Heavy Faith, Healthy Bodies

by Gary Thomas

About six feet tall and weighing in at 165 pounds, I entered a conference for professional football players and their wives. That stat alone will tell you I was there as a speaker, not as a player. When these players are on the football field, surrounded only by each other, they don’t look quite as gigantic as they are in real life. I felt like a scrawny half-man in comparison.

Three months later, I found myself in an elevator with an elite Kenyan marathoner. About my height, he weighed 25 to 30 pounds less than me. As he moved off the elevator with all the grace of an athlete who is trained to run very fast for a very long time. I looked down at myself and said, “Gary, you’ve got to start passing up the burgers and begin eating more salads…”

In one situation, I felt ridiculously small, even thin; in the other, I felt heavy and undisciplined, even though my weight was identical in both situations. The same body created two entirely different impressions. The environment in which I found myself made me look at myself quite differently.

In fact, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that obesity is “socially contagious.” Your social environment has a tremendous impact on your own journey of either gaining or losing weight. When your close friends, siblings, or spouse slowly gain weight, you are likely to follow. The reverse appears to be true as well: when those around you lose weight, you are much more likely to be motivated to lose weight yourself.

Perhaps that’s what has happened with Christians, especially given recent studies finding that Christians tend to be heavier than non-believers. When everyone around us in our church communities is just as heavy, or even a little bit heavier than we are, we think we’re doing fine—regardless of our true condition. We’ve succumbed to “socially contagious obesity,” and don’t even think to question it.

When Christians do address weight loss and physical fitness, we frequently try to do so with the same faulty motivation that those outside the church do: we want to feel and/or look better. While there’s nothing wrong with these desires as secondary motivations, they are still self-centered, and most of us have found that we’re not vain enough or even selfish enough to stay fit purely out of selfishness.

As Christians, however, there is a much higher calling before us: stewardship of the one body God has given us. The central biblical passage for Christians and body care is 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

What the apostle Paul is saying is really quite radical for this day and age: we don’t own our bodies; they are not ours to abuse or care for according to our own perceived wants or desires. On the contrary, not only did God create us; he paid a high price to redeem us. And when he redeemed us, he didn’t just redeem our souls; he redeemed our bodies and claims them for his use as well. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Do today’s Christians have any sense that our bodies don’t belong to us? That caring for our bodies—eating appropriately, getting sufficient exercise—isn’t a matter of what we’re willing to live with, but rather a matter of discipleship and obedience? What if exercise and discipline in eating isn’t as much about physical health as it is about honoring the God who made us?

What if it’s also about protecting our mission? In his letter to Timothy, Paul talks of believers who, cleansing themselves from inferior motivations, will be “instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. (2 Timothy 2:20–21) How can we be “prepared” for any good work if our bodies are slowed down or fully absorbed with fighting preventable disease?

In the world’s view, taking care of our bodies is about becoming an ornament, creating something for others to admire. For the Christian, it’s about becoming an instrument: we realize that God has given each Christian a unique and important calling, and that this calling can only be carried out through the one body God has entrusted us with. If we smoke our lungs into oblivion, eat our way into high blood pressure, diabetes, or a heart attack, we sabotage the vehicle through which God longs to reach the world and build his church. If we don’t take our bodies seriously, by extension we’re not taking our mission in life seriously either. If our bodies break down our mission will follow.

Fitness from the world’s perspective glorifies the young, the strong, and the beautiful—it’s all about polishing the ornament. But the Bible exalts the wisdom and character of the elderly, recognizing that life experience, character, training our minds to understand Scripture, and learning to surrender our souls to the work of the Holy Spirit are all essential traits of maturity, and all of these take decades to fully develop.

If we make poor health choices in our twenties, thirties, and forties, we may sabotage our future ministry just when we will have the most life experience, training, and wisdom in our fifties, sixties and seventies (and beyond). This isn’t just about longevity, however. It’s also about energy and vitality of life. Some years ago, a young man who had heard me speak five years prior came up to me after a presentation and said, “Gary, what’s happened to you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You look younger today than you did five years ago, and you speak with twice the energy.”

By paying more attention to my body, I had become a more effective instrument with which to serve God—one that is hopefully holding a more mature mind and heart. Some Christians pit body against soul, or else see them as disconnected. I believe Scripture teaches that self-discipline is a single battle with both physical and spiritual ramifications. Getting in shape physically can make me spiritually stronger. In the same way, growing spiritually gives me strength to be more disciplined physically.

Many diseases are genetically based and under the providence of God. We can’t control them and aren’t accountable to avoid them. But there are other bodily ills that are entirely the result of our poor choices or lethargy. In these areas, are we being good stewards of the bodies God has given us? If we truly believed (as Scripture teaches) that our bodies don’t belong to us, would we treat them any differently? Would we want to “return” a body that is badly out of shape and sorely neglected? Or would we desire to present a finely tuned instrument, one that may be getting older and slower and even, to a certain extent, gradually heavier and worn out, but also one that is wiser, more surrendered, and eager to complete the work God has given us to do?

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