In Him We Live and Move
Stewarding a Body in Sedentary Times
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
When’s the last time you paused to ponder the wonder of feet? Not just their oddness and elegance, but the fact that humans have them at all. Unlike plants and trees, we are not tethered in place by roots. We are not left to wait for the world to come to us. Rather, we can go into the world — indeed we have been commissioned to do so — to step, to walk, to run, to dance, to move.
What about the wonder of human hands? Not only do we move about the world, but as we do, we can reach, extend, grasp, touch. We put our hands to work, lifting, tearing, cutting, building, pushing, pulling.
No material entity in God’s created world is more complex, more fascinating, more marvelous, more valuable than human life — which God designed to specially image himself in his world. And alongside breathing and eating and thinking and feeling and speaking, one of the great basics of human life is movement. Bodily activity is so basic, so obvious, often so assumed, that we easily overlook what a superpower it is.
And yet, movement is one vital aspect of our enduring human nature that our present age threatens to undermine.
Our Sedentary World
Few today would disagree that we are living in a sedentary age — and perhaps shockingly so when compared to generations and centuries before. One great downside of the exponential burst of modern technologies is that our bodies, and their movement and activity, seem to matter less and less.
Citing Andy Crouch, Steven Wedgeworth notes,
Much of what we call “technology” does not actually help us to become more productive at our work but rather does our work for us. While claiming to help us become more efficient, this sort of technology actually trains us to do little or nothing at all.
We have cars, and walk much less. We have machines and other “labor-saving” devices, and use our hands far less. We have screens, and move less. And added to that, in our prosperity and decadence, food and (sugar) drinks are available to us like never before. Unless we break the cycle, we consume more and more, work our hands and feet less and less, and then find it harder and harder to lift our own weight off the couch when some physical activity beckons. Walking up a stairway becomes a mental barrier. Taking out the trash can feel difficult.
We still move, of course — we must. But many of us have been conditioned by society and our own lazy impulses to move as little as possible. Economy of bodily movement has become a trend of modern life, and (excepting the fitness-as-god industry) many of us have bought in without giving it much thought. And to the degree that our default has become to move as little as possible (previous generations would have called us lazy), rather than move freely, we are undermining or eroding several essential dynamics in the Christian life. Our sedentary age is of not just human concern, but Christian concern.
Move = Live
The very first chapter of the Bible notes how basic movement is to life: living creatures move (Genesis 1:21, 28; 7:21; 8:19; Leviticus 11:46; Ecclesiastes 4:15), and moving creatures live (Genesis 9:3). So also in the Psalms, movement and life go together (Psalm 50:11; 69:34; 80:13). For King David, it was a burden, not a blessing, that “he could not move about freely” as he hid from Saul (1 Chronicles 12:1). And across Israel’s history, it was a mark of the emptiness and vanity of idols that they “will not move” (Isaiah 40:20; 41:7; 46:7; Jeremiah 10:4).
At Mars Hill, the apostle Paul approvingly quotes Epimenides of Crete, who said, “In him we live and move” — and we should take live and move here as synonyms rather than as two distinct verbs. There is a telling third verb in the sequence: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). For humans, in typical circumstances, to live and have our being is to move.
God made us to move. Even an act so basic as breathing requires movement, as does eating. But beyond that, as we’ve seen, God gave us hands to work and feet to move, in order that we might do far more than breathe and eat.
Consider, then, three reasons why bodily movement is critical for Christians who have been spared the tragedy of disability, and find themselves able to move and live less sedentary lives.
1. To Image God
First, God made us to move for his glory. He created us “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). We were made to be monuments to God’s strength and beauty, but not stationary statues. Instead, we are living, breathing, speaking, working, moving images of God himself, representing him, going out in his created world to display his glory here and there, and there, and there. He thought it best that his images not be fixed to the ground, but to move around.
God has his spectacular ways of glorifying himself through disability. But in general, movement in some form becomes the occasion of imaging him in the world. To draw honor to him, we present our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). Like King David, and Christ himself, we receive the body he has prepared for us as our vessel for doing his will (Hebrews 10:5–7; Psalm 40:6–8). And Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” in our bodies (1 Peter 2:24). As the apostle Paul rehearses, “The body is . . . for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Corinthians 6:13); therefore, “glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20), as Paul himself eagerly expected and hoped that “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20).
As one example of human movement in a Bible chock full of it, consider the life of Christ, the very “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4), who lived perfectly to the glory of his Father (John 17:4, 6, 26). Even a cursory reading of the Gospels makes it plain that he did not live anything close to the sedentary life that tempts us today.
