by Rick Barry
This article first appeared in FrontLine • May/June 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
The winter when two friends invited Tony Risser [not his real name] to lift weights with them, he had no clue how greatly it would affect his life. But because Tony had been a cross-country runner since his school days, he appreciated the benefits of fitness. He also knew from articles in Runner’s World magazine that upper-body strength improves running endurance, so he was immediately gung-ho.
“Let’s do it!” he agreed.
On that first night with the basement weight set, Tony felt out of place. Unlike his two friends, he had never seriously lifted weights. Of course, like many boys in high school, he had played around with the universal machine in the gym, but he had never noticed any benefit from it.
“All through school I was a tall, skinny kid,” he says with a grin. “I actually tried to gain weight in high school and couldn’t. People used to tag me with nicknames like ‘Stringbean.’ I didn’t like it, but it seemed I was powerless to change the situation.”
Good-bye, Mr. Stringbean
However, week after week Tony and his buddies continued their basement workouts. Before long, Tony mastered the lingo of bench presses, military presses, standing rows, sets and reps, plus the anatomy of triceps, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, pectorals, and other muscles. He also learned how to stress muscle groups efficiently to achieve a satisfying “burn,” the stinging sensation in muscles that have been forced to maximum output. Experiencing definite increases in strength encouraged Tony to drive harder, pushing to conquer ever-greater weights.
“After a couple of months, I began to wonder what in the world my wife was doing to my shirts,” Tony says with a laugh. “I thought she was ruining them in the laundry. When I fastened the top button to put on a tie, my collars were getting tighter. Across my chest, the fabric looked stretched, and the buttons puckered. I assumed she was doing something wrong and shrinking my clothes.”
“It’s not my fault,” Tony’s wife defended. “You’re the one putting on the muscles. Haven’t you looked in a mirror lately?”
Then, examining himself in the bedroom mirror, Tony was genuinely astonished to realize that his formerly skinny frame was actually gaining mass. Instead of the beanpole he used to see in the reflection, his new image displayed a touch of the “V” shape he admired in bodybuilders. His chest and arms were also showing more definition. Of course, he had known that he was growing stronger, but he had been “Stringbean” for so long that he had given up any hopes of being anything else.
Encouraged by that discovery, Tony added extra workouts to his weekly sessions. When winter yielded to springtime and his two friends grew tired of the ritual, Tony was just getting started. He enrolled in a fitness club and pressed forward on his own.
“I also began subscribing to a couple weightlifting magazines,” Tony adds. “Being a Christian, I was embarrassed at first that the magazines pictured female weightlifters in skimpy outfits. But before long I got used to it. As more time passed—and I hate to confess this—I began sneaking peeks at those same photos.”
“I didn’t realize it at the time,” Tony explains, “but my main goal for exercising had stopped being health and physical fitness. Instead, I wanted to look strong and be admired for my appearance. I felt proud when I wore a Tshirt and friends made comments like, ‘Wow, you’re really bulking up!’”
On another occasion, Tony says, a woman at the gym walked over just to compliment him on his build. “I’d never considered myself great looking, so the attention went to my head. I was still no candidate for the cover of Muscle & Fitness—not by a long shot. But I was no longer a fence post, either.”
In a moment of reflection, Tony shares how bodybuilding also affected how he viewed other people: “I’d meet someone and rather than thinking, ‘He seems like a nice guy,’ or ‘I should share my faith with him,’ I’d mentally criticize him for having wimpy-looking arms or a flat chest. Or I’d glance at a woman and tell myself how much better she would look if only she would work out on a legcurl machine. In other words, I became disconnected from truly important issues and was thinking in superficial terms of appearance. Sure, I still prayed and read my Bible. But I was so caught up in external values that I wasn’t getting as much out of them as I did before.”
Tony’s wife was the one who finally helped him to realize the transformation going on inside of him. For a while he had tried to brush aside her worries about his weight lifting. But one day she blurted, “You’re different! All you think about is working out and how you look. I see you admiring yourself in the mirror all the time. You’re not the same person I married!”
Tony didn’t immediately believe his wife’s arguments. On the other hand, he couldn’t deny that he was spending more time on strengthening his body than in fortifying his soul. In the past he had looked in mirrors mainly to shave, comb his hair, or put on a tie. Now he frequently paused in front of one to look for new gains in size. For him, eternal values had slipped aside only to be replaced by temporary, less-important ones. He no longer felt close to God, not even in church.
“Lord, how did I get here?” Tony finally prayed in the solitude of his bedroom. “I know spiritual things are the most important, but I haven’t been acting like it. I’ve been too full of myself to care about You or other people. I want You to occupy first place in my life again.”
Today, Tony still exercises, but not to the degree he once did, and with more wholesome motivation: simply to keep his body in good health. “I’ve gone back to my running, and I lift weights just once a week at home—without the inspiration of muscle magazines. I do believe in physical fitness. The Lord gives each of us only one body, and I want to be a good steward of the one God gave me. But spiritual fitness is even more crucial.”
Tony believes the lesson he learned is important for all Christians, both men and women. Why? “Because our society emphasizes temporary, outer appearance rather than lasting, inner attractiveness. People are so worried about how they look in the eyes of other people. Instead, we should be concerned about how we look in the Lord’s eyes. After all, the beauty that comes from purity and holiness is the only kind that never wrinkles or grows flabby.” What is Tony’s favorite Bible verse? “That’s easy,” he replies. “Matthew 6:33, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness. . . .’ When you give first priority to God and His kingdom, everything else in life just falls into its proper place.”
At the time of original publication, Rick Barry was a freelance writer living in Bristol, Indiana. He was also an editor for FrontLine magazine.