they are not particularly Christian reasons.
To whatever degree Paul’s words are literal, the Christian might be inclined to moderate his time in the gym.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.2 Corinthians 12:9-10
For those who think in more esoteric language: the essence of running is stripping away the flesh, while the essence of strength training is building the flesh.
I leave it to the studious Christian to decide which of these two is the better spiritual path by their own faith.
For myself, I think great value comes from both forms of training. I have argued for a more balanced physique before, on the grounds that it is more attractive and more functional, and that the greatest hunters and warriors (Cameron Hanes and David Goggins both come to mind) have been both lifters and runners. But for the believing Christian, I think a special kind of value can come from emphasizing running, not merely as a physical exercise, but as a spiritual one — of exercising the virtue of endurance and coming closer to Christ through raw pain. And perhaps a special kind of spiritual benefit comes to those who run without headphones, and can enjoy the silence of running in the wilderness. There is spiritual value in silence that transcends Christianity alone, but which Christianity provides a home for, especially for those interested in the Desert Fathers or in monastic traditions more generally.
Between endurance, suffering, and silence, I think it may be in the Christian’s spiritual interest to take up running in the way in which he takes up prayer — as a tool with which to reforge his spirit and to reconnect with his God.
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.1 Corinthians 9:24