Physical Fitness, Faith, And Forcing A Fight With Your Feelings

Most of us don't need to hear more talk about the benefit of physical exercise. We get it. It's like the benefit of good nutrition. We've got that one down, too. We aren't needing more information, we're needing more motivation. And the difficulty with motivation is that we're not going to be stirred if the appeal to take action doesn't connect strongly enough with our personal value system. 

For those of us who desire to live out our lives in accordance with the Bible that tells us to esteem others as more important ourselves, the motivation to care for our bodies will connect with our value system if we approach physical fitness first and foremost as a Christ-follower. In fact, the more we value appropriating gospel truth, the less the motivation offered by the world is going to stir us. Their inspirational articulations about self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment will leave us shaking our heads, not our booties. And those incentives to have bodies buffed and beautiful? Forget it. The only exercise that's going to draw from most of us are eye rolls that rise just slightly higher than our muffin tops.

My husband and I have tried to make physical fitness a priority, and we've donated time through the years to talking through the importance of exercise . And in those discussions, the thing we've talked about most is the importance of keeping physical exercise a minor part of our lives in proportion to our spiritual exercise. 


"Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for 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."  I Tim 4:7-8 


I'm not as naturally-inclined to stay physically fit as my husband, nor am I as disciplined. His ordering of life is as steadily organized and sequential as mine is wildly hap-hazard and random. I'm a contained mess. Baskets, bins and boxes? Love 'em. Not him. Who needs containers when you can just line up your toiletries exactly one inch apart in the sovereignly-provided drawer? He approaches exercise the same way. Focused, methodical, consistent. None of that varied cross-training nonsense. 

If you're disciplined and serenely sequential, you probably don't need advice on how to keep physical fitness a priority. But for the rest of you undisciplined and wildly random people like me, remembering the following two facts is what has connected strongly enough with my value system to motivate me to action:  

1. My ability to serve others is tied to my level of physical fitness.  

In a single moment, God could sovereignly ordain to place me in a position where my very survival is dependent on others serving me. But for now, He's given me a body and mind that carries great potential to serve others. I don't want to just tap into that potential, I want to use it to its full measure. 


"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."  JFK


Being physically pushed beyond places we think we can go is an exhilarating feeling. That's because it offers us a measure of our energies and skills that surprises us, and thus delights us. And that delight of surprise provides us with a beautiful opportunity to worship God and praise Him for the gift of life and health. Not just for good health, but even for declining health that still carries potential. Pushing our physical limits provides us with updated measures of our energies that more intelligently inform us of our God-given capacity to serve others. 

My dad instilled in me a love for running at an early age, and I strongly identify with Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire when he tells us he can feel God's pleasure when he runs. I've always been a sprinter and my fondest memories of elementary school involve beating all the boys in races on the playground. Convinced he woke up each morning with new strength, every recess involved Charles Herbanack challenging me to race from the water fountain to the monkey bars. He'd hang his head in disgust, but I still have love notes that prove he thought I was the cat's pajamas. Apparently what I've heard is true. Men like fast women.   

I still find pleasure in running, but I have health issues that don't allow me to run far. My tendency is to avoid things that don't come with success according to my measure of expectation, so I allowed my need to walk rob me of enough joy to stop running altogether. Fortunately my husband was determined not to let that happen, and he convinced me to swallow my prideshift gears, and squeeze out what's available. We spent many evenings running together on the Detroit riverfront this summer with him kicking my tail and me breathlessly muttering how sorry he was going to be when I keeled over and died. All my whining only ever drew one lame and sorry response:

No, Holly. I won't be sorry. Just disappointed I didn't give good advice. 

In spite of all the evil darts I hurled at Mr. Kick Tail the past months, I sure was smiling when we ran a 5K charity race a few weeks ago. One of the 3.2 miles had to be walked, but I enjoyed running the other two. That's my manly man on the left. He finished in 23:49. Not too shabby at age 57. And that handsome gentleman in the middle? He grabbed my hand when he saw me struggling toward the end of the race exclaiming, "You can do this! Run to the finish with me!" He represents everything I love about living in the heart of Detroit. My goal was 34:00, and that's me actually feeling tickled pink with a lame 32:59. Who would have thunk it.  

Staying physically fit isn't about looking or acting like anyone else. It isn't about winning races or breaking records. It's not even about increasing speed or increasing strength. It's about exercising the full measure of our energies no matter how large or small, no matter how fragile or strong. And most of all, it's about humbly recognizing that even the tiniest drop is a gift of grace from God. And the best motivation for exercising those energies? Loving and serving others with the full measure of our sovereignly-ordained potential.  

