What Is Soul-Care?
Daily we are saturated with images and information about our bodies. At the checkout line, we see racks of magazines devoted to our style, our health, our weight, our makeup, filled from cover to cover with pictures of models and celebrities photoshopped to perfection. We are obsessed with ensuring our bodies are healthy and beautiful and in tip-top shape.
A Time Magazine article entitled, “Is Our Obsession with Health Data Making Us Crazy?” says, “In a culture where wellness junkies use apps, websites and wearables to monitor every morsel that passes their lips, every step they take, every beat of their hearts, their sleep cycles, and their fitness progress, we have health insights we’ve never had before. But … these boundless data can contribute to a culture of health anxiety.” The article cites personal testimonials as well as professional statistics to show that our fitness craze is making us crazy. We focus on physical health to the detriment of our mental and emotional health. But the article misses one other aspect: we focus on physical health to the detriment of our spiritual health. That is the great issue with our bodily obsession as a society: we have forgotten the soul.
The Limited Value of the Healthy Body
1 Timothy 4:8 is important for us to hear and reflect upon in this regard: “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.” Paul could have written this verse yesterday.
Notice what Paul does not say here. He does not say that bodily training is of no value, nor does he say it’s of all value. He strikes a balance. In his day there were groups that held to both ends of that spectrum. In the religious world, you had a Jewish sect known as the Essenes who rejected all kinds of physical pleasure. This developed into a Christian heresy known as gnosticism, which said anything physical or earthly was bad and anything spiritual was good.
But Paul also aims the contemporary obsession with the gymnasium. In Ancient Greece, the gymnasium functioned as a training facility for competitors in public games, like the Olympics and various marathons and triathlons. Moreover, the strict rule was that these games were performed in the nude–which meant that not only was fitness promoted here but also bodily aesthetics. To them, the body was everything. Paul was correcting that.
We need to strike the same balance as Paul. We should not neglect the needs of the body or downplay the importance of physical health. Nor should we ignore the needs of the soul for the sake of focusing on the body. We can’t be dissected like that. To be human is not to be body plus a soul, or a soul plus a body. It’s to be body and soul. Hence, the biblical reasons for caring for the body all come back to the spiritual realm (e.g., Gen. 1:27, 1 Cor 6:19-20).
If we emphasize physical fitness and health, we might get something out of that. There is some value. But it’s limited. A healthy body is no guarantee of heaven. Jesus teaches us this same lesson when He says, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Jesus urges us to care for the soul, just as Paul does in this verse.
The Limitless Value of the Healthy Soul
In contrast to the limited value of bodily health, Paul says that spiritual health–“godliness”–is of limitless value. First, he says that “[godliness] holds promise for the present life.” “Life” here doesn’t mean mere existence. It’s referring to something much richer than that: real, true, spiritual life. Godliness promises life to the fullest today. One 17th-century pastor said it like this: “godliness puts a man in heaven before his time.” Or in other words, the Christian doesn’t have to wait for eternity to experience the benefits and blessings of eternity. We have the down-payment of heaven–the Holy Spirit–indwelling our hearts right now.
Second, Paul says that godliness extends a promise “also for the life to come.” A life centered on God in this world guarantees a life with God in the next. What a promise! Physical fitness promises a lot of things, too, but nothing for the life to come. The problem with our body-obsessed culture is that it is near-sighted. We fail to recognize that there is something beyond this place and this stuff. People will give all of their time and their money to become fit, but never once tend to their soul. They might have perfectly toned muscles, a coveted BMI, healthy skin, great hair–but to not have Christ, it’s all meaningless. No amount of physical training can prepare one to stand up against the judgment of Almighty God on the Last Day, or to withstand the pains of Hell forever.
We could go on and on about the benefits of spiritual health. We will know joy even in times of sorrow, we will be kept steadfast under trial (James 1:2-3), we will be better equipped to love our neighbors (2 Peter 1:7), we will have the company of God’s Holy Spirit no matter where life may take us. No amount of time at the gym can give us these things. Truly, “godliness is profitable for all things” (KJV). But above all, godliness out-measures bodily training because it extends from this world into the next–its benefits have no expiration date. Godliness promises life–real, true, spiritual life–both in the here and now as well as the hereafter.
This reality should prioritize the way we approach the care of the body and soul. We may never skip our morning jog but will go weeks without reading Scripture. We would never dare miss our weekly soccer league, but if it coincides with the church’s weekly prayer meeting, so what? Like the Greeks of Paul’s day, sports are so important to us that we just assume they should get the priority on Sunday, whether that means participating in them actively or watching them passively from our sofa. “Sure, church is important, but coach will only let me play if I’m at every game,” we tell ourselves. Or, “Sure, church is important, but it’s the Super Bowl.” There are those of us who would never allow processed food or something inorganic to enter our lips, but we’ll indulge our souls with gossip, jealousy, or anger. We make sure our hygienic products are free of parabens, phthalates, or petrochemicals, but a little graphically sexual or violent media intake here or there won’t hurt anyone.
We need to let the Spirit speak to us and challenge our priorities through this brief but weighty verse. Paul wants us to take that kind of zeal that we have for things that are of little value and put it into things that are of value in every way. That’s the meaning of godliness, or spiritual health: dedication and zeal for God in all things. When we do this with joy and contentment, we know we will have that “great gain” of godliness (1 Timothy 6:6): life in this world and the world to come.