Combating the Modern Gnosticism of Enfeebled Christianity
On October 9, 2023, Ben Zeisloft dropped the most innocuous-looking of bombs on the corner of Twitter (X!) that I lurk in. He does this from time to time. In it, Ben advocated for men to pursue strength (I will not address the other imperative he mentioned). There was a shocking backlash of Christian men willfully misunderstanding, attributing much that Ben did not intend, and otherwise attacking the notion that men should be strong. What have we come to that when a Christian suggests men should be strong, other Christians descend to drag him in the replies? What is your alternative? Weakness is fine? Obesity is okay, akshually? Rather than apologetically try to elaborate or explain what I think Ben meant, or straighten out any misunderstanding I am going to assume that he meant men should pursue physical strength and defend that.
Christian men should be physically strong. “What is strength?” you may ask. Strength is the ability to produce muscular force against an external resistance. Other forms of physical training also have benefits, such as endurance training, but I will be keeping a narrow focus on strength training for this essay. Not all men are the same size, and they do not all have the same absolute strength potential. Some men are of advanced age and cannot hope to achieve a bench press of 300 pounds, for instance. Some are of smaller stature and will not achieve “impressive” numbers under a barbell ever. Some are untalented in physical pursuits and will make slow progress. They may all still pursue strength.
Physical strength is a gradual, chronic, and architectural change to the body. It is slow to gain and slow to lose. Strength can only be obtained through putting sufficient stress on the muscular tissues of the body, which the body recognizes as a need for greater strength, to cause the body to initiate an adaptation response. This increases the mass of the muscles that are affected by the stress by a very small, marginal amount each time they are put through this stress-adaptation-recovery cycle. Over time, this cycle results in noticeably larger and significantly stronger muscles in the body, assuming a balanced approach to strength training and sufficient resources to successfully recover from the stress event (workouts).
Strong is a relative term. The best version of you is a stronger version, ceteris paribus. But you don’t have to set world records, look like a bodybuilder, or sacrifice a balanced Christian walk to obtain benefits from the pursuit of physical strength.
The Biblical Case
Joshua chapter 1 repeatedly tells the Israelites to “be strong and courageous.” It is a command to them. The Hebrew word used for strong is like the English one, it can mean strong character or virtue. But the Lord admonished Joshua, who was a warlord embarking upon a campaign of military conquest, to be strong and courageous. The commands given to Joshua and the Israelites involved the act of waging war with melee and short-ranged weapons which are most effectively wielded by strong men. Certainly, they were to maintain their courage and faith that the Lord would go with them to battle, but as He does today, the Lord worked His sovereign will through means. In this case, the physical abilities of the Hebrew military force, led by Joshua were to be the normal means for the outworking of God’s sovereign plan to punish and oust the Canaanites and replace them with this chosen people. You can make the case that this was an abstract or emotional “strong” that was commanded by the Lord. I would certainly say that is included in the command, but you cannot make the case that the Hebrews were not planning to be involved in grueling physical contests with other armies which would necessitate the ability to produce force with their physical bodies.
Proverbs 20:29 says, “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.” In this proverb, it is revealed to us that to be strong is a good thing. Young people are blessed with better health and more naturally strong bodies. Accomplishments of the young are often physical in nature. They are often athletic records, military victories, exploration, or other tasks that depend heavily on a young body’s durable constitution. Meanwhile, older men have the advantage of experience and the wisdom that comes from it. Of course, as with most proverbs, these truths are generalizations. Not all old men have wisdom. Not all young people are strong. Nevertheless, the ones who demonstrate strength and wisdom demonstrate traits that bring glory to them and, more importantly, the God who gives all wisdom and strength. To assert that strength is unimportant and can be disregarded is not consistent with the way God refers to it in the Scriptures as a great benefit to be enjoyed and used to further God’s will in the world.
