Gnosticism and Exercise

By Don

June 14, 2022

Blog

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

 

Gnosticism Shames the Body

 

Gnosticism was a belief system that even the early church had to deal with. It incorporated a type of secret knowledge as a pathway to salvation, along with a philosophy that made a separation between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’.

There are traces of it today in our modern culture. On its surface, the categories of physical and spiritual are easily understood with implications that are true. The soul is eternal while the body is temporal. The body decays while the soul endures. The heart is the “wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23) and drives our behaviors. 

But Gnosticism takes the division of spiritual and physical a step further. It exalts the ‘spiritual’ and calls it good, while diminishing the ‘physical’ and calls it evil. Historical Gnosticism argued against the humanity of Christ, and questioned how the perfect, ‘spiritual’ God could occupy a wicked, ‘physical’ body. 

The issue with Gnosticism is then not with the division of spiritual and physical, but with the valuation it places on the spiritual over the physical.   

As it relates to exercise and fitness, the valuation of activities into greater ‘spiritual’ and lesser ‘physical’ can create a type of confusion and guilt when you think about physical activity. It can shame you for thinking about wanting to become strong.

Is growing physically stronger worse than reading the Bible?

Is prayer better than doing a set of push-ups?

Do you feel the inner tension between these two categories when questions are asked this way?

Body & Mind are Intertwined 

 

In Genesis 1:31, God reflects on creating the physical world and He called it all “very good”. And when He created man, He united spirit and body together into one. Genesis 2:7 says it this way: God took dust, the physical, and breathed into it the breath of life, the spiritual. The two have been intertwined since and the two affect each other.

Here are some examples.

In Genesis 3, Adam ate fruit, the physical, which was disobedience to God and was how sin entered the world, the spiritual (Romans 5:12). In Psalm 32:3, David reflects on the result of unconfessed sin, the spiritual, on his body, the physical, by saying: “my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long”. In 1 Corinthians 6:18, Paul teaches that sin of sexual immorality, the spiritual, is a sin against the person’s own body, the physical.

As it relates to fitness, the body and mind affect each other constantly. This relationship has been well studied. Exercise can treat mild to moderate depression, relieve stress, increase mental energy, reduce the symptoms of ADHD, improve concentration and memory and result in better sleep.

Also, just consider that your entire ability to think, believe, and reason is made possible by a physical, mushy organ located within your head.

Dirty Hands and Dirty Hearts

 

The spiritual and the physical interact with each other constantly. But the mere separation of the spiritual and physical is not the core of the issue with Gnosticism. The issue is with valuation; Gnostics ascribed inherent wickedness to the physical and inherent goodness to the spiritual.

On its surface, this valuation does not seem to be a big problem, especially with exercise and fitness. Doesn’t Paul say that bodily training has some value while godliness is “of value in every way”? (1 Timothy 4:8*). 

Yes, Paul does say that. But in saying this, he is not telling us that the physical is therefore inherently wicked. In fact, he prefaces his statement on bodily training with this in verse 4:

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving…”

God created all things as good. Work is good. Our bodies are good. Your biceps are good. Your bones are good.

The issue is with sin, which dirtied both our hands and our hearts and brought death to both. 

Sin corrupted and brought death to our bodies (Romans 5:12). We know we live in a body that is fading (2 Corinthians 4:16). But sin also corrupted our souls, making us spiritually dead people (Ephesians 2:1) and making our hearts wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).

And between the physical and spiritual, which one is in the driver’s seat? Do dirty hands make dirty hearts?

Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 15:

“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” – Matthew 15:18-20.

Dirty hearts make dirty hands. The heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9), and we need to watch it closely with all vigilance, for “from it flows the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

Gnosticism is ignorant of the true realities of our physical and spiritual selves. With the physical, it ignores the truth that God created all things as good. With the spiritual, it ignores the truth that our actions flow from our hearts. And it ignores that sin corrupts both.

So what is true hope for our dirty hands and hearts (Psalm 51:10)?

The Gospel.

Freedom and Thanksgiving

 

Christ, the One who existed from the beginning (John 1:2), came to the world in a physical body (John 1:14). He died bodily in His death and rose bodily in His resurrection. And these ‘physical’ activities altered ‘spiritual’ reality. It’s through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection that we were transformed from spiritually dead people into spiritually alive people (Ephesians 2:6). The hope of the gospel transforms our minds and hearts (Romans 12:1, Ezekiel 36:26) and promises a future transformation of our physical body (Philippians 3:21).

In view of all of this, how should we ride our bikes and do push-ups as Christians?

With freedom and thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4-5). We are free from the guilt that we are doing something lesser by doing push-ups and we can rejoice that God has given us a physical body to do push-ups with.

So, with freedom and thankfulness, become stronger. Do push-ups. Swing a kettlebell. Ride your bike. Go for a walk with your wife and kids.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” – 1 Corinthians 10:31

 

*For a more thorough dealing with 1 Timothy 4:7-8, you can visit this post I wrote last year. 

This post is an adapted excerpt from the devotional series that accompanies the LF 12-week bodyweight program

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