Several years ago, our fledgling church began to grow. For a long time I had been serving the congregation by myself, but as our church membership grew, others were joining the fray with me. They came eager to serve and abounding with gifts that were ready to be developed. It was an exciting time.

While we grew together as a staff, a central concern of mine was our lived, concrete spirituality as pastors. In order for our pastoral ministry to flourish, I had long believed that we needed to devote ourselves to classical spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting; solitude and silence; study and meditation. The men and women who came onboard would not be hired guns for the church but rather members of a monastic order who lived deeply in God for the sake of others.

To help accomplish this, we developed a rule of life. Drawing inspiration from sources like the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict, our rule would ground our spirituality in a constellation of embodied disciplines that we would practice in daily, weekly, and monthly rhythms. Thus, conversations about our spirituality as pastors resisted the Gnostic duality that separates spirituality from lived experience. We would not ask, “How is it with your soul?” Rather, we would inquire, “Have you been faithful in prayer?” We learned along the way that any questions about the concreteness of our practices were also unavoidably questions about the state of our souls. In searching for answers to questions concerning, for instance, why we had been lax in prayer, our interiority was laid bare: we didn’t pray last week because, at our cores, we struggled to believe that prayer made any difference at all. Our embodied disciplines had a way of sounding out the depths of our souls.

One such spiritual discipline was regular physical exercise. Although not counted among the classical spiritual disciplines, many of us, myself included, found that a proper stewardship of the body (which often includes exercise) is crucial for the flourishing of our entire being. When mind, heart, and body are brought into alignment, we begin to rise into the Creator’s full intention for humanity. One is reminded of the words of the great Saint Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man, fully alive.”[1]

All the same, it takes no special power of the intellect to see that the path to physical fitness is fraught with perils. Our society’s idolization of the body and glamorization of certain forms of beauty have led to a commercialization of physical fitness that in some cases does more harm than good. We become slaves to our culture’s gospel of health as we find ourselves dieting out of self-loathing, exercising compulsively, and constantly comparing our physical appearance to the appearances of others. We’re afraid of falling behind the imaginary standard set for us by those whose opinions we covet (and dread). We lose our liberty when fear, self-loathing, and envy motivate us to pursue physical fitness. As Thomas à Kempis puts it: “It is in disordered loves and empty fears that all disquiet of heart and distraction of mind have their origin.”[2]

My personal experience leads me to believe that Thomas was right. I am well acquainted with both the benefits and the darker side of a commitment to physical fitness. I began exercising regularly after a moment of particular disgust with my physical appearance. Within a short time, I shed the weight I was hoping to lose, and found myself beginning to sincerely enjoy the rigor of exercise. Rising early in the morning for a run was positively invigorating. The solitude, the sights and sounds and smells of nature, the swishing of my feet across the pavement, the moments in which I achieved that mythical runner’s high, the changing appearance of my body and the newfound confidence that went with it—every benefit I found along the path of this discipline I received with joy.

All the same, I had a hard time shedding the self-image problems that had plagued me, and as often as I felt confident about my physical appearance, I also found myself driven to excessive exercise out of fear of becoming the person I had once been. While outwardly my appearance improved, inwardly my wildly vacillating self-image created an unstable foundation for a life of love, joy, and generosity of spirit. As I discovered, I could not love others if I did not love myself, and running from myself was not an effective strategy for healthy self-love. Engaging the discipline of physical fitness in this way cuts charity at the root, drying up with it contentment, compassion, and kindness; indeed, an improper engagement with the reality of our bodies thwarts the natural growth of every spiritual fruit. We need a healthier way if our exercise is to lead us into greater measures of creaturely freedom.

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann may help chart this path in one of his early works, Theology of Play. If we assume that exercise in its ideal is a form of play, then Moltmann’s thoughts have direct bearing on this discussion. From the outset of his work, Moltmann explicitly links play and freedom when he says, “It is possible that in playing we can anticipate our liberation.” He continues this line of reasoning: “We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.” By this anticipation, Moltmann argues, “We are increasingly playing with the future in order to get to know it.”[3] Play, then, engages and defies the death-breathing powers of the present by rooting itself in and orienting itself toward the future—that is, toward the life of the age to come, when those same powers will be fully and finally overcome, and the sons and daughters of God will rejoice in their freedom, fully realized.

