Today I ran three miles and then lifted weights and did core strength exercises for half an hour. I felt wonderful at the end—the sort of wonderful one can only feel after a good, long workout that leaves the body tired but satisfied.
When I left work at 2:40, I had zero interest in working out. I was tired, wanted to come home and relax, and simply did not look forward to the experience. Fast forward an hour, and I was glad I had gone. That, in no small part, was why I went. I never regret going, even when I don't feel up to it beforehand.
Exercise can become an idol, of course. I have seen many people go down that road, and it's one I'd prefer to avoid. (Given my personality, I don't expect I'll have a lot of trouble with it: my struggle has always been finding the motivation to go work out, rather than slowing down when I need to.) As with any activity, it can take a higher place in our affections than it should, until exercise is all we think about. Whether it is because of some culturally-imposed (or self-imposed) ideal of attractiveness—that is to say, vanity—or an unhealthy obsession with "health"—that is to say, irony—exercise is one of the chief acceptable idols of our society.
After all, when was the last time you heard someone criticized for working out too much? It's pretty rare, and usually only when it's a health issue.
Every idol, it turns out, is something good twisted to evil. Sex, perhaps the single grandest idol of our culture, is a glorious thing—but only in the proper bounds. By that I mean not only marriage (though certainly that is the first boundary) but also boundaries in our hearts. Lust isn't the only problem we face with sex. When we seek personal fulfillment, self-worth, or intimacy only or primarily in sex, we have gone astray. In other words, yes, Christians make an idol out of sex, too—even the "good" ones who've never slept with anyone but their spouse.
In both sex and exercise, we see a good use of the body that can be perverted and put to wicked ends. In each case, we see a place where God has made our bodies for delight: exercise, especially in sport, is one of the greatest sources of physical pleasure we have (and yes, so is sex). Yet in both places, we see that people quickly begin to find their value in these physical pleasures.
How in this sex-soaked, exercise-crazed culture are we to avoid making idols out of these two very good things? As ever, our hope is in the effectual work of Christ on our behalf. Christ's death paid for our sins, but His work did not end there. His resurrection began the most climactic change in men's hearts in history: regeneration. We who were dead are now alive. More than that, we are filled with divine power, because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
How do we apply this reality to our lives? First, we must recognize that we can do nothing of ourselves. We strive after our sanctification, but God accomplishes it in us (Philippians 2:12-13).
Second, we must seek to grow ever closer to God Himself. The more we love God and treasure Him above every other thing, the more we will be able to value every other thing as they ought to be valued: highly, but never supremely. Note that this is the opposite of asceticism: we do not throw away the good things; we learn not to overvalue them and to put God where He belongs in our hearts: first, foremost, over and above every other desire. Then, and only then can we enjoy His creation as we ought.
Finally, we must remember who we are—heirs of the kingdom of God, bought with the incomparable price of the blood of the Lamb, sealed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
There is a common thread here: the Holy Spirit. He is the one who enables us to know God, who guides us into truth, who gives us the power to overcome sin, who even prays for us when we do not know how we should pray ourselves.
That highlights a terrifically important question, one that I anticipate I will be returning to over and over again in the weeks and months ahead: just how Trinitarian is our theology really? Do we actually understand that the God we love is Three-in-One and One-in-Three? Of course we cannot grasp the depths of this profundity, but it matters whether we walk with God as He is—and He is Triune. Do we come to the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit? Do we understand that we hear the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit? Because if we do, our ways of relating to God will change.
We will recognize that we cannot understand Scripture without the Spirit, that we cannot see the Father apart from the Son, that the Son is revealed in His glory by the Spirit and exalted in our hearts by the Father. This interweaving, intermingling, slowly growing grasp of Trinitarian reality changes everything.
Including sex and exercise.