2. My ability to serve others is tied to my ability to rule my feelings.  

I'm an emotional kind of gal who feels things with raw energy. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger. I hardly ever find myself feeling these emotions in normal measure. I'm the circuit breaker on Pixar's Inside Out. In every discussion about that movie I'm inevitably asked the same question:

Holly, which emotion do you feel the most?  

Ugh. I get so disgusted at always having to tell everyone how saddened I am that they've asked me something I can't answer and that the only thing making me happy at the moment is the fact that my fear that my anger is going to be kindled has surprised me by subsiding. So please don't ask. I have no earthly clue which emotion I feel most. No. Earthly. Clue. 

So when I refer to my ability to rule my feelings, you can trust me that I'm not talking about ignoring my feelings or pretending they don't exist. I'm not even talking about that "good feeling always follows right action" thing. I don't like that saying. I have made too many right actions that have left me feeling anything but good to find it an accurate articulation. I don't like any message that inseparably marries righteous living to good feeling. What I'm talking about is not allowing my feelings to drive my actions and dictate my choices without my consent. Only grace gives me that desire, and only grace gives me that discipline. 

Staying physically fit requires ongoing mental energy that exerts authority over my feelings. Not just feelings of emotional discomfort, but feelings of physical discomfort. I've enjoyed the privilege of being a participant in several sprint triathlons, and the swimming, cycling and running have all come with their own cache of negative feelings that has needed to be mentally controlled. While the individual negative feelings aren't unique to me, the cache of negative feelings belongs to me and me alone. And that cache doesn't exist in a vacuum of any one event. It's a cache created by physical and emotional components that influence every aspect of my life. And the mental energy that faces that cache in a showdown also has influence on every aspect of my life.

Just like the triathlons, my need to love and serve others comes with a cache of negative feelings that is unique to me. Mental energy is required to exert power over those feelings if I want to love in a way that reflects Christ. It's a work of grace, but that work of grace doesn't happen by living thought-lessly. It happens by living thought-fully

I want to genuinely love people. I want to glorify God with my life by esteeming others as more important than myself. I don't want  to belittle others in disgust, or bite them in anger, or banish them out of fear. And in my sadness, I don't want my own pain to blind me to their pain. That means I can't allow my feelings of disgust, anger, fear and sadness to sit in the driver's seat. I have to force them to take a back seat, a maneuver that takes discipline. It's the same kind of discipline I exercise every time I have to force myself to lace up my running shoes, clip on my cycling shoes, or slip on my shower shoes. And giving to others in the midst of my own pain takes fortitude. The same kind of fortitude I exercise every time I force myself to push through the pain in my back, or knee, or foot, or head, or ankle, or shoulder or hip or...Oops. Sorry. I'm 55. It's hard not to get consumed with body parts.

Stop it, Holly. Just concentrate on how much you love being 55. Number 5. It's your favorite number. It's curvy and level-headed. 

I find great pleasure in encouraging others to make physical fitness a priority. In fact, I'm quite notorious for motivating others to get off the couch even as I'm lounging on my own. Faithfully exercising is not something that comes easily for me. But I know our bodies were made to move, and I know the older we get the more discipline it takes to keep moving them. By God's grace, I want to keep myself in a position to serve others as long as I'm given even the smallest measure of energy.

I'm thinking right now of my 83-year-old mother. God has gifted her with energies and skills that are extraordinary for her age. But more extraordinary than that is the love that she extends to others. I am continually having people tell me what a blessing she has been to them. She is still giving of herself, she is still serving. Grace! And because her level of physical fitness allowed it, she was able to faithfully care for my dad his final difficult years when God ordained that his life of service to others was in its closing chapter. 

I want to serve others, too. I don't know God's sovereign choosing for my life, I just know I'm praying for the grace to exercise the full measure of whatever energies He gives me. 

My favorite triathlon was the Clermont Iron Girl in Florida. That's my lovely and classy momma on the left, calming my nerves before the swim. Talk about negative feelings. For me, the open-water swim has never been anything less than a very bad, low-budget horror film. I always emerge swearing up and down I will never torture myself again. But when I crossed the finish line of this tri? I felt like I had been part of the coolest chick flick EVER.  

My motivation to exercise centers on my desire to serve others, but entering charity and racing events provides motivation to keep that motivation in sight. I encourage you to sign up for an event that may capture your attention. Even if you walk from the beginning to the end, even if you cross the finish line strolling your beautiful baby. You won't be sorry! Do it out of love for others. Do it for the glory of God.