Moltmann knows well, however, that this is no easy engagement and defiance. The powers of this present age will not go quietly, for they tirelessly seek to co-opt our play in order to preserve the status quo. Citing the motto of ancient Roman imperial rulers panem et circenses—which I roughly translate as “bread and circuses,” or more fully, “give them bread and circuses and the masses will remain happy,” a motto justly criticized by later Roman writers as symbolic of the decline into decadence of Roman society—Moltmann notes how our leisure activities can serve an achievement-oriented society. Games, vacations, exercise, and the like often only help us to “become better achievers and more willing workers.”[4] Our play no longer expresses our God-given freedom but rather a weak and insipid servitude to the status quo. Through our play, we do not escape the antagonisms that ruin and degrade human life but instead increasingly enslave ourselves to them.

We find the recognition of this improper engagement and slavery at the heart of Moltmann’s critique of Aristotle. Aristotle is famous for his virtue ethics, which essentially claim that we are what we repeatedly do. The just man, for example, is made so by repeatedly doing just acts, and the corrupt man becomes corrupt by repeatedly acting in corrupt ways. Moltmann summarizes Aristotle’s view by stating, “Man’s humanity or inhumanity is up to man”—a view that compels Moltmann to ask, “In view of his actual inhumanity, is man really free?”[5] Since inhuman actions invariably spring from hearts already enslaved by inhumanity, how could those same actions ever lead to freedom? At best they can only perpetuate the cycle of inhumanity, thus confirming our slavery. Moltmann notes that it was on this very basis that Martin Luther criticized Aristotle. He writes of Luther:

The basic principle of the Aristotelian doctrine of virtue becomes blasphemy when it is applied to the fundamental relationship of man to the ground of his existence. . . . He therefore rejected the anthropology of the self-made man and opposed it with the Christian anthropology expressed in the brief formula: “Man is justified by faith” (Hominem justificari fide). By this he meant that no form of action leads us from an inhuman to a human reality of man, for there is no way to get from doing to being.[6]

In other words, an unbridgeable ontological chasm stands between who we are and who we desire to be, despite our highest acts and noblest intentions. Only a life lived in response to the free grace of God liberates us to become what we were designed to be. Moltmann contends,

What man is in his ground precedes what he does and manifests itself in his actions. His deeds do not change him fundamentally. Fundamental change occurs only by God’s creative action upon him. . . . That the new being of man is engendered by the calling, justifying, and trusting word of Christ indicates a reversal of the relation between doing and being. . . . Man does not have to make himself. Rather, he demonstrates his new being out of God by doing free works.[7]

One could rightly regard this statement simply as a fuller exposition of the classic Reformation insight into justification. That is, no human work puts us right or solves the fundamental existential and ontological dilemmas we find ourselves in. We are not our own deliverers. Rather, our liberation from the powers that be, indeed the very possibility of our fulfilling our nature as creatures made in the image of God, is a sovereign act of the grace of God upon us, rescuing us from every kind of futility and leading us into the wide open spaces of our own flourishing. The liberating, accepting, and cleansing qualities of divine grace allow us to live the life that God intends; it is the food our souls need. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, and not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them” (13:9 NIV). In the same way that the sacrifices of the old covenant were not sufficient to bridge the ontological chasm of inhumanity to humanity so also the daily sacrifice of our bodies to the gods of fitness will not atone for our own imperfection. It is only when we engage fitness out of a rightness already possessed before the face of the God who justifies us that it becomes for us what it was always intended to be: holy play.

It is at this point that Moltmann’s gospel of play, if we may call it that, accords with the profound socioanthropological insights of Johan Huizinga. At his annual address as the rector of Leiden University in 1933, Huizinga argued that play, rather than being incidental to the development of culture, was actually intrinsic to it. No longer, he argued, was it tenable to think of human beings as simply Homo sapien (“wise man”) or even Homo faber (“man the maker”)—such designations failed to give a full account of human nature. Rather, he contended that we must think of human beings also as Homo ludens, or “man the player,” for in play, most if not all the key elements of that nature are expressed.[8] If we listen carefully to Huizinga’s thoughts on play, we can hear something of an anticipation of Moltmann’s arguments, albeit from a less theological perspective. “First and foremost,” writes Huizinga, “all play is a voluntary activity. . . . By this quality of freedom alone, play marks itself off from the course of the natural process. It is something added thereto and spread out over it like a flowering, an ornament, a garment. . . . Child and animal play because they enjoy playing, and therein precisely lies their freedom. . . . Play is superfluous.” That is to say, we will find no biological, evolutionary, or moral necessity for play. Huizinga writes, “It is never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty. It is never a task. . . . Here, then, we have the first main character of play: that it is free, is in fact freedom.”[9] For Huizinga, play is an excess that erupts out of our nature and elevates it to staggering heights—athletic achievements, great works of art, and music that cause our souls to rise in breathless wonder all bear the marks of play. But this is precisely the place where most of our attempts at physical fitness depart from the notions of play put forward by Moltmann and Huizinga alike. Whereas Moltmann and Huizinga’s notions of play center around freedom, our physical fitness, our play, is rooted in necessity. Too often, we treat the rigor of our bodily exercise not as a joyful excess of divine grace that is given and received but rather as necessity, task, or moral duty—all of which Huizinga argues has no business in play. Treated as such, our efforts cannot liberate us nor can they complete us as human beings. Instead, they will perpetuate our slavery.

