On an oak bench in some faux-Irish pub in Southern California there is a dog-collared minister, sipping an IPA, asking whether fitness is a suitable metaphor for the Christian life. The question is good even if the beer choice is not. There are dangers in talking about spiritual fitness which must be avoided like potholes on a road.
First, the concept of fitness conveys a measure of self-reliance. Fitness conjures up the most recent Nike ad about unleashing inner power. One imagines a suburban hero who, besides making the top ten list of State orthopaedics and playing the roles of husband and father as perfectly as Tom Brady under center, is able to wake up each morning to cycle the 30 mile commute (uphill) to work. His secret? A bull-sized dose of self-discipline. There is no disputing that talking about spiritual fitness risks grooming a modern day army of Desert Fathers, relying on self, not grace, to memorize the New Testament, mortify the flesh, and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
A second danger is that physically fit people tend to take pride in their achievement. Each T-Shirt advertising yet another half-marathon completed, on the one hand, affirms membership in the exclusive ‘32-inch-waist-club’ and, on the other, casts a smug eye on everyone else who spends more time looking for parking spaces than doing cardio. One might worry that applying fitness to spirituality would encourage an elitist mind-set whereby select Christians come to view themselves as the few, the proud, the Marine Corps of God’s true Israel.
Therefore, in light of the possibility that spiritual fitness could counteract the two great objectives of the gospel – to declare grace and to unify believers – should not the metaphor be buried underground like radioactive waste? No. Here is are five reasons why.
1 – Fitness Is Objective
The first is the connection between fitness and health. Health is objective; it is something that can be assessed and measured. This is especially true with physical health, which is not abstract like happiness, but as concrete and measurable as a beating heart. This clarity regarding what health ought to be is why doctors can diagnose deficiencies in health and why patients go to health clinics: not for good advice but for prescribed remedies.
This example of something objective is of critical significance for a generation that tends to view all things spiritual as nebulous, relative, subjective, and only accountable before the supreme bar of ‘my personal feelings.’ The idea of fitness nips this attitude in the bud. For modern people who are as passionate and critical about health as Israelite priests were about holiness, health is a way of convincing guys that spiritual fitness is of life and death importance. In the words of Paul, spiritual fitness bears the weight of glory.
2 – Fitness Connects with Vocation
Second, the value of spiritual fitness is evident in that one can ask the question, are you fit to perform a given task or to fill a specific office? Here fitness has the meaning of suitability. Thus connected to the idea of spiritual fitness, like a grape from a vine, is the idea of Christian vocation – that to be a Christian is to serve Christ now, that Christian service is not something that happens mechanically or haphazardly, but something requiring careful preparation and intensive training. To raise the topic of spiritual fitness, then, is to confront a question every bit as probing and personal as a colonoscopy: am I fit to be a servant of Christ here and now? Men need to be discomforted by this question.
3 – The Biological Definition of Fitness
In biology fitness is the measure of an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in a particular environment. Walruses are not fit to trek the Sahara; tadpoles cannot survive in a pool of bleach; racoons cannot reproduce underwater. This biological definition of fitness is a shaft of light revealing yet another aspect of what it means to be spiritually fit. Christ does not helicopter his disciples out of the world. Christians are not a protected species living safely like deer on a golf course. Neither are Christians given a protected layer of blubber to insulate them from Satanic influence. On the contrary, disciples of Christ are sent into a hostile environment with the instructions to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. They are warned to put on body armour because the devil is a vicious sniper who sometimes camouflages himself as an angel of light. What more, we are not just told by Jesus to survive in such conditions, but to multiply. Therefore, to ponder spiritual fitness is to consider what preparations are needed to fulfil the Great Commission, not in the serenity of Starbucks, but in the heat of jungle warfare.
4 - The Dangers of Talking about Fitness Are Unavoidable
Yes talking about spiritual fitness could result in self-effort and self-righteousness. But these ditches are not unique to fitness. They exist when introducing any measurable standard to human behavior, call it holiness, maturity, or the Michael Scott test of social awkwardness. Does not striving for holiness encounter the same perils as spiritual fitness? The example of the Pharisees suggests so.
The real challenge with talking about spiritual fitness is the basic challenge of using any metaphor, analogy, or image – to mine the gold and chunk the granite.
5 - The Apostolic Precedent
Finally, the value of spiritual fitness is seen in Paul’s use of athletic imagery to describe the Christian life (e.g. I Cor. 9:24-27). For Paul, life is a contest, a race, with rewards to be won. Viewing life in this way makes sense of essential Christian virtues like perseverance, grit, earnestness, discipline, self-control and hope. In Paul’s understanding there are no spectators among Christians. Christians are athletes in need of being as committed to the discipline of following Christ as Lionel Messi is to the sport of soccer.
In sum, if Paul was not afraid to speak in terms of spiritual fitness neither should we be. The benefits outweigh the dangers.