What is Stewardship-Based Fitness?
There are many standards of fitness. Strength, aesthetics, weight and performance are measuring sticks by which many people compare themselves. The problem is that, for the average person, you find yourself continually falling short. There is always someone stronger, leaner or faster, leaving you feeling weak, fat and slow. Year after year, comparison after comparison you find yourself not measuring up to the arbitrary standards that you have deemed “good enough”.
Instead of following cultures lead, I want to offer a new fitness standard for you to pursue: Stewardship. When you take care of something, you are stewarding it. Specifically, our goal in stewardship is not to earn the worship of others, but rather to use it to worship God. As was the Proverbs 31 woman, our goal in stewardship is to be strong for your tasks (Proverbs 31:17, NIV).
I came to this realization far later in life than I wish, but once I realized I didn’t have to live up to the standards I felt were being imposed on me by others, I was finally able to workout and eat healthy, not as a means of punishing myself for not being good enough, but rather to prepare myself for the tasks God has for me.
Through stewardship, I came to realize that I don’t need six-pack abs, or to deadlift 500lbs. Instead, I want to do whatever I can to take care of my body so that I can be the best husband, dad and teacher I can be.
Here are four reasons why I think stewardship is the best approach to your fitness:
Where most “Christian” diets fall flat is they either take a few verses out of context and use them as proof texts, or they take descriptive passages and turn them into prescriptive plans. If I make diet and exercise out to be more than the Bible says it is, it can lead people to believe that they are sinning when they fail to comply with my arbitrary standards.
Stewardship is different. With stewardship, we recognize that the Bible isn’t a book about diet and exercise, but it does provide principles pointing to stewarding our bodies. Our whole journey towards stewardship and health is based on principles. We are never guaranteed health through lifting weights and eating vegetables. However, we know that if we do these things consistently, we are more likely to become healthier.
For example, I’ve seen people (my former self included) take 1 Corinthians 16:19-20 which says, “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,” and make it all about their physical health. Paul did not have green smoothies and workout plans in mind when he was writing this to the church in Corinth. Paul is writing to the Corinthians about fleeing sexual immorality. The verse isn’t at all about what they were eating or drinking; however, it does give us a principle that can guide our health journey.
“Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at something that doesn't really matter.” - DL Moody
Many fitness pursuits make vanity the end goal. However, if our goal is to flaunt our body versus demonstrate Christ-likeness, we’ve totally missed the point. As D.L. Moody said, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at something that doesn't really matter.” What a shame it would be to biohack our way to optimal health, but fail to secure eternal life. Health is a good thing to desire, but it should not become a god that we worship.
Another biblical principle we can draw from is discipline. As the great philosopher Inigo Montoya once said, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” When many think of discipline, the first image their brain typically conjures up has to do with punishment. While that might be an aspect of discipline, I think a richer definition of the word is to train, correct, or, as the root of the word would suggest, disciple.
When you are disciplining your body, you shouldn’t view it as punishment for poor behaviors. You should be training it so that it is better able to be used as an instrument of worship. Working out because you hate yourself is far less enjoyable than working out because you love God and want to honor Him with your body. Just like the spiritual disciplines, one salad or one workout won’t make you instantly healthy, but if you are consistent in disciplining your body, you will eventually see the fruit that it bears.
While no discipline is pleasant, "later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). Discipline isn’t about avoiding pleasure, but rather about pursuing freedom. As pastor JT English said, “Discipline brings freedom, not slavery.”
“Discipline brings freedom, not slavery.” - JT English
As much as the idea of stewardship is applicable to everyone, it is very personal when put into practice. While the goal of stewardship is the same, how that is lived out will be different for everyone. For some, this is the point in the book where you start freaking out. You want to know exactly what to do, when to do it, and for how long to do it. You want the meal plan and the macros for everything you need to eat. Others will breathe a huge sigh of relief that you no longer have to try and keep up with that 20-something trainer at the gym putting you through their favorite workouts and diet.
When you are working on stewarding your body, know that there is no objective standard of stewardship. You don’t need to obtain certain levels of strength. You don’t need to achieve low levels of body fat or scale weight. Some people may look at you and scoff at how “out of shape” you are. Stewardship is about humbly and quietly taking care of your body in a way that allows you to love God and love people to your full ability.
“She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.” (Proverbs 31:17,NIV, emphasis mine)
Because stewardship is so personal, it also makes it attainable. You don’t need to be as strong as me. I don’t need to be as strong as you. Each one of us has our own unique tasks that will require various amounts of strength and health. If you are able bodied and strong, maybe your tasks involve helping your neighbor when they’re moving. Or, maybe your level of strength and ability currently allows for you to lie in your bed, interceding for your friends and family. Neither of these tasks is more or less meaningful. While both require different levels of strength, both are ways through which we can fulfill the command to love God and love people (Matthew 22:36-40).
As your life changes, stewardship will change along with you. Stewardship isn’t about sitting down for an evening, making a plan, and following it for the rest of your life. Stewardship is about constantly considering how to glorify God with your body in various seasons.
I remember talking to a woman once who was gung ho to get in the best shape of her life. She was ready to run, lift weights, eat salads, and do all the other stuff a fit person does. The big problem? She was three weeks postpartum. In this season, stewarding her body should have included rest and recovery, not high-intensity intervals.
When we are stewarding our bodies, our health and fitness is more like a dial than like a switch. Instead of on-or-off, all-in or all-out, stewardship promotes more or less. For example, there will be times when things are running smoothly and you are able to get to the gym, plan and prep all of your food, and healthy choices come very easy. There will be other seasons where everything hits the fan and your only goal is to survive. Instead of having the all-or-nothing attitude and giving yourself permission to make every unhealthy choice you desire, think of it as turning the dial down a bit and making as many healthy choices as you can, knowing that it won’t be perfect. In the midst of the chaos, maybe you can only workout once in a week instead of your usual four times – that’s okay! You might not eat vegetables at each meal, but that doesn’t mean you have to resort to eating exclusively candy and donuts. Your stewardship will adapt with you, and there is no problem with lowering your expectations for seasons or occasions.
Finally, stewardship can be enjoyable. If you don’t enjoy how you eat or exercise, you probably won’t do it for very long. While there will be some rough patches as you begin to break old habits to form new ones, you should be able to enjoy the lifelong process of stewardship.
Because stewardship doesn’t have a finish line, there is no race to get there.
Stewardship is a lifelong pursuit. You need to recognize that life is going to happen along the way. Instead of proclaiming that you will never eat sugar again, maybe you look to eat a little bit less for the next couple of days. By trying to do too much, too soon, you run the risk of burning out and going back to your old, familiar way of life. Even a small amount of change is going to be hard for most people. Because stewardship doesn’t have a finish line, and there is no race to get there.
You may never be healthy, but you can be healthier.
You may never be strong, but you can be stronger.
Anyone can steward their body and you can be strong for your tasks.