John Wesley: Balancing Physical and Spiritual Health

Country: England
Born: June 17, 1703
Died: March 2, 1791
Religion: Methodist
Anglican minister John Wesley founded the Methodist Movement. He emphasized the need for both personal piety and social justice; that there was “no holiness, but social holiness” and that our faith could not be lived in isolation.

During Lent one year when I was in college, a group of us began to meet in the chapel early in the morning with the hope of creating a more disciplined life. We sought to experience the sense of accountability nurtured by John Wesley and others of the Holy Club, a group he and his brother and others participated in, seeking to grow in their faith and serve God fully. We too hoped to live a life of practicing our faith more fully. We met early, sought to pray, study scriptures, hold ourselves accountable, serve the poor, and exercise. We sought to be both spiritually and physically fit.

Wesley had an understanding of God’s grace and salvation that was centered in a lifetime journey of growing closer to God and one another as sisters and brothers in faith. When Wesley looked around, he saw that those who claimed to have faith inwardly did not seem to live faith outwardly. This observation inspired Wesley’s definition of salvation: “By salvation I mean not (according to the vulgar notion) deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health… the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.”

People may have orthodox belief, and yet not have orthopraxis. How we live is just as important as what we believe. Holiness is about wholeness and a holistic approach to life. At every moment, Wesley wanted believers to feel the presence of God in every part of their lives. He believed spiritual holiness calls us also to live into physical wholeness. Wesley wrote a well-publicized book entitled Primitive Physick where he gave advice and offered remedies for illnesses. A balanced diet, exercise and proper rest, with all things in their appropriate degree, were important to this holistic way of looking at health. In one letter Wesley shared, “Exercise, especially as the spring comes on, will be of greater service to your health than a hundred medicines.”

Our daily covenant group met all through Lent that year. We’d gather early in the morning for prayer and singing. We would walk together, eat together, and work on mission projects. So often something like Lent, or the beginning of a new year, will get us motivated to think holistically about our health, to think preventatively and order our lives in proper self care and the caretaking of our souls.

Today, as a pastor, I recognize that the health of most clergy is some of the worst compared to other careers. As a bunch, we are often overweight, burnt out and poor at our own self care. What would Wesley think of us? As I prepare to watch the Olympics with my family and we discuss the dedication and perseverance of Olympic athletes, I consider how we may be spiritual athletes for Christ. How can we practice our faith and live it out knowing that Christ cares about our bodies and our souls?

During seminary, I began practicing crossing myself in prayer, using prayer beads, praying the labyrinth, and doing walking prayers. These practices gave me comfort knowing that God cared for all of me and I responded with all of me to God’s grace. I long for the days in high school and college when I would run for miles in the woods, breathing in the smells of nature, observing God at work in both the unfathomable depths and the intricacies around me. I would feel my heart race knowing that God, who started the rhythm in my heart, drummed that same rhythm faster in those moments.

It is not Lent, it is not the start of a new year, but watching the Olympics brings me motivation to run the race with perseverance, to recall that my body is a temple, and grow in my faith — body, mind, and soul. May God’s grace work healing in you and bring healing to a broken world. May we all overflow with healing wholeness and grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.