Turning to the New Testament, we have repeated admonishments by Paul to be manful, be strong, stand firm. These are told to the people of Corinth for them to pursue maturity and toughness in the face of adversity. To illustrate what Paul means he turns to masculine professions of soldiering and athletics. Paul references “boxing” which had a similar physical requirement in the Roman world to modern boxing, i.e. the strongest had an advantage (Roman pugilatis eschewed weight classes, so the incentive was to get as heavy and big as possible). Roman soldiers too, would have been quite strong as they would have depended on the ability to physically outmatch opponents as a body. Roman legionnaires carried about 80 pounds of supplies and equipment with them on long marches and arrived with the strength to fight. Keep in mind also that legionnaires would likely have been shorter in stature than modern men as a result of our dietary advantages, meaning this feat of strength is even more impressive than it sounds.
Physical training is said, by Paul, to be of some benefit. But, it is not of the same benefit as spiritual discipline. I Tim 4:7-10 says
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Physical training, or strength training, must not be pursued to the detriment of the spiritual disciplines. But, done correctly, it enhances the pursuit of spiritual maturity, enabling the man of God to bring his pursuit of physical discipline into the service of his efforts toward spiritual growth. To read the passage from Timothy above and then to dismiss physical training as totally superfluous is not to be informed by the full council of the Scripture. Paul admits to Timothy that physical training is helpful, in its place. Modern gnostics seem to forget this part and assign no value to strength training and physical discipline.
Paul goes on in I Corinthians 9:27 to take his idea further: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Here Paul is elaborating on the usefulness of the athlete and the soldier as a model for Christian life. They maintain self-control by exercising strict control over their diet, physical regimen, and rest, among other factors, whenever possible. Paul’s use of the word that is translated in the ESV as “discipline” refers to beating something or someone severely. He punishes his body to make it his slave. Are we to imply this means he literally self-flagellates? No, this means that Paul denied his desires for comfort and ease to demonstrate mastery over his fleshly desires and teach the natural man that the spiritual man is the one calling the shots. Could the same be said of a severely overweight pastor? Or a severely underweight academic who refuses to lift heavy things for fear of fitness becoming an “idol?”
Those who would deny the biblical case for achieving and maintaining physical strength appear to be influenced by old-school gnosticism and hedonism. They seem to believe the flesh is nothing and can be disregarded altogether. Strength doesn’t matter because we are all just headed toward sweet Beulah land anyway. We lose down here, after all. But, the Bible is written to us, incarnate but spiritual beings, to give us what we need to live and practice the true faith. God created us in flesh, with an integrated body and soul, on purpose and it is right for human beings to dwell in a body as God intended. We are now at war with our flesh because of our sin. We must seek to master that flesh or we will be mastered by it. Pursuing strength helps us to do this and to experience a lesser type of redemption in the flesh as our bodies are relieved of some of the effects of the fall such as some sickness, aches and pains, and weakness leading to misery and premature death. Glory be to the Lord that he has made man able to pursue strength. Do not spurn this gift.
The Natural Law Case
In addition to special revelation laying out a convincing case for men pursuing strength, there are several natural outcomes to developing strength that indicate it is advantageous for men.
Strong people are harder to kill. This is relevant to you if you are a married man, a father, or have anyone who loves you or who depends upon you for protection or provision. Your life does not belong to you. You do not have permission to lay it down flippantly. Self-preservation is a fundamental principle of natural law. You are required to defend your loved ones and in order to provide for their needs you must be alive. Yes, life insurance is a thing, but they have needs beyond just monetary. Who will open the pickle jars if you die? Refusing to defend your life or take care of yourself out of a pietistic urge to spurn the sinful flesh or allow a sinner one more chance to repent is misguided. Take care of your family, your flock, and your people, or else you are worse than an unbeliever.
Strength makes you a more able protector. It signals that you are an unprofitable target for robbery or other criminal mischief. People who understand the language of violence notice physically intimidating traits and often rationally choose to let sleeping dogs lie. The natural desire to protect our wives and children from physical aggression is so intense that most decent men become quite agitated when even other men’s wives or children are targeted by violence. Men have a deep-seated desire to protect those naturally weaker than themselves. This is why so many boys are fascinated by soldiers and cops. They are drawn to those who use violence to stop wickedness, bring order, and defend the weak and downtrodden. Gaining skills with weapons or empty-hand combatives enhances your capacity to defend others, but like most athletic pursuits, a base of strength is the best foundation from which to start learning these skills. Don’t find yourself in a position to need to defend someone and lack the will or ability to do anything about it. Should criminality foolishly choose not to let sleeping dogs lie, you must be ready to collect the toll.