Even apart from the obvious — no cars, no trains, no planes, no screens, no phones, no clocks, along with no modern medicine or processed foods — Jesus walked everywhere he went. He moved around a lot, as did all able, working-class humans in the ancient world. When traveling, a day’s journey would have been 20–25 miles (essentially walking a marathon), and when not traveling, he would have easily walked 5 miles (10,000 steps) or more doing his daily work, on his feet most of the day.
And he didn’t just move his feet but his hands. Jesus worked construction for decades as a common tradesman. And even when he came to suffer and die, after almost being whipped to death, he carried his own crossbeam some distance before collapsing. And yet, though he was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, we get the impression again and again that he was deeply happy and emotionally stable — happy enough to show compassion, and control his sorrow and anger. At least such normal, daily movement meant his emotional health wasn’t encumbered by a sedentary lifestyle. Which leads to a second reason.
2. To Jumpstart Joy
Going back to Aristotle and to Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ, humans have long observed that we are happier when we’re moving, or have moved. Hippocrates not only said, “Eating alone will not keep a man well; he also must take exercise,” but he also treated depression with a long walk. And if that didn’t seem to help right away, he advised taking another. “Walking is the best medicine.”
God made our bodies to be healthier and happier when they move. Moving limbs increases heart rate and helps to circulate blood, moving hormones and nutrients through the body to where they need to be — including the brain — for optimal physical, mental, and emotional health.
Even in the nineteenth century, prior to the great explosion of sedentary inventions in the twentieth, the famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon commented on the power of movement to help human spirits: “A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best” (Lectures to My Students, 160). Movement alone will not create spiritual joy, but many Christians have found that it can help. In the mysterious connection between body and spirit, food and sleep and exercise (or lack thereof) have the ability to buoy or drag down our spiritual affections. Rightly does pastor Mark Jones write for fellow pastors, and for all of us,
Physical exertion is an important part of normal human life. . . . Overeating, as the fruit of a generally indulgent lifestyle, has become a tragically acceptable sin among many Christians in North America. I’m also equally persuaded that a lot of pastors should jump on a bike, go for a run, walk, or build some modest muscle, and they’d likely get more work done. A lack of discipline in areas such as food, exercise, and drink typically reflects a lack of discipline in other areas of the Christian life. . . . Exercise is a friend of the Christian, and one that, unless prohibited by health reasons, should be part of the ordinary Christian life.
And getting “more work done” leads, for now, to a third and final reason.
3. To Do Others Good
Christians can appreciate the modern term fitness. To call an active, able, healthy human body fit implies that the body is not an end in itself. The goal of fitness is not to look good in the mirror or on Instagram. True fitness means our bodily ability serves other purposes. The body is fit to do something. The question is, Fit for what?
In Christ, we have far better answers to that question than secular workout culture. Twice Paul uses a phrase that could be our rallying cry for genuine fitness in Christ: “ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1). In Christ, we want to cleanse our bodies “from what is dishonorable” (sin) and “be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). We want to be ready. Ready with hands and arms, not too bulky and not too flabby, that can reach and lift and pull and push. Ready with feet and legs that feel life and energy in every step. Ready with minds and hearts and wills that would rather move than lounge, rather get up and go than just sit there at a screen, rather move into the world and work to help people than calculate how we might move as little as humanly possible.
In Christ, in the service of love, we want to get (and keep) our bodies, in their various seasons of life, in good enough shape that they serve God’s callings on our lives to love others. We want to be the kind of people that want to do good for others, knowing that such good often requires exerting our bodies in ways that are uncomfortable to lazy people. Which leads to a final question and challenge.
Move the Needle
What is your default posture on life? Is your mindset mainly passive and sedentary, or active and moving? Do you think of yourself as mainly stationary, unless moved by some great force into action? Or do you think of yourself as active, moving, working, sometimes beckoned to stop or sit to address some particular task?
And might some movement of your default somehow serve your spiritual joy, the glory of God, and the good of others? What if, over time, you sought to cultivate a different mindset and reorient your life from passive to active, from sedentary to moving?
If you’re in a passive and sedentary state right now, such a change may seem imponderable. Your energy feels low, and you may think that means you need to do less, not more. But God made these bodies to move, and for expending energy to produce more energy. Perhaps your energy is low because you have been moving so little. It may be that you need to first expend what little energy you have in some good work, and then rest later, and learn to increase your capacity over time. And with it, cultivate a new (and countercultural) mindset that movement, activity, work, exertion is not the devil, but rather, in the power of the Spirit, it is God’s call on us for defeating the devil.
In a world of sin and tragedy, it is a wonder to have able hands and feet and bodies. Let’s steward what God has given us — the most remarkable material object in all of creation.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.