In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, a demon scoffs that, “humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal.” The fallen angel isn’t far off. But, like many spiritually-minded people today, he falsely sees our bodies as a corruption of the pure, spiritual reality. This shred of bad theology is ancient and pervasive. You can find it scattered among world religions, and you can even read about it in the Bible. Saint Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians as a direct assault on this heresy, against a sect of not-quite-Christians who believed the human body so vile that Jesus could not possibly have taken on true human flesh. Paul reminds them, as he reminds us, that all things in heaven and earth were created by and for our savior and that, “in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body.”
Our bodies are good. And while sin has ravaged all of creation and left our bodies marred in its wake, it is not enough to overshadow the goodness, beauty, and glory in the bodies God created for us. Because our bodies and spirits are so intertwined, everything we do touches the spiritual dimension. This obliterates the distinction between sacred and secular, between our spiritual lives and our everyday physical habits. Everything we do is spiritual. Pastor John Piper put it this way: “The body is the means by which the spirit, the soul, and the heart express themselves through visible activity in the material world.”
This year The City School offered its first-ever weightlifting course. Because we are a school devoted to helping students discover God’s glory in every discipline, weightlifting—like everything else—is a spiritual exercise. The physical, mental, and emotional benefits of lifting weights are well-established. In addition to the obvious benefit of improving strength, weightlifting reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes, increases the metabolism, and lowers blood pressure. It has also been shown to help alleviate depression and anxiety, relieve chronic fatigue, sharpen the memory, improve the quality of sleep, and encourage healthy self-esteem. If we are physical-spiritual amphibians, all these blessings touch on our soulish natures. But beyond all these, I believe weightlifting gives us unique opportunities to cultivate Christlike character.
As someone passionate about lifting, I had the honor of supervising our weightlifting class a few times this year. Here are a few of the spiritual lessons we explored under the iron.
It’s my first day joining students in the gym. Everyone is finished stretching and warming up, and students begin meandering around the weight room, exploring intimidating machinery and trying to remember the routines they learned last week. One student, Norman, sits at the seated fly machine—a chest exercise—and sets the weight to a monstrous 250 pounds. “Norman, wait up,” I interject, heading over to him, “What’s the first rule of the gym?” He looks at me perplexed. “Always do your stretches?” he guesses sheepishly. I laugh. “That’s a good one, but not what I had in mind. The first rule of the gym is to check your ego at the door.” I drop the weight down to a humble 20 pounds. He rolls his eyes. “Go slow,” I tell him, “Use your muscles, not momentum. Squeeze right here.” I press my fingers into his chest. He takes a deep breath and starts the movement. “Keep your elbows stable—you’re squeezing together your chest muscles, not flailing with your arms.” He eeks out a few reps and sighs. “It’s too hard this way—I can lift way more the other way!” “If you do it that way,” I warn him, “you’re going to tear a muscle. If you do it right, you’ll get stronger every time you touch a weight, but if you try to cheat you’re going to destroy yourself.”
Norman learned a tough lesson in humility, and it’s a lesson the iron never fails to teach. Weightlifting reveals in painfully precise terms exactly where our limitations are. It will shatter your pride. Like in any area of life, we can try to cheat and ruin ourselves in the process, or we can learn to humbly accept our weakness and pursue new strength through the virtue of hard work.
“Pride leads to disgrace,” Proverbs says, “but with humility comes wisdom.”
Thriving Through Failure.
I’m spotting students as they test their strength on the bench press—watching their form, encouraging them to push through the momentary pain, and helping to get the bar up safely if their strength gives out. José steps up to the bench. He’s got a lot of potential as a lifter. He isn’t the strongest guy in class (yet), but he has the most determination to grow. I admire that. He throws a couple of ten pound plates on each side of the bar. “This is going to be the most I’ve ever lifted,” he tells me. Excited but cautious, José lies on the bench and I help him get the bar off the rack. He pushes through two perfect reps, my hands closely following the bar in case he falters. He locks out the second rep and goes down for a third—halfway back up his arms collapse and the bar falls into my hands. I pull it up. “Awesome work, José,” I tell him, “Those two reps were flawless.” He doesn’t look too pleased. “But I dropped it,” he says, embarrassed. “That means you pushed yourself all the way to the limit, “I assure him, “—that’s how you get stronger.”
Weightlifting is a sport that uniquely celebrates failure. Training to failure is a regular part of most weightlifters’ routines: that last failing rep is proof that you’ve brought your body to the brink of its ability, and that is the catalyst for new strength. This is a strong metaphor for perseverance in all of life—our failures are not final defeats; they’re opportunities to learn and grow. We just keep pushing through.
“The godly may trip seven times, but,” God’s word assures us, “they will get up again.”
This is only a glimpse into what weightlifting has to offer as a spiritual exploration, and lifting is only one way of pursuing God’s truth through physical activity. The grand lesson is that what we do with our body matters. If we see ourselves as rare and beautiful creatures blessed with both flesh and spirit, then physical disciplines like weightlifting give us tactile ways of exploring spiritual truths. For students at The City School, where all of life is seen from the vantage of Jesus’ loving reign, every class can be a foray into eternity.
Our savior crash-landed into this world of flesh and blood and brought with him a promise to redeem his creation. Our beautiful-but-broken world and good-but-not-yet-glorified bodies will be made perfect when our king returns. In the meantime, we should celebrate the bodies God hand-crafted for our joy and his glory. If we see the world from this perspective, honoring the goodness of God’s creation and revering the sacred work he’s done in our own bodies, we will begin to see spiritual significance permeating our physical world. Whether we’re praising God through psalms and hymns or experiencing the glory of his creation beneath the barbell, God meets us in every moment of our lives and will reveal his grace and truth to us wherever we are. If we look for him, Jesus will meet us at the bench press.