Devotional Intimacy theology

When Working Out is Harmful (Part 1)

I've realized that people who are most confident are not the strongest, but those who are okay with their weakness.



My Freshman year of college, I remember lying on the couch Skyping someone on my laptop. I don’t even remember who I was talking to, but I remember putting my arm behind my head, noticing how shrimpy it looked, and quickly putting it back down.

That was not the only time I had feelings of inadequacy regarding my body, but that was about the time I started seriously hitting the gym. I couldn’t go on being a little shrimp and still call myself a man!

My friend Paul C. Maxwell wrote an amazing article called The Epidemic of Male Body Hatred, in which he explored the phenomenon in depth.

“If I could look like that guy who played Thor, I would be happy.”

It’s a common belief among men of our age. Put more honestly, “If I can’t appear confident, sexy, intimidating, competent, and super-human, I’m worthless.”

We compare ourselves to others in the gym. We come away from movies wanting to exercise for eight hours. We would rather jump in front of a truck than take our shirts off at the pool. We feel pathetic and small. We look at ourselves in almost every mirror we pass. When alone, we flex — not because we like what we see, but because we don’t. We have spent hundreds of dollars on pre-workout, weight loss, and weight gain supplements. We research the best way to bulk, shred, diet, and binge.

He points out that there is a wide difference between being healthy and being shredded. Even as Christians we often excuse this excessive gym addiction as our way of “staying in shape” and “pushing myself.” For many of us, myself included, these endless hours at the gym come more from a place of insecurity and self-loathing than a genuine desire for health.

Because in the back of our minds, we know that there are plenty of exceptionally healthy people who don’t look like the cover models of Men’s Fitness. And conversely, not all those cover models may be healthy people, despite how chiseled their physiques are.

I have a friend who used to be a ballerina in New York City. She told me that when she began, her director handed her a packet of diet pills and a box of cigarettes and said get started. 

Because health was not the goal, looking good is.

And this is the attitude I often embrace when I walk through the emerald gates of my Swole Sanctuary. I may not be able to woo her with my charm, my humor, my integrity or my character, but at least I can attract her with my body.

Many of us perceive our body and our looks as the one aspect of ourselves which is easiest to address and control. We’d rather spend three hours on the dumbbells instead of spending time in silence, addressing these roots of insecurity and our lack of confidence. We see ourselves as unworthy of love as long as our bodies are ‘undesirable.’

In Fight Club, the narrator looks at a Calvin Klein ad and asks, “Is that what a man is supposed to look like?”

You can always tell who is confident about which body parts at the gym by what they hide and what they show off. Dudes who love their arms don tank tops and those who don’t wear t-shirts. Sweat pants are for the chicken-legged, but yoga pants are for people who want to draw the attention to their southern hemisphere.

Of course, being confident in certain parts of your body is not confidence at all. Ask yourself, if you were to be in a car accident and all your muscles were to evaporate, would you still want people to look at your arms? Your legs? Your butt? Is your confidence rooted in your physical attributes, or is it rooted more deeply in who you are as a person?

We all hide behind something, be it humor, intelligence, or artistic skill, and for us gym rats, it happens to be our bodies. It’s easy to hide behind this one especially because you can cover it up with the ‘health’ excuse, but as I said above, this is beyond the realm of staying healthy.

The life expectancy for bodybuilders is still the same as everyone else’s.

So how do we diagnose this epidemic of male body hatred? How do we establish the symptoms and work toward a cure? If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you know the answer has something to do with the gospel. And you’re right.

The incarnation is the theological term for God, the creator of all that exists, becoming human. The Creator entering what He created. The Eternal Spirit putting on flesh.

Our bodies are good no matter what shape they are in, not because of the amount of effort we pour into them, but because God Himself donned one. Whether chubby or bone-thin, your body is good.

The very fact that Jesus incarnated a body and walked around in it for 33 years shows that bodies in themselves are not bad or evil or shameful. On top of that, the prophet Isaiah actually tells us that physically, Jesus was not that attractive. We have done ourselves a disservice by portraying Jesus on the cross with a six-pack and toned arms.

The Greeks portrayed their gods with bulging deltoids and rippling quadriceps, but the Bible tells quite a different story about its God. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isaiah 53:2).

The world looks for a strong and powerful king, but Jesus showed us one who was ugly, weak, and defeated. Not only was he physically unattractive, but he sunk to the lowest depths of shame when He was crucified naked and displayed for the public to look upon. He was physically unattractive, but he knew who He was and therefore didn’t need to compensate by puffing up his chest or wearing purple robes.

The issue isn’t that we have bodies and want them to look good; the problem comes when we try to root our confidence and self-esteem in them. We often ignore the health of our soul and spirit and try to compensate with hours in the gym.

Last night I was cleaning out my childhood room and found an old shoebox full of letters. As I read through pages and pages of rich affection, I remembered what it felt like to be loved unconditionally. I remembered being in high school and not feeling like I had to look a certain way to impress someone in order to be loved. And it felt good.

I’ve realized that people who are most confident are not the strongest, but those who are okay with their weakness.

I think the cure to overcoming our body hatred and insecurity is to remember that we are loved as we are: buff, chubby, or skinny. Health is good, as is working toward fitness goals, but not if we come to them to find love and acceptance.

In contrast to the world’s message of finding approval through looks, spend time in silence and meditate on the fact that Jesus promised to be with us regardless of how we look. Dwell on the fact that we are loved despite weakness and always skipping cardio day. The Apostle Paul even urges us to boast in our weakness. How contrary to the world’s message of strength is that?

You are loved as you are. May we be people who experience the liberating feeling of unconditional love. May this come to define us more than the curve of our obliques as we learn how to relax and stop striving, but accept ourselves as we are, accept love from others, and accept the ongoing love of the Father who prefers weakness to strength.


5 comments on “When Working Out is Harmful (Part 1)

  1. I really appreciate your post, being one who actively seeks to pump as many imperfections from my body as often as possible. One thing, I may be wrong, but you mention things generally about what the Bible say about Christ and His bodily image, and you only use one verse in the entire post (unless I missed something). You could have used an explicit statement by Paul discussing our bodies, such as 1 Cor 6:19 “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

    I guess what I’m trying to ask is, why have you not used more explicit scriptural proof?

  2. Bree Rossi

    Dude! This is so legit. So true, not just for guys, but women, too #truthbombs

  3. Thank you for doing this topic Ethan. I’m a believer in Christ, but lately I’ve been focusing to much on my physical look and health and not my spiritual health growing in Christ, which has been lacking. My relationship with Jesus is more important. Thanks again brother. God bless

  4. Pingback: 'Body Issues' Are Spiritual, Too - RELEVANT Magazine

  5. Pingback: 'Body Issues' Are Spiritual, Too | RELEVANT – ChriSoNet.Com

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