A.B. served in a secure location before taking on the role of missions coach at SEND International. A personal trainer, she has a passion for sending healthy individuals and families to make disciples among some of the least-served people in the world. This sixth article in our Flourish series is drawn from her pre-field training session on health.
Is it a spiritual discipline to go for a run? Is it an act of worship to go to bed early at night when you’re exhausted? Usually, when we think about drawing close to the Lord, we think about reading the Bible and praying — both good things! But we don’t often think about what we can do physically in order to draw closer to God.
Dr. Evan Parks, a psychologist and former SEND missionary, wrote: “We have a unique advantage, as Christians, of understanding how people are put together. There is a unity and wholeness in God’s design of people. We are spiritual, emotional, physical beings. Each element is influenced by the others and they are completely integrated. Yet we often diagnose problems as either being spiritual — a sin issue for a pastor to deal with; emotional — a psychological issue for a psychologist to deal with; or physical — a medical problem for a doctor to deal with. … We lose sight of the whole person when our thinking is limited to these categories.”
My own life demonstrates that what’s happening to us physically can have a huge impact on our spiritual health. I’m a woman with fluctuating hormones, a mother who has gone through extreme sleep deprivation, a missionary who has had to move 13 times in 12 years — and there have been times when I have felt like God has left the building. I don’t sense him. I don’t feel him. Though I’ve read my Bible, though I’ve prayed, I haven’t heard his voice like I’ve wanted to.
True, our relationship with God isn’t about feeling. Sometimes we push through, knowing this is a tough time and we can still have faith that God’s there. But what happens when these dry times go on for months or even years? It’s my passion and my hope that we can look at ourselves as whole people and understand health as a topic that includes the spiritual, the emotional, and the physical — and with that understanding, be able to serve from a more wholly complete healthiness.
Is that God talking?
“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” — James 5:14-15
Not all illness is a result of sin, but we see from these verses that sin can have a physical effect on our bodies. I want to encourage us to slow down and pay attention to our bodies. I really feel like God speaks to us through them.
Try this two-part process: First, notice how your body is feeling. Then, take time to talk to the Lord, to see if he’s communicating with you through some discomfort.
For instance, if you notice a tightness in your chest, don’t ignore it. Sit down and consider, “Why is that there?” Ask God, “Why am I feeing this way?” It could be you need to slow down, you just have too much going on — or it could be that you’re not trusting God, and he wants to speak to you about that.
Are you feeling nauseated? Maybe you have a knot in your stomach. Is that because you just ate some onion rings? Or, are you feeling guilt over something? Is that guilt real guilt? Is God using discomfort to tell you that you have a relationship you need to make right?
Tend to the temple
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” — 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
I think about our well-maintained church buildings. If a church window breaks, we fix it. And God doesn’t even dwell behind those windows. God is actually dwelling within us, and he bought us at a price. When we take care of our bodies, we take care of the place where God dwells. Do we value our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit?
A good return on investment
The missionary life requires a lot of investment. Time, the expense of Bible school, money, prayer. So, what’s necessary to make the most of that investment? The missionary is! If missionaries can’t be on the field, they can’t do the ministry that God has called them to and that all these investments have gone toward.
Exercise can lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer, plus it can fight depression and anxiety and elevate your mood. Taking care of your body is being a good steward of your investment.
One member of my family has had four joint replacements, plus she has fibromyalgia, asthma and sleep apnea. I think what God asks me to do with my mostly healthy body is likely going to be different than what he asks of my family member. Health doesn’t mean having a certain body type or a certain weight or the ability to do a certain thing. Health means doing our best to glorify God with the bodies we’ve been given.
Some practical tips
- Make exercise a priority. Write it into your schedule.
- If you aren’t exercising regularly, start small with 10 or 15 minutes of walking, cycling, jogging or swimming. Work up to three to five days of 30 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise.
- Do what’s fun — or the least not fun — for you. You’re not going to stick with exercising if you think, “Ugh, I have to get up an hour early and I hate what I’m getting up to do.”
- Be open to the Holy Spirit while you’re exercising. I find that God speaks to me while I’m out walking. It’s truly a spiritual and physical practice for me.
- If you want to lose weight, combine aerobic exercise with strength training 2-3 times a week, because the more lean muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolism. Also, muscle mass decreases as you age, so weight training can offset this loss of strength.
- Check out TRX Training. It may look like a torture device, but it’s a take-anywhere exercise tool that lets you do a full-body strength workout just using your body weight. This is marvelous because a missionary’s life is full of travel. You’ll be going to conferences or villages or on home service and you won’t always be able to have a normal routine — but this can go with you wherever you are.
- Get support. If you’re trying to make major nutritional changes at home, it’s really hard if your spouse isn’t on board. Some people need a buddy to go with them to encourage them to exercise consistently.
- Invite God into the process. He made you and he loves you. Remember, this is about holistic health, not having perfectly toned abs. As you bring your body before the Lord, you might need to accept the way he made you and the limitations you have, while still understanding how to glorify him with the body he gave you.
More in the Flourish series
- Step 1: Honest evaluation — Spiritual self-assessment isn’t about guilt. It’s a starting point for growing in intimacy with God.
- Developing a prayer life that goes beyond ‘popcorn prayers’ — On the field, a missionary learns the value of boldly praying God’s Word for confession, spiritual growth, protection and salvation.
- Sabbath: A gift that helps us set boundaries on our busyness and adds rhythm to our weeks — ‘Setting boundaries can be particularly hard for missionaries, because we’re also called to sacrifice. Sabbath helps us regain perspective.’
- A menu plan for staying spiritually fed — Ways to keep your devotional life fresh and consistent — especially when you can’t be part of a thriving church community.
- To connect with the Lord, you do you — Recognizing your spiritual temperament — and realizing it might not be the same as those around you — can make for a closer relationship with the Lord and with other believers.
- Why it’s better to store God’s Word in your mind, not just on your iPhone — Even in this digital age, Scripture has more potential to transform, guide and encourage when it’s committed to memory.
- Finding friends who help deepen your faith: Deep, mutual, honest, encouraging, faith-building friendships are worth the time and courage it takes to find and maintain those relationships.
Strawberry photo by Karadenizolay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tired photo by Berwin Coroza
Running photo by Chanan Greenblatt