For a long time, I grew up under the assumption that my spiritual life was really all about my inner life. It is something I did with my mind or my heart (whatever that was). Spiritual life was about the spiritual practices and disciplines we all immediately think of such as prayer, Scripture study, worship, and—though rarely practiced—fasting. My body did not factor into this spirituality. Honestly, my body felt like the obstacle to spiritual life.
For a long time, spiritual life was partitioned out from my physical life in my mind. However, the more I read the Scriptures and learned about Christian spirituality historically, I realized I did not have a very biblical or Christian way of thinking about it.
Discovering My Physical Life Before God
One impression you get when you read through the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, is just how ordinary and earthy life is. Almost all of my Christian upbringing was directed to the question of what will happen when I die (my life after body), but the vast majority of the Bible shows little interest in that question. What it was concerned about was how you divide the land, work the land, share your produce, prepare your food and clothing and so on. It was concerned with how you worked, how you went to war, how you ate and how you rested. The Mosaic Covenant was oriented around the blessing of living peacefully in the land with flourishing crops and full vats of wine.
Even in the New Testament, Jesus’ kingdom proclamation came with healing of the physical as well as the spiritual. The Apostle Paul describes his own spiritual life like an athlete in training, subduing his body and bringing it into alignment with his aims (1 Cor. 9:24–27), and reminds the Corinthians their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, bought with a price. Therefore, they are to honor the Lord with their bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
From creation, where God makes bodies and breathes life into them (Gen 2:7), to resurrection, where God raises bodies and breathes life into them at His return (1 Cor 15:20-23), life lived before God is an embodied life. We live before God in our bodies (1 Cor 6:20).
Physical Disciplines for Spiritual Growth
The following is autobiographical as I share some of my progression of thought. I hope by illustration to provide my thoughts with the hopes of generating ideas transferable to your own life.
First, I realized many of the virtues and vices we think of from the Scriptures and Christian thought are physical manifestations of our spiritual conditions. The vice of gluttony and a corresponding virtue of temperance (or self-control), the vice of lust and the virtue of chastity, the vice sloth and the virtue of diligence, and so on are all about the order of bodily appetites. Like a car with a bad alignment, my body developed grooves that wanted to veer this way and that. Spiritual growth and transformation, therefore, would include creating new patterns of physical life governed by the Spirit.
Physical Disciplines as Help to Spiritual Disciplines
Second, I realized my physical disciplines were important as they made the practice of spiritual disciplines possible. For example, experiencing fatigue, brain fog, mental lethargy or depression all affected my motivation and ability to stay focused in prayer, study of the Scriptures, worship, etc. Like a car with a sputtering engine, my body didn’t have the RPM’s to do what I needed or wanted it to do. My spiritual growth, therefore, needed to include a physical life that maximized my energy levels and my mental health.
Three Areas for Physical Disciplines
With this understanding, there are three areas of focus for me: physical activity, nutrition and rest. My goal is not to get six-pack abs but to discipline my appetites and maximize my energy levels and mental health.
Our bodies were made to work. Muscle and bone gain strength and density through the stress of physical activity. Physical activity is associated with improvement of mental health and staving off disease. In a world where so much of life is sedentary, it is crucial to get regular physical activity.
My recommendation for those wanting to develop a practice of regular physical activity (perhaps from no activity) is to start with something you already enjoy. Do you like walking, hiking, biking, basketball or martial arts? There is nothing wrong with aligning your new habit with something you already enjoy and find motivating. Some of these physical practices like walking and hiking go well with spiritual disciplines like solitude, silence and prayer.
Contrary to the advertisements, our bodies were not made to “run on Dunkin.” Much has been written elsewhere on the subject of the typical American diet, but we can certainly say a diet high in processed foods is associated with all kinds of problems affecting our health, energy levels and mental sharpness.
My recommendation for others is not to go all-in on an extreme diet that is not sustainable. Rather, focus on simple, incremental changes where you can develop new long-term habits. Do not focus just on food to avoid but start by focusing on what you need to add. Focus on eating more whole foods, more servings of vegetables, more water, or preparing your lunches. As you do this, you may begin to feel better and naturally begin to avoid foods you need to cut out.
Isn’t it interesting that one of the Ten Commandments is to rest! Why? Well, rest is an act of faith. It is the recognition that God is God, and I am not. When I cease to work, the world does not fall apart. By putting a limit to my work, I am trusting God as the provider of my daily bread. As embodied creatures, God has made us to have regular rhythms of work and rest.
My recommendation is to evaluate your current way of life. Perhaps monitor your time for a week. Discover what the patterns of your life really are. Then, plan where you need to make some boundaries between work and rest. Perhaps it is shutting work down at a particular time each night. It certainly means carving out a day of rest. Maybe you need to start by saying “No” to certain activities (even good ones). Rest is an act of faith, especially in our anxious and busy culture. Limiting your children’s after school activities for the sake of your health and theirs may be necessary. Saying “No” to some ministry involvement (shudder to think) may be an act of faith.
Where to Start?
If you realize you need to make some changes in your physical life as a part of your own spiritual growth, do not try to start with a complete, unsustainable overhaul. Start with small habits with big payoffs.
Let me illustrate. I struggle with self-control in my eating. People I work with may not believe it because I bring my veggies, hummus and protein smoothies to work, but my weak spot is my nighttime eating. I am not opposed to consuming a whole sleeve of Oreos late at night if given the opportunity.
I understood my point of weakness was my nighttime eating. This was the time when I am most tempted to eat the worst stuff and the most quantity. I made one small, sustainable change and decided I would not eat after 7:30 pm. I made no other significant changes to my diet. This rather simple change of habit had big payoffs. Not only was I eating better and less, but I began to sleep better, waking up more alert and with more energy. I lost about 15 lbs. in short order and stabilized my energy throughout the day by making one small, sustainable change.
Think about your own life in these three areas. Consider what small change could make a big payoff. Start there. Once you master that habit, you can master another.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.