"Losing weight" or "getting fit" will likely lead many New Year's resolutions as we head into 2012. Balanced eating and enough exercise is an outcome of obedience and discipleship, Gary Thomas argues in Every Body Matters (Zondervan). Matthew Lee Anderson, author of Earthen Vessels, spoke with Thomas about the connection between body and soul.
What prompted you to look at food and fitness?
I've been steeped in the Christian classics, and they have a consistent message challenging gluttony and sloth that I hadn't heard addressed much in modern times. Also, gluttony wasn't an important issue in my life for a while, because when you're younger it's easier to look like you're okay. But when I turned 40, I gained three or four pounds a year. That was fine for a while, but then I started notice both the personal effects and the spiritual consequences as well.
Focusing on gluttony and sloth as we age is almost a natural evolution in life. If you look at Augustine, he talks about how lust was a struggle early in his life. But when he became a monk and put himself in a situation where lust wasn't an issue, gluttony became a far more intense temptation. If you can create a sexless life, you can deal with lust, in one sense. But we can't create a foodless life; we are always on the precipice of having to manage this temptation rather than just kill it.
What do you mean when you suggest that our efforts should not be for fitness per se, but building a "silver soul"?
The goal is not an athletic looking body or a magazine-worthy body, but understanding better how these struggles affect our soul. We keep up our bodies because our bodies carry our souls. They are what we minister out of, what we speak out of, what we travel out of, and ultimately what we pray and worship and serve out of. But Scripture keeps the focus on how this relates to our spiritual journey.
Some people have used spirituality to try to help the weight loss issue. I think that's backwards. I'm trying to say, "How can being a better steward of my body prepare me more spiritually, help me grow more spiritually, help me experience God more deeply, give me greater victory over sin, give me greater energy for service to God and ministry on God's behalf?"
How should Christians who want to avoid replicating cultural errors about the body speak about health and fitness?
The cheap line is that we should look at our bodies as instruments, not ornaments. The idea comes from 2 Timothy 2:20-21, which is a picture of our progressive sanctification. The question should be How we are making ourselves available to God? If I live to 70 or 80, am I keeping up a body that will have the energy and ability to still minister in those years?
My longevity is set by God, but I can affect both my frailty and my availability. I could eat myself into a place or neglect myself into a place where I'm become so absorbed by doctor visits and a lack of vitality that I'm not as effective as God would call me to be.
That's not to say there aren't immediate benefits right now. I notice an enormous difference if my body is in shape in terms of my availability to people than if I'm carrying a few extra pounds and haven't been working out.
Are there lessons Christians can learn from the muscular Christianity movement (which spawned the YMCA)?
One of the lessons is about whether we have a compelling message and presentation. They found that the messengers of Christianity at that time—and there were some theological reasons for this—were undercutting the message. They felt like people who were out of shape and "effeminate men" (which is where it gets a little more perilous) had little interest for those with a more adventurous view of life. They wanted to open up the door that Christianity is a struggle, a battle, a challenge. In making Christianity easier to draw more people, we've made it so easy that it shuts out others who want to live the challenge.
Your book leans heavily on the Old Testament and the Apostle Paul, but are surprisingly quiet about the Gospels and the life of Jesus directly. Why is that?
Part of my argument about why the Bible might not be more direct against gluttony--and this is speculative--is that Jesus didn't talk to a lot of obese people. They had to walk for miles to get to him. They didn't have the abundance of food that many of us have now.
Can you talk about why you seem ambivalent about fasting for long periods?
In my own experience, too earnestly pursuing heroic spiritual measures tends to backfire. I either crash and burn, or I become very arrogant. It's easy for people tend to burn themselves out and practice such disciplines for the wrong reasons, and if they do them for the wrong reasons, it's almost more hurtful.
You write, "Obesity is socially contagious." What social practices would you recommend that Christians implement in order to avoid it?
If a church publicly proclaims physical fitness as a biblical value that stems from the stewardship of our bodies, if we accept the passage that "our bodies are not our own, but we're bought with a price," we'll start to get in shape within the church out of love for God. And that becomes contagious. The trick is how we proclaim that message in a way that's based in grace, that encourages, and that doesn't create pride, which is more deadly than indulgence.
A number of arguments have been put forward recently that evangelical worship is disembodied and too intellectually centered. What relationship, if any, do our worship practices have with our physical fitness practices the rest of the week?
I'd look at it from a different perspective. Some of my best times worshipping are when I'm out on a run. And that feeds my Sunday morning worship. Interacting with God throughout the week sets my soul up to be more open to God on Sunday. For me, there's something about getting outside and running that is almost like a meditative state. If you do that several times throughout the week, the pump is primed to connect with God because you haven't been living in forgetfulness the whole week.
How can Christians promote fitness as a spiritual good without marginalizing people with disabilities?
I have a friend who had a stroke and is not to do a lot of the exercise that other people can do. We were at Starbucks recently and he said he couldn't have the calories anymore because he can't work them off. He's an example of someone who is being faithful and saying because he can't work off the calories, he can't take the calories in.
It's fundamentally about the spiritual issues, the soul-based issues of self-control--not about how your body looks. This world celebrates the young and the beautiful and the strong and the unwrinkled, but the Bible clearly exalts wisdom and character and experience. We must lead the Church in that direction in order to counteract a culture that is foolish.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on theology, health, and body image include:
God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Body | It includes sex, diet, and sports—but so much more. (August 12, 2011)
Christians and Cosmetic Surgery? | Five women discuss the nature of true beauty and "improving" on God's creation. (November 28, 2007)
The Weigh and the Truth | Christian dieting programs—like Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down Diet—help believers pray off the pounds. But what deeper messages are they sending about faith and fitness? (August 25, 2000)