How then ought we engage with physical fitness? What might it look like to subject our bodies to the rigor of exercise in ways consistent with the freedom spoken of by Moltmann and Huizinga? I suggest that above all things we must discipline ourselves to repudiate empty cultural ideals. Crudely stated, motivations like “If I had the perfect body, I would be happy,” “If I just lost ten more pounds, my feelings of self-loathing would dissipate,” and “When I finally look like I did in high school, I won’t hate myself so much” are problematic not only because achieving an airbrushed newsstand body is unfeasible but also because the peculiar calculus involved is spiritually illegitimate. No level of fitness will truly make us happy for the excellent reason that deep down we are well aware of the transitoriness of any physical achievement. The writer of Ecclesiastes compared life under the sun to vapor; in his view it was a passing mist that could never truly satisfy the deepest longings of human beings. Only a right relationship with God can do that. Engaging with physical fitness improperly only proves how vaporous life lived apart from grace really is. Only by repudiating the false cultural ideal of the perfect body will we come to a place of holy contentment in our exercise, our souls at rest in the grace of God.

What’s more, we should not see exercise as a moral necessity but rather as a stewardship that flows out of grace. In my own experience, such a shift in thinking has liberated my engagement with physical fitness from the empty and destructive motivations that once characterized it. No longer am I exercising to achieve the unachievable; rather, when I head out the door on a run, I am doing so knowing that the activity will allow my whole being to move toward an integrated wholeness with the Creator. Practically speaking, I become more clear-minded, balanced, and sound in all aspects of life when I exercise regularly. If I am committed to offering the most cohesive and whole version of myself to the world, why would I resist engaging with exercise? Grace enables me to see exercise within the total horizon of my stewardship and then also motivates and empowers me to exercise. Additionally, I have found that when I began to view exercise through the lens of stewardship as a response to grace, the texture of my workouts changed in subtle but profound ways. Striving as I was after empty ideals, I often subjected my body to unnecessarily harsh rigor. Now I find I am kinder and gentler to my body. No longer caught up in destructive motivations, I am finding an ability to pay attention to the little aches and pains of my body, dealing sensitively and patiently with them, which in turn brings greater long-term benefit to my body. Virtue has its rewards.

Finally, we should diligently resituate exercise within the framework of play outlined above. In this regard, we would heed the words of Jesus: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). When I watch my four children at rowdy, physical play, I see the arguments put forth by Huizinga and Moltmann at work. Their play is an expression of their freedom; it is the manifestation of an all-encompassing grace only dimly perceived. They do not try to be physically fit. They do not think about their physical fitness. They just are fit as a product of their running and swimming and dancing and jumping and playing games in the backyard. Unspoiled by fear, envy, and self-loathing, their spirits constantly erupt with the praise of play. We would benefit by following their example. We should find things that we love to do—climb mountains or take quiet walks in the early morning, play handball or work in our yard, lift weights or do yoga—and do them out of pleasure and joy. If we exercise as a form of play, we will likely do it more joyfully. Body and soul will thank us.

I believe people of faith are uniquely positioned to embrace exercise as the joyful response to a life already liberated from the false frameworks at work in our society, particularly the gospel of health. The temptation to embrace exercise through those false frameworks is ever-present. As my fellow pastors and I learned, though often our own exercise flowed from and led to joy, it also at times fell captive to the myriad vanities that spoil and degrade human life. But such is the life of faith—not an arrival but a continual venturing forth out of vanity and into joy. Disciplining ourselves to weave exercise into the tapestry of grace already present in our lives, we will begin to experience it as the joy the Creator intended: as holy play.

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.7.

[2] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (New York, NY: RandomHouse, 1998), 120.

[3] Moltmann, Theology of Play, trans. Reinhard Ulrich (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1972), 3, 12, and 13.

[4] Ibid., 7–8.

[5] Ibid., 45 and 46. Emphasis mine.

[6] Moltmann, Theology of Play, 46.

[7] Moltmann, Theology of Play, 47. Emphasis mine.

[8] Huizinga, forward to Homo Ludens (Mansfield Center, CT: Martino, 2014).

[9] Huizinga, Homo Ludens (Mansfield Center, CT: Martino, 2014), 7–8. Emphases mine.