The Contest of Faith and the Christian Athlete

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As a teacher of early Christian history, I often hear students who have an introductory knowledge of the early Church pose two criticisms of the Church Fathers.

Note: This is the seventh post in a 10-part series, drawn from Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health, produced by the Clergy Health Initiative and distributed at the 2010 United Methodist Annual Conferences in North Carolina.  Each reflection is tied to the lectionary; we will publish each reflection a week in advance of the Sunday to which it is tied.

August 15, 2010
Hebrews 11:29-12:2 • Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

As a teacher of early Christian history, I often hear students who have an introductory knowledge of the early Church pose two criticisms of the Church Fathers. First, they feel that the early Christians disregard the literal meaning of Scripture and instead focus on the spiritual meaning of the passage. The second criticism is that the Church Fathers have a dualistic view of the soul and the body and so denigrate the body and glorify the soul.

Yet when we, as modern Christians, read in Hebrews the comparison of Christian life to an athlete running a race, we are the ones who are quick to offer a spiritual interpretation. We see the image of the race as mere metaphor, so we interpret the advice about “laying aside every weight and sin which clings close” not as instructions concerning the bodily disciplines, but the spiritual ones. We tell ourselves, “It simply means that we must eliminate any form of sin, any excessive or inappropriate love of anything other than God.”

At a profound level, that is true. But by spiritualizing the metaphor of the runner in the race, we fail to take seriously the relationship between disciplines for the soul and disciplines for the body. We do not see that because the soul and body are united, the spiritual disciplines include care for the body as well as the soul. The body, as Gregory of Nyssa said, outwardly mirrors the emotional and mental stress of the soul. Yet we act as if the soul is unaffected by what happens to the body, as if our intellectual judgments can be detached from our bodily habits.

In the area of spirituality, this bifurcation of the soul and the body often begins innocently enough. For example, to help people get beyond the childhood forms of prayer (kneeling with hands folded by their bedside) we tell them, “That you pray is what is important, not how you pray. You can pray anytime, anyplace, in whatever posture is comfortable.” While the basic point is certainly right – that we should not get hung up on the forms of prayer – we are naïve if we think that the position of the body has no influence on how well the mind can concentrate in prayer. As if we can be as attentive to God lying down in a soft, warm bed as we can while sitting upright on the floor with legs crossed! An athlete knows better; she knows that mental and physical disciplines are inseparable. And so did the teachers of the early Church.

The image of the athletic contest (agôn) occurs repeatedly in the letters attributed to Paul. In I and II Timothy the author, writing as an old man, speaks of having “fought the good fight of faith” and having “finished the race.” In I Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul tells his readers that he possesses the virtue – self-control – required of all athletes who run the race to win the victor’s crown. For without self-control, the athlete would never endure the rigors and hardships of training. The regimen of diet and exercise not only conditions the body by building up strength and endurance, it also prepares the body for the contest by simulating the pain and adversity of the contest. Because of this preparation, the athlete will be not be surprised by the strain and pain of the race or the boxing arena. Indeed, Paul says that he can endure the hardships of his apostolic ministry because he disciplines his body, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

This athletic self-control is necessary for the contest of discipleship. For the goal of self-control is subduing our bodily appetites, making our body, as well as our mind, captive to Christ. Only if the whole person is ordered toward one prize can the Christian finish the race. As Jesus said, “A slave cannot serve two masters. For he will hate one and love the other.” Likewise, we can’t do whatever we want with our body while still faithfully serving God with our minds. When we live into the metaphor of the athlete and view the physical regimen of diet and exercise as a spiritual discipline, the body and its appetites can be ordered to the service of Christ and his Church. Only then can the body be an instrument for the Kingdom. Then at last we will discover true wholeness, the unity of soul and body under the headship of him who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

J. Warren Smith is associate professor of historical theology at Duke Divinity School.


Questions to Consider

  • To read John Wesley’s journal is to marvel at his energy. He rose early every morning, prayed, read his Greek New Testament, wrote and answered letters, then kept a list of appointments. Often he spoke of walking miles from one place to the next, thinking it nothing unusual. Do you think his care of the body strengthened him spiritually for the work of the ministry? How much weariness of soul might be healed by following Wesley’s example?
  • American culture is sometimes criticized for its emphases on youth and beauty, setting up ideals that are beyond the reach of most people. Do these cultural ideals discourage us from honoring the bodies we have? Why do we cede so much authority to secular ideals at the expense of appropriate self-care? Is this a theological problem that we need to name and confront?

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