Swole Manhood Versus Godly Discipline: Against Therapeutic Dualism

Swole Manhood Versus Godly Discipline: Against Therapeutic Dualism February 24, 2020

Last week I observed on Twitter that men today are undisciplined in various ways. Here’s what I wrote:

Men today are often soft, weak, passive, unprotective.

But physical discipline is key for men. Hear Paul: “I batter my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor 9:27). Manhood shaped and powered by the gospel of grace is protective, sharp, watchful.

The man who is willfully soft physically is often soft spiritually.

Some folks on social media seemed to take this tweet as indicating that Christianity would have men strive to be “swole,” as the kids say. This was curious to me. First, it wasn’t what I said. Second, some commenters apparently think of “softness” as exclusively muscular in nature. In similar terms, they seem to construe “physical discipline” as equivalent to steroidal feats of strength in a sweaty gym, veins popping from a unitard-wearing Hulk Hogan wannabe bellowing misapplied Bible verses during his closing “big gainz” set.

What a telling take. Apparently Christian men today have only two options: either we pursue spiritual things alone or we end up a living GIF. While avoiding the real temptation to exalt and idolize the body (a serious sin!), I think there’s a third option: we see “physical discipline” as a part of holistic self-control of the Pauline kind. Physical discipline, after all, does not neatly equate to weight-lifting. Physical discipline in the context of 1 Corinthians 9:27 is broader than this: it refers to bodily self-control by the power of Christ in us. It certainly does not reduce neatly to gym activities; neither, however, does it signal disconnection from bodily mastery. Paul’s reference to body-battering—literally “I give my body a black eye” in the Greek—means not giving in to the flesh in various ways through the Spirit’s agency. Those who fail in this respect may have big muscles or they may not, but they are nonetheless “soft” in a spiritual and correspondingly physical sense (and need to read 1 Tim. 4:8).

As a man, the apostle Paul lived a life of self-discipline. Through God’s grace, he pursued the Lord closely in spiritual terms. His dedication to Christ manifested itself in a very demanding ministry schedule, one that involved tremendous physical suffering for the sake of the gospel (see 2 Corinthians 10:24-29). In his missionary journeys, Paul withstood abuse, hunger, near-drowning, beating, sleeplessness, and much more. He went through far more physical pain, hardship, suffering, and travail than most of us can imagine, let alone survive. Paul could only endure such trials by being ruthlessly disciplined. This is why he used a military term, ὑπωπιάζω, to describe his physical mastery: “I batter my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor. 9:27). He would not, in other words, be “disqualified” by an uncontrolled life. Indwelt by the Spirit, Paul simply refused to let the body and its natural appetites for sex, food, slothfulness, ease, and so on rule him. Though no superhuman man, Paul vowed that such common appetites would not master him. (“Weak” in verse 22, by the way, is spiritual weakness, not physical—think “weaker brother.”)

This is an explosive example. When we are saved, we are able to take spiritual dominion of our life. Once shooting off in every direction, we are now able by the Spirit’s power to pursue the Lord in a focused way through daily Bible intake and prayer. As God works in us, we find once-unruly bodily appetites coming under the dominion of Christ’s kingly rule. This is not a phenomenon unique to the body and bodily instincts, please note; all our life will experiences the gracious transformation wrought by regeneration. We won’t be soft—easily attackable by sin and Satan—in any area. We won’t spend money in the same way; we won’t work the same way; we won’t view the church the same way. The saved person is a transformed person, sanctified over years and years of Christian commitment.

Yet today physical discipline is sometimes disconnected from spiritual discipline. It’s not hard to see why. Many Americans are not in a wartime environment or a Great Depression in 2020; many of us live in a cozy, comfortable context. We are surrounded by creature comforts. Grown men can play hours and hours of video games and watch sporting events for huge blocks of time. In various ways, we can live in a kind of perpetual adolescence, never quite making the jump to adulthood and personal responsibility and self-control. We can grow fat, lazy, and weak in different senses and no one will challenge us. It is important to note that this is a willful weakness, a weakness that is as much a choice as is willful strength.

