Among all the earth’s living wonders, nothing can match the beauty and versatility of the human body. In fact, it is so remarkable that all the nations of the world celebrate it every four years at the Olympic Games.
Sport is one of the oldest and noblest ways of expressing pride and experiencing pleasure in our bodies. Through sport, men and women display the ability and test the capacity of the human body, to the delight of participants and spectators alike.
It is truly wonderful to watch the grace of a diver, the agility of a gymnast, the speed of a sprinter, the daring of a pole-vaulter, the power of a weightlifter, the strength of a wrestler, and the endurance of a marathon runner. Such sights move us to exclaim with Hamlet, ‘What a piece of work is man! … in form, in moving, how express and admirable! … the beauty of the world!’
Of course athletic speed, agility and strength do not arise of their own accord. The human body has the potential for them but that potential must be carefully developed. In order to compete in the Olympic Games, for example, athletes must spend years of their life in training.
They must drill and discipline their bodies on a daily basis — denying them the pleasures of gluttony and idleness, and subjecting them to the rigours of diet and exercise. They must force them to perform past exhaustion and pain. In short, they must train!
Not for wimps
The Bible occasionally refers to sport to illustrate spiritual truths. In 1 Corinthians 9:25, for example, the apostle Paul notes with approval that ‘every athlete exercises self-control in all things’, and he urges Christians to demonstrate a similar self-control in their spiritual lives.
The Christian life is not for wimps, loafers or weaklings. It requires the same sort of discipline, effort and perseverance as the athletic life.
In 1 Timothy 4:7-8, Paul states, ‘Train yourself in godliness; 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’. Here Paul contrasts physical with spiritual training, declaring the latter to be superior.
Although Paul minimises the importance of athletic training, he does not dismiss it as worthless. On the contrary, he acknowledges that bodily training is indeed of some value. The human body is God’s good gift and as such it is to be nurtured, developed and enjoyed.
However, Paul does claim that athletic training is of limited value. And there are three reasons for this.
No permanent value
First, the athlete’s body gains no permanent benefit from the training. The athlete is investing his energy in a deteriorating organism. Certainly his physical skill and strength may improve for 10 or 20 years. But by his mid-thirties his powers are inevitably on the decline.
No matter what he does, his body will weaken and decay with age until he finally dies. His mortality will eventually undermine his every effort at improvement.
Secondly, physical training is of limited value because it contributes little to the athlete’s character and conduct. There is no automatic connection between discipline of the body and discipline of the soul.
Indeed, sometimes fine athletes have quite foul characters. They appear to have little or no control over their tempers, their egos or their desires.
Thirdly, the athlete himself gains no permanent reward for his efforts. He may gain fame, but that is fleeting. He may win a medal, but that has little intrinsic value. He may win money, but that soon slips away. And even if he could keep his fame and medals and monies for his whole life, he would still lose them all upon death.
In contrast to the limited worth of physical training, spiritual training is ‘of value in every way’. This discipline, which Paul calls ‘training in godliness’, commences with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins.
It continues with obedience to the will of God as revealed in his Word, the Bible. It concludes with an eternal prize awarded to every spiritual athlete who has ‘run with perseverance the race’ set before them, ‘looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Paul cites two reasons for the superior worth of spiritual training.
First, it ‘holds promise for the present life’. Training in godliness has immediate benefits for both ourselves and others. As we trust in Christ and strive to honour him, we enjoy God’s approval.
And as we exercise control over our sinful natures, bringing them under subjection to the will of God, we not only avoid harming others but actually help them. Through this training, life here and now is enriched in every way.
The life to come
Secondly, spiritual training ‘holds promise … also for the life to come’. Our bodies may be mortal but our souls are eternal. Our bodies will one day rot in the grave but our souls will return to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
There is life after death — a life of punishment for those who reject Christ, and a life of blessing for those who receive him.
Although all we receive is by grace, training in godliness is beneficial for the life to come because God will reward us in eternity for what we do now. Paul speaks of the prize of God’s call in Christ (Philippians 3:14). But unlike the athlete’s prize which is ‘perishable’, the Christian’s prize is ‘imperishable’ (1 Corinthians 9:25).
When Paul was nearing his death he said, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing’ (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Paradoxically, one of the ‘prizes’ that will be awarded to those who have valued their souls above their bodies will be a resurrection body. This new body, which will be given to the Christian on the day of the Lord’s return, will be immortal, glorious, powerful and spiritually governed (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
The human body is a wonderful creation and we do well to train and celebrate it through sport and other physical activities. But we should be careful not to make too much of it, for it is mortal and secondary. The soul alone is eternal and primary.
In the long run, it is not physical but spiritual fitness that counts. For what is the value of a muscular body with an emaciated soul? Or what is the profit if a man wins even an Olympic medal but loses his own soul?
Training in godliness is training for eternity. That is why is should take priority.