We live in a culture obsessed with food. Eating disorders, once the exclusive terrain of adolescent girls, plague populations as diverse as older adults, Orthodox Jewish women, and young men. On the other hand, the nation as a whole is experiencing an "obesity epidemic." Whether through self-starvation or self-indulgence, many Americans have an unhealthy relationship with food.
When I was 14 years old, I was diagnosed with a condition called gastro paresis, paralysis of the stomach. The doctors couldn't determine a cause and they didn't know of a cure. In retrospect, I think I had been eating so little that my body slowed to a halt in response. Soon enough, I couldn't keep any food in my system. It came right back up. I told myself, and others, that I was suffering from a rare illness. The thing was, I liked being sick. Or at least, I liked being able to eat whatever I wanted without any worry about weight gain.
In the midst of those years of doctors' appointments and visits to therapists and hospitalizations and continuing to insist to everyone around me that I was "doing just fine," I remember my aunt asking, "What is there in your life that you need to purge?"
It took me years to understand her question. My aunt knew that I had more than a physical problem. She recognized that mind, body, and spirit exist within an integrated whole. And until I was willing to see the same, I wasn't able to heal. In the end, recovery took an integrated approach. I needed prayer. I needed physical therapy to get my organs moving again. I needed medication for a time. And I needed to address the perfectionist tendencies (aka idolatries) that caused me to fear gaining weight and to want to appear thin and beautiful to the outside world.
As a result of my difficult history with food, I still avoid magazines about "health and fitness" because the images and tips inside could send me back into self-destructive patterns of thinking. I've noted but tried to ignore the Atkins diet, the Zone, the Mediterranean, and the like. But when two of my friends talked about the "cleanses" they were doing of late, I was interested.
These "cleansing diets" caught my attention because, according to my friends, the purpose wasn't weight loss. Rather, it was changing patterns of eating and drinking in order to rid the body of toxins. No alcohol. No caffeine. Real food, albeit incredibly healthy unprocessed food. But in addition to the physical benefits, my friends told me that cleansing their bodies of toxins would lead to greater mental clarity and well-being. Although it wasn't explicitly Christian, it sounded like an approach to eating that understood the relationship between the body and other aspects of our humanity.
Paul's theology of the body demonstrates an understanding of the self as an integrated whole. He describes ways that our physical actions and choices necessarily influence the spiritual, emotional, and relational aspects of our being. In a discussion of the impact of the physical act of sex upon our spiritual lives, he reminds us that our bodies are "temples" of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Bodily acts cannot be divorced from spiritual consequences. In Romans 14, Paul takes up the question of eating food sacrificed to idols, and although he gives permission to eat any food, he does so with the understanding that what we eat impacts how we relate to God and to our community.
In America, we have plenty of food and yet that plenty has often led to the twin problems of deprivation and overeating. Jesus delights in the richness of a feast on occasion (Matthew 11:19) and at times he practices fasting as a means of communion with God (Luke 4:2). He models an approach to food that recognizes the body as more than physical. The one who is the bread of life also taught us to ask God for our daily bread.
I still haven't tried an official cleanse. I'd rather eat every day with the recognition that what I put into my body has an impact on my thoughts, my emotions, even my prayers. That what I eat makes a difference in my relationships with others and with God. (The issue of food justice, which is to say, how our food purchases impact individual workers and animals and so forth, is a topic for another day. See "A Feast Fit for a King" for more.)
As I try to return to the size I was before getting pregnant with our third child, I remind myself that the goal isn't appearing good to others or achieving some ideal of a "perfect" body. The goal isn't exclusively, or even primarily, about myself. The goal is to honor God with my body and to remember God's intentions for this body of mine.
As I sit at a computer, as I play ball with our kids, as I nurse our daughter, as I delight in a walk with a friend on a spring day, my body is a temple of the Spirit, fed by God's goodness and by God's physical provision. Food is not a way to serve myself, but a way to nourish my body for God's glory and the blessing of those around me.