I have just returned from an hour’s ‘power-walk’ – up a hill, down some steps, up 120 steps, through a mango grove, and up a really steep hill! Amazingly I was not alone – there were walkers and runners in abundance. New Zealand seems to be absorbed with keeping fit. The other day I walked along a path by the harbour shore in fear of my life – runners and cyclists were hurtling by. Not everybody here in New Zealand is fit – many of the students at Laidlaw College could certainly do with some exercise. But obesity does seem to be a good deal lower here than in the UK.
I confess that I have never been sporty – I only played for the school second XV. But I have always enjoyed walking. At one stage I used to go for walks at 5 o’clock in the morning, learning my Latin vocab at the same time. My sister and I used to walk the three miles to school every day (her school was over the road from mine), although we always took the bus back. In recent years I have started to walk again: twice a week at 7 o’clock in the morning I walk three or so miles with a friend, and in addition I often walk by myself once or twice a week. It’s all about trying to keep fit!
As I walked today my mind went to some words of the Apostle Paul: “physical training is of some value” (1 Tim 4.7). Was Paul concerned for Timothy’s lack of fitness? Are these words to be linked with Paul’s later instruction: “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim 5.23). It certainly appears that a bit of exercise could have done Timothy some good.
It is, however, not good to take Scripture out of context. The reality is that Paul was not stressing the benefits of keeping fit physically. For the sentence as a whole reads: “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come”. Paul was comparing the limited value of physical training with the unlimited value of godly training. Incidentally, contrary to what the New International Version suggests, commentators are almost all agreed that this little ‘jingle’ was the “the saying” which was “sure and worthy of full acceptance” (1 Tim 4.8).
This then caused me to think a little more. How did Paul think we should keep fit spiritually? Some believe the key is found a little earlier, where Paul describes “a good servant of Jesus Christ” as “nourished on the words of the faith and of sound teaching” (1 Tim 4.6). Was Paul speaking about the need to root our lives in God’s Word? John Stott believed so:
Disciplined meditation on Scripture is indispensable to Christian health, and indeed to growth in godliness… We cannot become familiar with this godly book without becoming godly ourselves.
If this is so, then we need to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to keep ourselves spiritually fit. Of course, it is good to keep physically fit – apart from anything else, we have more energy to serve God. But does the time we give to keeping fit physically bear comparison with the of time we give to keeping fit spiritually? I suspect that far more time is given to physical fitness. My experience of Christians would suggest that most, from a spiritual perspective, are very unfit. If as a pastor I had known that every member of my church were spending ten minutes a day rooting their lives in Scripture, I would have been delighted. I think there is a great need for Christians today to become far more disciplined in the Christian life – for only in this way will we have the strength to cope with the tough times in life.
Indeed, look at what Paul has to say immediately after his words about “the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance”. He goes on:
For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Tim 4.10)
Unfortunately most English versions do not bring out the fact that Paul is developing with the athletic imagery. The underlying Greek word “struggle” (agonizometha) has the same root as the word for ‘race’ (agon – from which we get our English word ‘agony’), and is to be found in another passage where Paul is talking about the need for spiritual fitness:
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. (1 Cor 9.24, 25)
In the light of the way in which Paul develops the idea of keeping fit in 1 Tim 4, JND Kelly commented:
There is a genuinely Christian self-discipline which Timothy ought to produce: self-control; continuous devotion to the gospel tradition; and perhaps most of all (as 4.10 suggests) accepting cheerfully the cross of suffering which all Christians must expect.
This in turn raises the question: how spiritually fit are we? How will we cope with the ‘ups and downs’ of the long-distance race to which we are called?