“I don’t workout. If God had wanted us to bend over He’d put diamonds on the floor.”
“One time I felt like exercising. I sat down until the feeling passed.”
This week the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Heather Havrilesky. The piece reflects on the current extreme fitness craze that’s gaining in popularity. These aren’t exercise programs to stay healthy. Rather these are programs that challenge participants to push themselves beyond their physical limitations. The goal seems to be something my old football coach used to yell out at us during summer training drills: “No pain, no gain!” In other words, if it’s not hurting, then you’re not working hard enough. It does sound more than a little masochistic.
According to Hevrilesky, most participants in these extreme exercise regimens are “well-to-do.” I find that telling. What is it about material and professional success that would lead someone to believe that he/she needed to engage in such extreme exercise? These folk aren’t “settling” for reasonable, healthy forms of exercise. They prefer “workouts grueling enough to resemble a kind of physical atonement. For the most privileged among us, freedom seems to feel oppressive, and oppression feels like freedom.”
When we see the word “atonement,” then we should pay attention. I think her analysis is acute. It’s about self-worth and maybe trying to prove that you’re better than others who can’t run five miles with fifty pounds of rocks in a backpack. This is self-atonement and self-sanctification, pure and simple. Making lots of money, having the good things in life, and achieving status in one’s profession aren’t enough. It doesn’t bring contentment or wholeness. There’s still an emptiness that needs filling up, so “no pain, no gain.” But my hunch is that this too will fail to fill these folks up.
Now, of course, as Christians we should be good stewards of our bodies. They are a gift God gives us in our creation. We shouldn’t treat our bodies like amusement parks or production units. Exercising and eating right are faithful ways to honor our bodies as the godly gift they are. But we maybe should, as the old Anglican saying goes, do “all things in moderation,” recognizing that such extreme exercise, like extreme work-aholism, isn’t good for the soul because they both lead to the sin of self-atonement and self-sanctification where we believe we have the power in ourselves to save ourselves.
It shouldn’t surprise us then that this trend is growing in our culture. As we grow further from lives grounded in God’s providential care and grace and toward lives centered on our own merit and abilities, these sorts of manifestations of “selfism” will only become more ubiquitous. Havrilesky ends her piece with this reflection: “When I run on Sunday mornings, I pass seven packed, bustling fitness boutiques, and five nearly empty churches.” That says it all. We must reach these folks with the grace of Jesus.