For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.

—Ps 73:3–4

All right, I’ll be honest.  This is one of those passages in the Bible that makes me snicker every time I read it.  “Fat and sleek”?  Wow.  Of course, if you read a translation other than the ESV, it won’t be as humorous.  Regardless, the word used here does mean fat (not strong, as some translations would have it).

In ancient Israel, being fat was considered to be a good thing.  That’s why Solomon praises his wife for having “rounded thighs” (Song of Solomon 7:1).  Men had the hots for women who were pale and overweight.  In fact, in many parts of the world, that’s still true today.  It makes sense if you think about it.  The greater diet problem was not obesity but malnutrition.  Pale skin indicated that a woman stayed indoors all day, living the high life, rather than working out in the fields.

Symbols of healthIn contemporary America, the opposite is true, for reasons that also make sense.  Malnutrition is not the problem; obesity is.  So of course a thin figure is highly praised.  As far as skin tone is concerned, it’s now the rich who can afford to spend all day at the beach, while the working class stay pasty.  (As far as men go, the standard hasn’t changed too much; most cultures seem to value strong, rugged men who spend time in the great outdoors.)

So in a sense, beauty is relative to culture.  There are some things that are true across all cultures (the cyclops will always be ugly).  However, the standards for beauty have changed because physical appearance communicates different things in different cultures.

We can respond to this truth in two different ways.  One approach is to view physical appearance and health as irrelevant.  If we go this way, we will view the body as unimportant while focusing exclusively on cultivating the soul.  Now, God’s Word is clear that “while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8).  However, it is a dangerous error to neglect our physical bodies.  This error is due to a Platonic view that the body holds us back and that it will ultimately be discarded in favor of pure, unhindered soul.  The Bible is withering in its condemnation of this false teaching (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 2:16–23).  God made the body and the soul to be together, closely integrated with one another.

Woman joggingThe other approach fastens onto the truth that physical appearance communicates something.  This is obvious to anyone  who has found himself underdressed for a pricey restaurant; it is obvious to any woman who has forgotten to put on eye shadow; it is obvious to any teenage boy with a zit on his face.  We communicate with other people not only through words and actions but through appearance.

As Christians, “we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20).  We serve him by representing him to others, communicating on his behalf.  Thus, our physical appearance is a golden opportunity to communicate the supremacy of Jesus Christ to a world that has rejected his claim to be its King.  So how can maintaining good health communicate the supremacy of Christ?  Here are three ways (each with a caveat):

1. Servanthood.

There are many reasons why a person may eat well and exercise in order to stay in shape.  As believers, our motivation must be to glorify God by presenting our bodies “as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).  We should stay healthy not to draw attention to ourselves but rather to serve God.  By remaining in good health, we present ourselves as more capable instruments to be used by him.  This is particularly true in later life, when the body begins to break down; by focusing on physical health when younger, we can prepare ourselves for service to the Lord even when we’ve grown old.

(If you’re married, this also a way in which you can serve your spouse—by remaining physically attractive to him or her!)

The caveat, of course, is that our health is not always under our control.  Perhaps God has given you a “ministry of suffering,” in which you glorify God by trusting him through poor health.  There is more than one way to communicate to the world that we are servants of the great King.

2.  Holistic servanthood.

This is simply point #1 taken to its fullest extent.  By submitting our bodies to God’s Word, we demonstrate that the Christian faith is holistic—there is no part of our lives to which it does not relate.  We cannot divorce the way we treat our bodies from the way we love our Lord.  By showing that we value physical health, we show that the Lord wants his people to devote all of their being to him (Deuteronomy 6:5).  There is no part of us that we may hold back for ourselves.  All of what we do contributes to godly character.

The caveat here is that we may end up identifying ourselves more with our physical health or appearance than with Jesus Christ, whom we serve.  We must take care to remember that we are not serving ourselves but him.  We must take care not to become unbalanced in the wrong direction (a prevalent error in our culture), focusing solely on the physical and external.

3.  Beauty.

If you don’t think physical beauty is important to God, you’ve never read the Song of Solomon!  In this love poem, both man and woman are praised for the appearance of their bodies.  This poetry (and its frequent garden imagery) reminds us of Eden, before sin entered the world, when “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25).  Furthermore, when we see physical beauty, it is a herald of the greater beauty to come at the resurrection, when our perishable and mortal bodies put on the imperishable and immortal, being raised in glory (1 Corinthians 15:53).  How wonderful it would be if whenever we saw a physically beautiful person, it reminded us of the coming world in which the Curse is removed and we live in perfect harmony and intimacy with all creation and its King?

(And let’s face it:  if you’re single and want to get married, physical health and beauty helps.  A lot.  Anyone who says it’s unimportant is naive and has an unbiblical perspective on the body.)

The caveat here is obvious.  We can let mere external, physical beauty become an idol, treasuring it above the “imperishable beauty” of good character (1 Peter 3:3–4).  We can obsess over it and devote all of our attention to it.  We can let it be an end in and of itself.  How we shortchange ourselves by doing so!  Will the beauty of our bodies now ever compare with their beauty at the resurrection?  Let’s not lose sight of the restoration that will be fully accomplished in Jesus Christ.

Healthy foodsI hope what I’ve written helps to spur you on toward good health!  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not perfect at this.  I could do a better job of eating healthy and exercising regularly.  However, my goal is that I would learn to do these things for the Lord’s sake, not to draw attention to myself.  I encourage you to go for it!  If I can take the Hundred Push Ups challenge, trust me—there’s nothing stopping you.  Physical health is probably not as hard or as time-consuming as you think.