Leading Question: Because the Bible nowhere commands us to get regular exercise, does that mean that God is not interested in it?
Except for the general principle that our bodies belong to God (1 Cor 6:19-20), the Bible gives almost no specifics as to how we should take care of our health. In light of that fact, the following questions are significant:
1. On what basis do we adopt practices as being required by God (such as bodily exercise) when there is no direct command in Scripture? Does the presence of a direct command make the practice more urgent or important? Seventh-day Adventists would argue for a host of health practices that are nowhere mentioned in Scripture. Alcohol is mentioned, to be sure, but not always as total abstinence. Tobacco and drugs are nowhere mentioned. Exercise would be in that same category. How does a commitment to God come into play in such instances?
2. Even though part of the Adventist tradition favors practical labor over games and other athletic endeavors, does the fact that Paul frequently refers to athletic imagery (cf. 2 Tim 2:5; 1 Tim 4:7; 1 Cor 9:24-27; Phil 3:12-14) mean that games may not be quite as negative as the Adventist tradition might suggest? The following paragraphs are from Alden Thompson’s book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other (pp. 160-161). They explore some of the tensions involved with the sports issue:
An Illustration of Life-style Complications: Sports
I should say at the outset that part of the challenge in dealing with life-style issues in the church today stems from the fact that most mainstream Adventists have little feel for the stark conservatism that has marked much of Adventism in its early years. That is particularly true with reference to sports and recreation. Can you imagine the president of a modern Adventist college or university giving the order to convert the athletic field into a farm? Yet that is exactly what happened at Battle Creek College in 1897. President E. A. Sutherland “got out a plow, Dean Magan drove the team, and a 225-pound J. G. Lamson sat on the beam as they plowed the recreation grounds of the college and planted them to potatoes.” – Merlin Neff, For God and C.M.E. (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1964), 63.
That kind of conservatism may help explain why Christians, in general, and Adventists, in particular, have done such a poor job of addressing life-style issues, especially as they relate to “inspired” counsel. In conservative religious circles in general, for example, a popular saying clearly works against any effort to encourage thoughtful evaluation of biblical counsel: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Adventists have our own version in “Sister White says….” That appeal to raw “inspired” authority has often led to one of two unhappy results representing opposite ends of the spectrum: 1) preparation of random and highly selective lists of approved and forbidden acts, or 2) ignoring “inspired” sources completely.
In Adventism, for example, boarding schools have banned chess, checkers, and cards (because Sister White says so), but have allowed Rook and Monopoly to take their place, games that are potentially just as deadly. From my own study of Ellen White’s comments about recreation and games, I have concluded that one of her key concerns is the danger of addiction, qualified in a number of instances by the phrase “in the minds of some,” or something similar. That is an important qualification. I know of an Adventist professor, for example, who could learn his Hebrew vocabulary while watching football on television. That’s impossible for me: I am glued to the screen. Another professor does the family ironing while watching football on TV. Another impossibility for me. If I am going to watch, I must watch. Radio is different. I can multitask and do something useful like clean the basement while listening to a game. That doesn’t work with TV, at least not for me.
But even if radio allows me to multitask, radio sports still represents a deadly distraction from the things I want to do and the person I want to be. Others, like my two TV-watching colleagues noted above, have quite different experiences. But I have to be honest and admit that my tendency to be fully absorbed by any kind of competitive event can seriously detract from my ability to treat others as I want to treat them, as Jesus would treat them, as Jesus would want me to treat them. If I am engrossed in any kind of competitive event, I ignore other people, give them the cold shoulder, speak abruptly. To be perfectly blunt, Jesus’ second great commandment simply disappears from my horizon. That’s why during peak sporting seasons I sometimes handle the temptation by turning it into a reverse game, vying with myself to see how many major sporting events I can actually avoid!
Recently, however, I had a revealing conversation with a devout and serious-minded colleague who simply told me that in his experience, sports was his best point of contact with other people and a real source of enrichment and personal satisfaction. Since he wasn’t gifted musically, in his early years sports was an area that could provide focus, fellowship, and a sense of accomplishment. In his view, given the myriad temptations facing modern youth (sex, drugs, computer and video games, on-line pornography), sports provide an important and healthy alternative for our young people. In general, I’m inclined to agree.
I should also note one disastrous result of the Adventist avoidance of organized sports: adult Adventists are often very poor sports. When I was a youth pastor, our church used to schedule a weekly father-son softball game every Sunday. We had to quit because the fathers were so ill tempered. Graduates of public high schools have told me how appalled they are at Adventist behavior during sporting events. “Anyone acting like that in public school,” they tell me, “would be benched immediately.” Learning how to win and lose graciously is an important life skill. When we avoid sports completely, we lose an important opportunity for essential character development.
Having said all that, however, I still must say that I understand all too well Ellen White’s cautions about games. Nevertheless, it would be unwise for a highly-competitive person like me to attempt to dictate to the whole community. My conservative stance, driven by personal issues, must be balanced out with some good sense from moderate liberals.
3. To what extent do changes in culture and changes in personal circumstance affect the way that the “exercise” mandate might be fulfilled? During the biblical period, the sedentary life was rarely a temptation, except, perhaps for kings who had plenty of servants. But in our day, most believers do not live in an agrarian environment that requires them to get regular exercise. In such cases, would the gym or athletic field be a commendable alternative?
4. How does one balance the need for exercise with the experience of exercise as being hard work and no fun? Should exercise be fun for it to be effective? Scripture does say that a “merry heart doeth good like a medicine” (Proverbs 22:17). Does that mean that we need to find ways of exercising that are happy and fun events?