Strength makes you more resistant to injury. The health benefits of strength training are quite uncontroversial. Lifting heavy weights is useful to help fight the deleterious effects of even chronic disease. Lifting heavy improves the metabolism. Changes the composition of the body to reduce visceral fat (fat deposits around the internal organs), which can be a problem even for “skinny” people. Increased muscle mass requires additional calories from diet to maintain so those who maintain more muscle mass exercise greater control over their weight. Heavy resistance training regularly relieves chronic aches and pains from orthopedic conditions affecting the knees, back, shoulders, and other trouble-prone joint structures within a few weeks of starting serious training. Strength training increases bone density in all ages; it is so powerful at this that in all but the most advanced cases it can reverse osteoporosis. Health benefits begin to accrue virtually immediately as untrained people take up the barbell for the first time.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a Scottish preacher who was famously energetic about his ministry work. He worked himself into an early grave at only 29 years old, and on his deathbed lamented that he had not paced himself more prudently: “The Lord gave me a horse to ride and a message to deliver. Alas, I have killed the horse and cannot deliver the message.” You are a steward of the body and health given to you by the Lord. If you are a minister or otherwise, you have work to do here, and mistreating your body will only cut that off prematurely, truncating your participation in the Lord’s glorious work. Take care of yourself, it is a requirement.
Strength training can be pursued to an advanced age. The benefits of this pursuit are enjoying optimal quality of life well into the years of enjoying those glorious gray hairs mentioned above. Being able to see grandchildren and be strong enough to carry them without throwing out your back is a reward for those who are naturally strong but it can be yours through training even if you are not. Clearly, the absolute strength of an 85-year-old will not be in the same league as a 25-year-old, but remember that you aren’t competing against anyone, you just want to be the strongest you can be. You have not missed the boat; if you are breathing, there is still time to get stronger.
Strength training teaches mastery over the physical body. To pursue strength requires the courage and discipline to get under the barbell and push something heavier every time. This gets really hard after a while. And, you don’t get stronger by accident. You have to intend to get stronger. You must keep up with how much you lifted last time, which means keeping a written record or using a phone app. You must get enough sleep and protein in your diet. The older you are the more important the recovery factors become. You must pace yourself reasonably to avoid overtraining and injury, taking days off and resting. You must reorient your life to pursue more healthful habits. Improving your diet and sleep requires you to plan your day diligently. It will cause you to avoid unhealthy food more often and eventually lose your taste for it. This all results in your benefit. Mastering your desires in this arena has a great deal of overlap with mastering the natural man, leading to the ascendence of the spiritual man. A spiritual man who has become accustomed to telling himself “No” and “Do it, even though you don’t want to.” This is what Paul was referring to when he said he beat his body to make it his slave. Be imitators of Paul.
To become strong is a missing right of passage for young men. I have spent some time training young people in barbell lifting. This summer we started a small group of teens between 14-17 years old on a simple linear lifting progression using 4 major lifts (back squat, overhead press, bench press, and deadlift) and a couple of assistance exercises. A subset of the group bought in entirely and devoted themselves to progress in this endeavor. At the end of the summer, I had boys that started with a back squat of 155. They achieved a squat of 255 before they had been training for even three months. They have had to pause their lifting due to sports seasons starting up but the benefits of strength training will be carried into the season with them rendering them more effective competitors and more resistant to orthopedic injuries. This program has been so successful that a group of teachers and coaches have initiated the same program for themselves and have enjoyed similar success with all the attendant benefits.
There are lessons that are difficult to teach to young men anywhere other than under a heavy barbell. They learn a great deal about who they are and about how the world works. Repeated, disciplined efforts, resulting in small gains are how expertise and excellence are achieved in a vast number of arenas in life. A lesson these young men have now learned from the natural law that governs barbell training. In a world where most young men are not asked to do anything physically demanding in this way, where are they learning these lessons? There may be other ways to learn them, but I highly recommend the barbell as a very efficient teacher.
