Consider this popular complaint about male gymnasium enthusiasts: “Roughly half of a man’s workout consists of admiring his muscles in the gym mirror.”
True, a lot of us go to the gym to improve our image. We want results, so we commit ourselves to a workout routine. While I admire the commitment it requires, I want to focus on what exercise, in itself, actually is. Notice that the act of working out is not the act of growing muscles. We might feel our muscles fill with blood and expand during use, but the resulting growth we expect is just that — a result. Ignoring all ends and results, the actual experience of working out is naturally not image focused, but pain focused. The actual activity of exercise centers more on pain felt than muscle growth experienced. The pain we feel signals muscle tissue breaking down, not becoming better and stronger.
So what is working out really all about, if the growth so often correlated with it concerns more the outcome than the actual activity?
This semester I am taking a rigorous weight lifting class in which my coach has addressed this very question. Whenever everyone in the room is absolutely exhausted, struggling to keep up with the pace of the workout, the coach says, “Keep it up, men. Remember, we’re doing this for Christ.”
I initially reacted adversely to these words of encouragement. We aren’t exercising for Christ. Christ does not command us to exercise. Neither does our workout take the form of undergoing persecution for Christ’s sake. How on earth can we be exercising for Christ?
However, upon further reflection on Christ as a man who walked this earth, I realized he was a ripped guy. He was a practicing carpenter for years and years which, back in the days before the invention of power tools, meant that he must have been really buff. But he was also ripped in a very different way, ripped by the Roman scourge, and thereby bearing the excruciating pain reserved for us. Christ uses the human experience of pain he knows so well to bring His church together as well as the meaningful tastes of pain we experience to remind us of Himself.
Exercise presents an opportunity to worship Christ for the small taste of His sacrificial pain we can partake of. That’s probably what my coach meant when he reminded us that we are exercising “for Christ:” not that Christ somehow needs us to lift weights for Him, but that we offer up our hard work and painful experience to Him in praise. Exercise is a form of praise both because we get to exert ourselves bodily and because we get to taste of his sacrificial suffering and, realizing our pain is but a meager taste of His pain, praise Him all the more for the pain he underwent on our account. For Christians, a difficult workout is a time of meaningful Communion, in remembrance of Him.
It is also a unique way to taste how Christ builds up His church in that exercise isn’t an activity for loners. It is extremely unwise and dangerous to do it alone. Conventional wisdom tells long-distance runners to bring a buddy. Weight lifters always weight train with a spotter, a friend who can safely disengage the weights when the lifter’s own strength fails him. Both runners and weight lifters can push themselves further and with greater confidence in the company of others than would have been possible in isolation. In this way, it is unique from most other pain. Hitting myself in the thumb while nailing together my wooden fence does not reflect Christ’s pain because it is self-absorbed: I look for any way to ease the throbbing pain I feel. Experiencing the pain of exercise, however, challenges me not to seek ease, but to look beyond myself and rely on others in order to arrive beyond my own pain. They help me bear my burden, and we all increase in unity, coordination, and strength.
The centrality of community in painful exercises like lifting weights illustrates the building up and strengthening of the Church. We experience pain together and we depend on the light Christ shines through the hearts of our fellow Christians in order to be raised up beyond the isolation our pain tempts us to seek. We find not short-lived, haphazard ease from our pain, but a refocused comfort beyond it. Building the body of Christ by tasting Christ’s pain together deepens and strengthens our relationships in unfathomable ways just as the pain of Christ we taste is itself unfathomable.
As Romans 12:1 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is spiritual worship.”
More than anything, exercise is an opportunity to commune with Christ, build up the Church, build up our bodies, and lift it all up to the praise of His glorious name. Exercise does more than build your body; it builds Christ’s. At the end of such a workout we are exhausted, but surprisingly fulfilled, know it is Christ’s work we have tasted, it is Him we have adored, and it is His body we have tended.
We don’t go to the gym to contrive an image; we go there to be conformed to the image of His Son. We experience both the way he builds us up into His glorious body and the meaningful pain he suffered, that we might praise him all the more as his return approaches.