Mankind is a strange creature. C.S. Lewis, using the voice of Screwtape, refers to humans as “abominable hybrids,” beings both spiritual and physical. I would add a third category, mental – we exist in a meaningful sense, as Descartes would have it, because we are thinking entities. These components of being interact with each other in odd and sometimes unpredictable ways, but, for our purposes we will focus on the ways that their interactions can benefit us in our pursuits within the other modes. That is to say – we will explore how the spiritual can affect our physical and mental excellence, and vice-versa.
We will begin with the most immediately important aspect, and the one which gets the most play in the Church today – spirituality. The spiritual realm is the centerpiece of Christian life precisely because it is from the spirit – God – which all life comes. It stands to reason that getting spirituality right would therefore have the most notable impact on the other areas of our being. And so it is.
We’ll discuss mentality first. There is a great deal of upheaval in the West and a large majority of it stems from uncertainty of mind. This uncertainty is, almost universally, the result of a lack of direction and purpose. If there is no reason to do anything your natural momentum will prevent you from it, this is a historical fact and easily observable in your own life. It is precisely this clarity which a well-ordered spiritual life provides. Once we realize that the Kingdom is our ultimate end, the pursuit of which should be before us at all times. Having the correct aim, immediate actions which would materially aid that goal become apparent, as well as the motivation for achieving them. As men, we are specifically gifted for a particular task within the body and the broader world. We ascertain those gifts by appealing to the one who gave them to us – God. But, again, this fall into the category of sorting out the spiritual. Having determined our specific talents, the deeds which require them become obvious, either to us or to those in a position to tell us about them, and we can begin to engage with them.
Another aspect of mentality that can be bolstered by an orderly spiritual life is anxiety. Anxiety is, of course, an issue of great scope – the US alone spent over $200 billion in 2016 on psychiatric medication (which, granted, includes anti-depressants, among others). There’s a tenet of Stoicism which apprehends the matter nicely – “Amor Fati,” “The love of Fate.” It’s clear from the increasing dependence on drugs that we do not, in fact, love fate. We are, as a people, instead quite terrified by what’s coming. This is perfectly rational – we have no idea what’s in store, but is it reasonable? Not if we believe the Bible. The Bible frequently guarantees God’s unending work for the ultimate good of those that love Him (Romans 8:28 etc.). It is only by this promise that we can truly love that which we do not know – the future which awaits us. By genuinely believing this truth of scripture (that is, acting as if it were true) we can rest assured that what comes will be of benefit.
As for the physical benefits of a good spiritual life, I must admit, they are largely second order effects from the above mental benefits (unfortunately, no, you won’t get more gains from reciting the Lord’s Bro Prayer before lifting). The physical benefits of having purpose are largely the result of making progress towards the goals that that purpose will naturally impose upon you. For example, physical health is necessary to best leverage one’s talents in the service of the Church and, as such, milestones of strength, endurance, and fat loss become apparent. Achieving those milestones releases serotonin and other hormones beneficial to mood and cognitive performance. In the short term, there are also perceptible benefits to pursuing especially physical fitness. The research is increasingly clear that regular exercise is exceptionally good for performance in all arenas of human endeavor. As well, the reduction of anxiety produced by fully trusting in God reduces harmful hormonal production (such as that of cortisol, the stress hormone) further benefiting energy and every day performance.
Next, we will examine the effects the mental, or psychological, can have on the other aspects of being. First, let us describe how the intellectual realm influences our spiritual life. Reason as it approaches spirituality has a name – apologetics. This, therefore, is the most well-explored of our topics, so my treatment of it will be brief. It will be sufficient, I think, to merely define apologetics and move on: apologetics is the rational study of faith and its reasonable defense. It should be clear from this definition that the pursuit of apologetics can clarify any doubts or uncertainties that arise in our walk with God, and, in so doing, allow the beneficial effects of a well-ordered spiritual life to manifest.
To discuss the physical benefits that can be accrued from a good mental state, we must adopt a psychological mode. The concepts of integration and cognitive dissonance are central. Integration is the similarity or harmony of your worldview, values, and actions. Cognitive dissonance is the phenomenon of noticing that we are not, in fact, integrated. We can, therefore, see that when we act in accordance with our beliefs, we feel orderly and comfortable. Thus, if we choose to have good, empowering beliefs about ourselves, and we act in accordance with those beliefs, we are satisfying our desire for integration while simultaneously positively pursuing a good goal. It is this concept that gave rise to the popular “power of positivity.” So, for example, if you believe that you are going to be successful in an endeavor, and you determine actionable steps that must be achieved in order to do so, and act on those steps, you will satisfy your need for your beliefs and actions to be aligned while also actually making progress towards the goal which you have set yourself. Conversely, you can have negative integration – you can believe bad things about yourself and then, because it is in our nature to harmonize our beliefs and actions, you will begin to act as if that bad thing were true about you. This can manifest in bad behavior even if the thing believed is, indeed, true. Take an introvert who uses his personality as an excuse to avoid social interaction and therefore become socially inept, thus missing out on a wealth of opportunities of every kind.
Physical benefits to mental health are being increasingly shown in clinical trials. These effects range from simply feeling happier (a result of the production of “feel good” hormones like endorphins) to reducing chronic psychological disorders like schizophrenia. More importantly, perhaps, is the psychological effect of doing something to improve yourself. The positive emotions generated by self-improvement and the mere act of exercising regularly create a positive feedback loop that makes it easier and more rewarding to continue the behaviors which result in these effects. This is most strongly felt regarding physical activities due to the effects such activity has on the brain directly, but it exists generally for all habits of improvement.
The spiritual aspect of our nature is, even more than the psychological, considered distinct from the physical. This perception is most clearly shown in the casual way we approach physical acts of worship. We approach the Lord of the universe as if we were equals, with no reverence in our posture whatsoever. This strikes me as odd. Why would the Church claim that surrender is the ultimate act of righteousness and sing that truth in a song that treats Jesus as a friend? There can be no question of friendship, which is a relationship of more or less equal partners, with the being that we claim to be our King, not only that, but the quintessential and ultimate King of kings. The solution is an old one and recalls the quote “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems.” In this case, the solution is a physical posture of submission. For example, praying while kneeling. Additionally, the habit of obedience in physical acts is rewarded by greater intimacy with God, Philippians 4:9 “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” And we see that God, through the Spirit, empowers us to obey his commands from Ezekiel 36:27 “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”
The above phenomenon of obedience and intimacy with God creating a feedback look reveals an interesting principle. This principle is called the “strange loops” and its most famous iteration is the question of whether the chicken or the egg came first. In its most basic form, strange loops are feedback systems with no obvious beginning. For example, it isn’t obvious whether someone who comes to faith in Christ did so on account of his God-given free will or if his heart must be softened by God before he could come to accept the truth of the scriptures. The effect is the same, but whether reason or divine intervention came first, and which cause affected which cannot be determined, even by the person in question. However, the original cause isn’t the important thing, it’s the effect that matters. In this case, the salvation of a soul. In the same way, whether faith or lifting weights is the primary cause of a feedback system of self-improvement, the improvement itself is a net good and can go on to cause revolutions of being in the other areas.