Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Losing Cause

“Physical training is of some benefit, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for the present life and the life to come.” —1 Timothy 4:8

The last few decades have seen radically changing notions of physical attractiveness and desirability here in the West. People are now required to be thinner than God intended them to be. 

It may have something to do with the fond, impossible hope that exercise and diet will enable us to live forever, which tells me that our obsession with exercise and weight loss is mostly an effort to stave off death forever. Or, in turn, it may be a consequence of modern/post-modern thought: As our cultural concerns have shifted from a focus on eternal, spiritual realities, matter (the only other reality) has taken over.

Everything now is about the body, a perspective that has produced an obsession with exercise, eating and non-eating that has resulted in an alarming spate of emotional disorders and a large number of men and women that hate their bodies.  The sad reality, however, is that this cultural hang-up over sagging muscles and surplus cellulite is short-lived. It’s one of those changing fads that have characterized human society from the beginning of time, a fashion of this world that is “passing away.” At the next turn the world may be demonizing the thin.

Unfortunately, some elements of the Church have bought into this extreme and dangerous fixation with fitness and thinness. We now hear that physical appearance is a spiritual issue and that thinness, not cleanliness, is the next thing to godliness. In some cases it is godliness. Witness the Christian industry that has developed around that preoccupation: thinning DVDs and tapes that equate weight loss with spiritual gain, dozens of Christian books offering advice on gluttony designed to help the poor self-loathing, overweight Christian recover, books with titles like Slim for Him, and the impossibly absurd, Firm Believer.

(Here’s a gratuitous thought: The problem with weight is that it’s visible, written large (so to speak) on the surface. I can’t think of any other so-called “sin” that’s so obvious. That’s why it’s easy to select out people that struggle with weight and label them unspiritual. We can hide sins of lust, greed, envy, and pride. One wonders what we would look like if our real sins came to the surface.)

As for gluttony, the word glutton (phagos) appears only twice in the NT and both times refers to a charge leveled against Jesus. Good company, I would say. The OT equivalent, zolel, is a word that means, “to be light,” or “worthless” and may not have anything to do with eating. (The best translation would be something like, “wastrel.”) My point is that Bible says little about gluttony, however much we may emphasis it. As far as I know, Pope Gregory the Great was the first to suggest that gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. He defined gluttony as eating “too soon, too delicately, too expensively, too greedily and too much. In other words, gluttony is a preoccupation with eating.  The principle sin of gluttony resides in its nature as idolatry: Those who are obsessed with non-eating are as guilty of gluttony as those who live to eat. In the most literal sense, their God is their belly (Philippians 3:19).

I recently read that there’s a mounting body of evidence that the size to which our bodies grow is largely a genetic matter and some people are coded to be overweight, at least by current standards. For some people, a 30-pound weight loss is biologically impossible. Apparently, God puts into us the DNA for our body type and we may be fighting a losing battle (no pun intended) by trying to lose weight and become thinner than he intended us to be.

Here’s my best thought: Forget about it. If you’re doing all you can do to stay healthy—getting a reasonable amount of exercise and using restraint in eating—it’s enough. Make it your preoccupation to pursue God and his righteousness, for “this holds promise for this life and the life to come.” And then give yourself to loving others. Love, not “slim,” is the greatest thing in the world.

In the meantime, may I remind you (tongue in cheek): “The fat belongs to the Lord” (Leviticus 13:16).


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