A less important but still useful benefit of strength training is the aesthetic benefit. I am not interested in having visible abs or looking good without a shirt on. That ship has sailed for men my age, and even if you are younger this should not be a priority to you. Keep your shirt on, please. But, strength training has the ability to make a man look more manly in his clothes. In order to gain strength, an increase in muscle mass must occur.
You can count on heavy strength training to increase the thickness of your neck, and the circumference of your arms. Your hands and forearms will thicken as your grip strength grows. It will increase the size of your shoulders and “traps.” The muscles of your back will grow wider. Your hips will get deeper from front to back, and your thighs will get thicker (alas, your calves are only marginally able to gain any visible change in size and are pretty much just the way they are always going to be, sorry or congrats, whichever is appropriate to your calf genetics). Spending a significant time pursuing strength training may require you to buy bigger clothes that you will fill out. All these things contribute to making you look, not like a bodybuilder, not like a man obsessed with eternal youth or personal vanity, but like a bigger and healthier you. More you. Muscularly bigger men enjoy many benefits. Possessing muscle mass helps older men endure illness more easily than frail men. We are prone to give deference to larger people, they command more attention without effort which is a useful rhetorical tool for those of you earning a living speaking from a pulpit. Being in apparently good condition sends a signal to others that you are a disciplined man and have devoted yourself to the difficult task of strength training for long enough to accumulate sufficient adaptation to look different. People will ask you how you accomplished it and be encouraged by it. Men who are enjoying the transformative properties of strength training can be proud of themselves for demonstrating commitment sufficient to have resulted in a physical manifestation. Your wife will approve. Your peers will respect you.
Strength training is extremely healthy for men mentally. Strength training improves cognitive function, reduces anxiety, improves self-esteem (important among a demographic with quadruple the suicide rate than that for women), and helps men cope with depression. Strength training helps to balance the hormones that affect mental health. Anyone who regularly lifts will tell you that it is noticeable in nonphysical ways when they have missed workouts for too many days. The physical affects the mental and spiritual, it is human nature. Building strenuous workout programs into your schedule requires you to be prompt, not waste time, plan meals and take nutrition seriously, which all help men develop maturity and take dominion over their own lives and direct their efforts effectively in all areas.
A Note of Caution
A common refrain among those attacking Ben Zeisloft’s original post was a warning of the disordering of loves in the Christian life. In other words, idolizing fitness is bad. The attack of Ben’s post on these grounds is not warranted since he did not advocate for an unhealthy obsession with fitness, but that aside, this is a legitimate pitfall and many men have fallen into it. Strength is not an end in itself, but a means to a better and more sanctified Christian life. It is not the only means and it is not the most powerful means. It must not become an idol. Idolizing fitness leads to setting aside the pursuit of holiness and pursuing our own glory. It leads to obsession with aesthetics which can often lead to abusing performance-enhancing drug use or to “food phariseeism,” among other problems. These can be dangerous and are counter-productive to the good things which are listed above. Strength training must not lead to vanity. The path of the bodybuilder is not the path of the Christian. Social media and the industry which profits from male body self-obsession is riddled with unhealthy examples, charlatans, liars and frauds who would love nothing more than for you to think you are a failure because you don’t look like the image they dangle in front of you. A little research reveals that those images are false, extremely temporary, unhealthy or are the result of drug use (or all of the above).
As strength training continues to make gains in the Christian community, it is important to keep things in perspective. But to the critics of this new growth in interest, do not accuse the brethren of sins they are not guilty of. To pursue strength training is to reject the worldly way of indulging laziness, gluttony, and other sinful habits that have infiltrated the church with an inexplicable tacit seal of approval from evangelical elites.
If you have read this article and are seething with rage against men desiring to pursue strength, I implore you to ask yourself why. If you feel conviction for your own lifestyle or if you believe this goal is beyond you as a man, there are many of us willing to help you. Next time someone on Twitter brings it up, instead of lashing out, ask them for their advice on how to get started. You too can be strong. It is your birthright to pursue strength, son of man. The world wants you weak and sick. The Lord wants you strong and courageous. Let’s get after it.
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