Sweaty Spirituality: Fighting Obesity with Paul (Romans 12:1-8)
by Jacob D. Myers
Do you want to know a secret about working out? Here it is: we don't grow our muscles in the gym. When we lift weights we perform controlled damage to our bodies; we literally tear our muscle fibers, forcing our bodies to adapt. We improve outside of the gym by consuming healthy foods. To "battle the bulge" requires a commitment to strenuous exercise and healthy eating. All who have enjoyed (or endured) a strenuous workout or have disciplined their dietary practices understand that results are impossible without bodily sacrifice-no pain, no gain.
Furthermore, if it is true that we are what we eat, then Christ-followers ought to take a long, hard look at the kinds of things we are putting into our bodies. Paul's words to the Christ-followers in Rome offer us some food for thought (pardon the pun; couldn't help myself).
Paul beseeches us to present our bodies as living sacrifices, that is, to submit our lived reality to the standards that God deems acceptable. Such a way of being in the world is deemed reasonable-spiritual even, as the NRSV translators put it. This is our tangible act of service to God.
Paul is writing to a particular historical and cultural situation in Rome. At first glance, the situation in Rome-the hub of the imperial cult with all of its accompany accouterments-is radially foreign to contemporary audiences. But we ought not be too quick with this assessment.
In 21st century America, we worship at different temples. We are devoted to other gods. Our god is our stomach, and millions of Americans pay daily devotion at the shrines of McDonald's, Krispy Kreme, and Applebee's. Our god is our lethargy, and we pay homage to this god on our couches and La-Z-Boys, in front of our televisions.
"Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world," writes Paul. Rather, we who are being grafted into the life of God in Jesus Christ are to renew our minds. Let's take a closer look at the situation we face in America to ascertain how our mental and physical habits require recalibration.
Present Your Bodies to God
America faces an obesity epidemic. The HBO Emmy-nominated documentary, "The Weight of the Nation," spotlights NIH information about the rapid increase in obesity statistics over the past thirty years. Currently, two in three Americans are overweight or obese. Two in three! What is worse is that these statistics are projected to increase, especially in the new category of morbid obesity.
First Lady Michelle Obama has led an impressive charge against this trend, directing countless hours to fighting childhood obesity. Recently, she has pressed Congress to require school lunches containing less sodium and more whole grain-rich breads and pastas.
Even the military is getting involved. Next month a group of 500 retired senior military leaders are preparing to "storm the hill" when Congress reconvenes in an operation entitled "Mission: Readiness," with a tagline "Too Fat to Fight." Drawing from Defense Department data, military leaders are concerned by the fact that 27% of young adults are ineligible for military service because their BMI (body mass index) exceeds the maximum standards set by the military.
Why aren't we in the church leading this charge? Ought not we who have received the grace of God to participate in God's restorative work live out our devotion to God by our healthy lifestyles?
Obesity is hitting the current generation of US children particularly hard.
Do Not Conform To the Patterns . . . of Obesity
Abuse of food is more deadly than cigarettes, suggests a 2014 study. And yet, even as smoking cigarettes has become increasingly stigmatized, the abuse of food has not. There are infrastructural reasons that contribute to American obesity, such as food deserts that restrict healthy food from impoverished communities. These conditions can be changed, as other countries have proved.
What if Christians abstained from fast food in moral protest? Is the health of our nation worth such a sacrifice?
For starters, we who would live lives that are "holy and acceptable to God" must educate ourselves about what is in the foods we consume and how different kinds of food affect our physical and mental health. In other words, like Paul suggested, we must renew our minds.
Renew Your Minds
A recent study published by the CDC, revealed the cognitive dissonance concerning self-perceptions of BMI. In short, our children don't know they are fat. More specifically, 81% of American boys and 71% of American girls who are overweight think their body size is "about right."
It is imperative that we educate ourselves and our congregations about the dangers of food abuse and the importance of exercise.
What prevents the church from leading this charge? One study suggests that clergy are loath to promote healthy lifestyles because many of us are fatter than the national average. In the most comprehensive study of clergy health to date, researchers discovered that seventy-six percent of the 2500 clergy members surveyed are either overweight (46%) or obese (30%).
We Are One Body
But hope and grace abound. Paul culminates his argument by stating that we, as communities of faith following in the path of Jesus, are called to be there for each other. We are all one body in Christ. That means that if a brother or sister is struggling with obesity, we can work together to help them. Paul goes on to commend the use of the gifts God has given to each of us to the betterment of the body.
Traditional renderings of these spiritual gifts have restricted these gifts to the ministries of the church. Here too, we must renew our minds. In light of this plague spreading through our churches and communities we must add obesity to Paul's list.
To those with the gift of personal training, train others. To those with knowledge of nutrition and dietary strategies that promote health, educate others. For those who have succeeded in transforming their bodies, bear witness to your embodied wellness to encourage health in others.
When the body suffers so too does the soul. Clergy must lead this charge against obesity in America, which means that our spirituality will need to get a whole lot sweatier.
Jacob D. Myers is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University working at the intersection of homiletical theory, poststructural thought and emerging Christianity. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Jacob has served churches in Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In addition to his doctoral work, Jacob serves as an an assistant supplementary professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and is on the editorial staff for Practical Matters, a transdisciplinary multimedia journal of religious practices and practical theology.
Do you or does someone you love struggle with obesity? What obstacles are preventing you or others from achieving bodily wellness?
Does your church or denomination offer any education, counseling, and/or encouragement in the fight against the obesity epidemic? How might you lead such a charge?
Denominations yield an incredible amount of political power in this country. How might fast food companies respond to a corporate outcry from Christ-followers about the healthiness (or lack thereof) of their products? How might such action impact the food deserts that promote the disintegration of health in poorer communities?
For Further Reading
Ayers, Jennifer R. Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013.
Gethin, Kris. The Bodybuilding.com Guide to Your Best Body: The Revolutionary 12-Week Plan to Transform Your Body and Stay Fit Forever. New York: Touchstone, 2011.
McCarty, Tennie. Shades of Hope: How to Treat Your Addiction to Food. New York: Berkeley Books, 2012.
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