03/25/2014 02:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2014

Christ's Body Suffering on the Cross(Fit)

This month saw the kickoff of the 2014 CrossFit Games Open, the first of a three-stage competition to determine the "Fittest Man on Earth" and the "Fittest Woman on Earth." One omnipresent image from this annual competition features an intense-looking, muscular young man named Rich Froning -- who is to CrossFit what Michael Jordan is to basketball -- his victorious arm in the air revealing a tattoo down his side that reads, "GALATIANS 6:14." That Scripture says, "But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

Froning is an avowed Christian who happily shares his faith experience with anyone who asks. He even wrote a book about it. "I found my purpose in living to glorify God, not in competing to bring glory to myself," he writes in First: What It Takes to Win. "Discovering my purpose didn't make me a better, stronger and faster athlete, but it did free me to become a better, stronger, and faster athlete -- the athlete God created me to be."

He's not alone. Chris Spealler, who is also among the CrossFit elite, is open about his faith. As is Andrea Ager, an elite female CrossFit athlete. Dan Bailey, another top athlete and Froning's training partner, asks rhetorically, "What am I really doing this for? Am I doing this for money and fame? Or am I doing this to worship my God with the gift that I have? That's the mindset that I always want to have when I'm doing it."

The point is not that CrossFit is just for Christians. People from all faith traditions are represented at the CrossFit Games Open, including those of no faith. But the fact that Christianity is so openly aligned with the CrossFit community is remarkable. An upcoming CrossFit event, for example, is titled, "Iron Sharpens Iron" (Proverbs 27:17) and promises attendees will "Learn how your faith can bring renewed purpose to your athletic performance, profession and relationships, and steer you in the direction God desires for your life." And even absent deliberate references to religion, CrossFit is drenched in Christian understands of self-sacrifice (armed service men and women are revered) and the redemptive value of physical suffering.

These Christian CrossFitters have hit on something of which even 2,000 years of Catholic theology has only scratched the surface. While most Scriptural references to, and theology surrounding, the human body relate to sexual morality, perhaps they can also be understood in the context of health, fitness and wellness.

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?" writes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6: 19-20. Building on Paul the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "The human body shares in the dignity of 'the image of God': it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that it is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit" (CCC 364).

Calling the body a "temple" is no glib cliché. Catholic theologian Scott Hahn explains the Jewish and first century Christian understanding of the Temple. "First, the Temple was the embodiment of God's covenant with David. ... Second, the Temple was the dwelling place of God's 'name,' his 'glory,' and finally, God himself. ... Finally, a new Temple, often with divine properties, is a central feature of the eschatology of some of the prophets" (Scott Hahn, "Temple, Sign, and Sacrament: Toward a New Perspective on the Gospel of John," Letter & Spirit, Vol. 4, pp. 109 - 111).

Christians understand that "new Temple with divine properties" to be Jesus Christ. Jesus himself spoke of his body as the new Temple (John 2: 19-21). And Paul says, "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" (1 Cor 6: 15) In other words, we are Christ's body, the Temple. And we are "obligated to regard [our] body as good and to hold it in honor" (Gaudium et spes 14) and "glorify God in your body" (1 Cor 6: 20).

What if fitness, properly understood, is actually a form of worship? What if we could build God's kingdom in part through exercise? These Christian CrossFitters are onto something.