Our therapeutic self-help culture is happy to help here. It wraps us in gauzy affirmation, telling us we’re broken but fine, flawed yet unable to change, struggling but affirmed in everything we do. Truly, saying you have a “struggle” may be the ultimate trump card. While recognizing that we all must take up our cross daily, and that we are all desperately needy and fail daily, and that none of us can grow outside of divine aid, we must also admit that we are all tempted to be therapeutic now. The old moral categories of a traditional worldview are largely gone; what used to be a “sin” is now a “struggle.” The new self-help catechism is firmly in place, with the church existing to affirm us rather than graciously challenging, helping, and walking beside us.

Also at play in our rejection of “physical discipline” is an unacknowledged dualism. Supposedly dualism was the key error of our fundamentalist forebears. They separated the spiritual from the physical, we hear regularly, and so failed to appreciate God’s common grace gifts. Yet I fear some today are ironically making a similar mistake: in their theology, the body is separate from our identity, our desires are separate from our actions, and our physical appetites are separate from our spiritual communion. This mentality–call it “therapeutic dualism”–is precisely the opposite of Pauline spirituality. For Paul, the body is not distinct from godliness; the body is good, made by God, revealing our identity as a man or woman, and designed to display doxological Christianity (see 1 Cor. 6:18-20).

In the face of such a mentality, here is our call as Christians today: to pursue spiritual and physical discipline by the power of Christ in us (Rom. 8:10-11). We should not fall prey to the easy two-option framework some might trumpet. In other words, we should not think that Christians either pursue health in a steroidal way or dismiss bodily matters as adiaphora. Instead, we should prioritize spiritual growth and—as one outworking of this pursuit—secondarily pursue physical discipline (and bodily health and strength however much we can).

By divine aid, men in particular should reject spiritual and (secondarily) physical weakness. After all, we have a unique call per Ephesians 5:28 to love our wives “as our own bodies” and protect our loved ones (and others by extension). Seeing spiritual growth as important above all, we should work along these lines to “master” our body and its appetites through prayer, dependence on God, and corresponding self-control. Healthy theology of the soul, we see, drives a healthy theology of the body. We may not ripple with muscle, and we may even have real physical disadvantages that inhibit physical protection (no shame in this), but to the fullest possible extent we should seek to grow in physical discipline, readying ourselves to be protectors of women and children. We should train our sons in this way of life, anchoring the physical in the theological. (I make this case in my recent book Reenchanting Humanity.)

Men today should hear the call of Christ in the ancient words of Paul. This is not a summons to law-keeping; this is a gospel-powered shout through the ages that men, like all believers (men and women alike), must hear. Of course, we all will falter here; we all must confess sin and continually “press upward” in Christ, offering one another real encouragement, counsel, love, hope, kindness, and admonition (Phil. 3:14). We are all very much a work in progress, and should extend the same hand to others that we ourselves need. We must also remember that Satan craves undisciplined men. If men are undisciplined in a holistic sense (including physical discipline), the church will not raise up righteous elders. If the church does not raise up elders, it will be spiritually soft, forming an easy target for wolves and false teachers. If it is an easy target for the wicked, then Satan will succeed in compromising the congregational holiness of Christ’s blood-bought people, and disciples will not be made. The stakes are very high indeed.

Physical discipline does not equate neatly to huge bench-pressing moments shared on Instagram. What a goofy conclusion! But physical discipline—encompassing control over the body, its appetites, and the rejection of willful weakness—is an important part of godliness in general and godly manhood in particular. Let’s not be willfully weak. Let’s not be therapeutic dualists, excusing our failings by disdaining the body. Let’s be God-captivated, gospel-powered Christians who strive to honor God with our life, with our body, with every second we have on this earth.

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