Professional athletes – especially those at the pinnacle of their sport who manage to smash records – get a lot of admiration. But if you’re a casual runner, as I am, you’ve probably had to smile politely at quips from fellow Christians. “The wicked run away when no one is chasing them!” (Prov 28:1).

One of my hobbies is trail running, which is done mostly on hiking and mountain bike trails. I love spending time outdoors. I enjoy spending the hours on my feet soaking in natural beauty. And after completing my first few trail running ultramarathons in 2022, I was asked to share how running interfaces with my Christian faith.   

For the next few minutes, I’d like you to explore with me what an incredible gift physical exercise can be, and hint at what it reveals about a biblical theology of the body.

Entering community

An ultramarathon is technically any distance greater than a marathon; 43km or more. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding on the runner. But ultrarunning is also a team sport. The athlete needs an entire support crew to succeed – people helping with transport and logistics; food and hydration at aid stations; offering moral support; perhaps even pacers (non-competitors who run sections of a race with the athlete).

Like most niche activities, trail ultrarunning attracts an eclectic but close-knit community. By virtue of creating a community, trail running therefore creates a ministry ground for every Christian who forms part of it.

Spiritual disciplines

I’ve found that running helps me to cultivate spiritual disciplines such as patience, fortitude, consistency, and endurance. Training these disciplines spills over into how I live out my faith. The spiritual benefit doesn’t just come after the fact, though. It also happens while I am out on the trails. Trail running requires situational awareness, so I choose to run without any electronics – no music, no pinging phone, no beeping GPS watch, no distractions. This means that my training sessions are also opportunities for sustained meditation on scripture and prayer.

A grace-gift for growth

Ultrarunning is a grace-gift that enables growth through play, rather than through dire circumstances. We grow most during times of hardship, and most of the hardships we encounter are due to factors beyond our control. But by participating in an endurance sport, I get to suffer voluntarily, which means I can choose the level of duress. There is always the opportunity to opt out when things get truly unbearable. It is a low-risk, non-threatening, playful environment for growth and learning, which is why I see it as a grace-gift.

Authentic worship

Running keeps teaching me that I’m capable of more than I thought was possible. When I first started, running for 30 minutes was torture. A few weeks ago, I ran a race that took nearly 14 hours to complete. I keep learning new things about my body, like how well it has been designed to adapt. Whether one learns an intricate fine motor skill like playing an instrument, or the feat of endurance of being able to run all day, the same body can adapt to these extremes and a million others. This all points to an unrivalled creator who put together a machine of meat, bones, joints, blood, and skin that can be utilised in countless ways to honour him and make much of him, as he deserves.

A biblical theology of the body and physical exercise

Now, there are aspects of physical exercise that overlap with other means God has given us for discipleship and spiritual growth. Of course, one can learn patience, fortitude, endurance and consistency in marriage or singleness, through studying or working, or by many other means. But I think there are also a few ways in which exercise is unique. Four of these ways came to my mind.

Stewardship. How we learn the spiritual discipline of stewardship is uniquely expressed in embodiment. A body is a possession – my body is ‘mine’ – and we learn godly stewardship through taking care of possessions God entrusts to our care.

But my body is also more than a possession. I am also my body, to some extent. It’s not the part of me that will enter eternity – we will be given new, glorified ‘packaging’ when we go to be with our Lord (1 Cor 15:42-53) – but I have a responsibility to look after the ‘self’ by looking after my body. This interfaces in complex ways with how I look after the soul, mind, and strength with which I am to the love the Lord my God (Deut 6:5).

A means, not an end. The apostle Paul recognises that physical training is of some value (1 Tim 4:8), but he immediately follows this up by saying that “godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” A balanced theology of the body must recognise that exercise can never be an end in itself, for the Christian. It is not, like some elite athletes seem to believe, a path that by itself leads to enlightenment or self-actualisation. It is a grace-gift, a means that God has given us for godliness. But like all gifts, it can be used selfishly and wickedly.

No one is perfectly able-bodied. We all bear evidence of the fall in our bodies to a greater or lesser extent. In my case, I have pectus excavatum (a deformed sternum and ribcage), with a whole cascade of other impairments as a result. I believe these marks in my body ratify the account of the fall (Gen 3).

When we feel dissatisfied with the body we’ve been given – we’re not tall enough, or strong, or beautiful, or we don’t like the texture of our hair – we can empathise with and minister to those who suffer from severe body dysmorphia (such as self-styled ‘transgender’ people, people with eating disorders, bigorexia, and so on). We ourselves, also with flawed, fallen bodies, can model godly submission to his sovereignty by choosing to obey and be satisfied.

Thanksgiving. Finally, almost all of us can do some form of exercise, most of the time. We all have different levels of ability, and deal with different challenges. For those of us who are able-bodied enough to exercise, this is something to carry with a posture of thankfulness towards God. And when the ability to exercise is taken away, as it eventually is for almost everyone at some point, there will also be a time for grief. But what God takes away again becomes a transformational grace-gift that he uses for our good and his glory.