(A Review by Virginia Knowles)
I’m in the YMCA, about to climb on the elliptical machine for a little self-induced
(um, I mean healthy exercise). But at
the moment, I’m sitting in the lobby with my laptop, a copy of Gary Thomas’s
new book Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul, and my journal where I’ve been taking notes
on it over the past few weeks.
Do you know why this is a special joy to me? Because I had the privilege of critiquing the early drafts of Every Body Matters last year and offering my suggestions – the main one being “add more personal stories!” He did! And one of them is about someone I know, Dr. Scott VanLue, a wellness physician and friend of our family. And yes, my name is on the acknowledgement page in the back of the book. So you should buy it. Just to see my name of course. No really, it’s an awesome book even without my name in it! (I can’t help giggling typing this. Am I a classic narcissist or what?)
Anyway, I’m a long-time Gary Thomas fan, having read probably 10 of his books and reviewing a few of them. At first this one seemed out of his genre. I mean, a book about fitness from someone who usually writes about classic spirituality for evangelicals? Actually, the funny thing is, he incorporates classic spirituality into his book about physical fitness with quotes by Fenelon, Climacus, and other centuries old dudes. Simply medieval, I tell you! This philosophical edge is especially apparent in chapters like “Our Ongoing Battle Against Sin.” Gary is actually quite qualified to write about fitness too. After all, he’s run more marathons than I can count, including the prestigious Boston marathon. He takes the body seriously.
So what’s the book all about? It’s about how our bodies affect our souls and vice versa. After all, the more physically fit we are, the more energy we have to devote to God’s kingdom. And if we neglect taking care of our bodies through overeating or laziness, this reflects on our spiritual character as well. It is a virtue to practice self-discipline. It’s good for body and soul. (Sorta reminds me of the YMCA’s trifecta: Spirit, Mind, and Body. I do love the YMCA!)
As Gary says to Christians, “For most of our lives, we have emphasized growing our souls, not always realizing that a lack of physical discipline can undercut and even erode spiritual growth.” We don’t want to be heads without bodies, but whole people.
Indeed, aerobics expert Dr. Kenneth Cooper writes, “A healthy, fit body is the most appropriate home for a vibrant spirit.”
And the Apostle Paul prays, “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23b) and counsels his readers to purify themselves from anything that might contaminate body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1) and to honor God with their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20). Are these passages just about not doing anything immoral? No, the positive connotation is that we take careful stewardship of the marvelous gift that God has given – the masterpiece creation that we call the human body. To trash our bodies is a sin.
Gary speaks of having “silver souls” that have been refined through difficulty. “Desiring a silver soul means we stop treating our bodies as ornaments – with all the misguided motivations often displayed by those who build their bodies out of pride and ambition – and start treating our bodies as instruments, vessels set apart to serve the God who fashioned them.”
Again, “Protecting your health is the same thing as protecting the vehicle through which God wants to change the world. Is there a greater loss in this world than millions of Spirit-renewed believers digging premature graves with knife, fork and spoon?” He also poses the question: “Is food shaping me into a man who lives solely for his own gratification, rather than nourishing me to look after the needs of others?” For many people, food becomes a kind of self-medicating substitute for God when they are experiencing negative emotions. Eating makes us feel good, but it’s no substitute for the soul food that God wants to give us. Besides that, just chemically speaking, you can get the same emotional boost from the hormones released during exercise than you can get from eating – and it’s a whole lot healthier!
So, what to do? I’ll have to write about that a little later. It’s time for me to get on that elliptical machine before my kids get out of their home school P.E. class!
Ok, I’m back again two weeks later, in the YMCA lobby again, this time after my workout. Picking up the book up again, I’m delighted to read a quote from second-century bishop Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” I love to hear Sara Groves sing that in her song “Just Woke Up to My Own Life.” It’s more relevant than a stiff dose of caffeine in the morning. Alive, energetic, alert, vigorous, robust, vibrant. That’s what we all want to be – not sluggish or foggy-brained. Isn’t that the goal is exercise and nutrition – to take such good care of our bodies that they will serve us as we serve God and others? Glory! Gary writes about the “Muscular Christianity” movement of the 19th century: “The thinking was that to live an influential, fruit-filled Christian life required a toughness, a hardy spirit, a confronting and facing of challenges, a learning to deal with failure without giving in to it, and a rising up to keep moving forward – each of these is a lesson that can be learned through sports… Soft people who frequently complain about the smallest annoyances, who give in to laziness and excess, who expect others to work so that they can rest, who collapse into passive entertainment instead of active exercise – these are souls custom-made to become all but irrelevant in kingdom warfare. They are not threat to anyone -- least of all to Satan.”
So what can we do? Glad you asked! In his chapter Purely Practical, Gary recounts Dr. Cooper’s advice: to “engage in regular, moderate endurance exercise”, “pursue a strength and flexibility training program throughout your life” and “emphasize low-fat, high-fiber foods in your diet.” Gary adds in eating less and making sure you get your sleep. All of this is especially important in the middle-age and older years as our metabolism changes and women go through menopause. In a previous chapter, he recommends that churches consider offering healthy exercise programs (team sports, group bike rides, a Pilates class, etc.) as a means of outreach and fellowship – and not just an endless round of potluck dinners. If this isn’t something your church can do, consider signing up for community-based exercise programs, such as those offered by the YMCA. The social aspect of meeting up with friends (even brand new ones) fuels a sense of well-being and motivates us to keep going. Agreeing to meet a friend a few mornings a week for 30-60 minutes of brisk walk-and-talk really helped me last year. I need to start that up again! If we want to break the habit of sluggish, sloppy living, a whole new routine is necessary – eating, sleeping, exercising. It is so convicting to type these words.
It can be really hard to make big transitions in health, but it is worth it in the long run. My father was diagnosed with diabetes about 30 years ago, when he was in his mid-forties. I am so impressed with how seriously he took life-change. Accustomed to sitting down in his computer specialist job all the time, he turned into a running machine and was rewarded with a lean and healthy body. Now in his mid-seventies, he still runs daily. Three years ago, while jogging, he was hit by a motorcycle and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Doctors attribute his quick recovery (back in the office in six weeks) in part to his incredible physical fitness.
So what happens when “nothing happens” – when you don’t lose the weight you thought you would? Don’t give up! Fitness matters more than body shape. Exercise is still good for your body and your soul. And if you can’t plunge into a full-fledged fitness program, at least do something. Get started. Move in the right direction and keep going! Make it something you enjoy, such riding a bike or working out at the gym. Listen to some music on your iPod or watch a movie while you’re on the treadmill.
It’s been fun writing this review at the YMCA over a period of weeks, but now it’s time to exercise my fingers and press the post button on my blog. But before I do, one last verse from Every Body Matters.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
The book is now available on-line and in bookstores! Go get yourself a copy because Every Body Matters – including yours!
Some of Gary's other books include...