Weight Loss and Health: The Physicality of Christian Spirituality

In the late spring of 2010, I began to have some concerning physical symptoms. Occasionally when I would stand up from sitting or turn my head to look behind me I had the sensation of slight dizziness that made it seem like the room was shaking. This didn’t happen often, but I knew that it was probably related to the way I had been overeating. I had some issues with pain in my lower digestive system, like sharp contractions, too that was directly related to how much I had eaten. I knew I was eating way too much and way too often, so I backed off a bit, which did seem to alleviate some of those symptoms. The changes I made, however, were pretty minor.

Later that summer, I had to have a physical checkup for a life insurance policy that we had applied for. That checkup revealed that my blood pressure was too high, and that my cholesterol and triglycerides were well above normal. These findings didn’t allow me to get the preferred status that I had received for a different policy a few years before. It was obvious that I had gained a lot of weight over the past couple of years as well.

At this point I was just a few weeks away from starting my third year in the Masters of Divinity program at Duke. While I was in Divinity school I also pastored a church. With the symptoms I had in the Spring and with the bad report from the physical exam, I knew I needed to make some serious changes. So I committed to eating better the best I knew. Vigorous exercise at least 3 times a week was already part of my weekly routine. I ran a couple of miles each of those days and did a 15 minute routine on the Bowflex that I had at the time. I knew that it was my diet that I had to change.

At first I changed the types of foods that I was eating. I focused on avoiding foods high in fat. I also stopped eating large meals late at night – sometimes I would eat an entire meal before I went to bed after having supper with the family at the regular time. But mainly I focused on changing the types of foods I was eating. The change did help. Fairly quickly I did lose about 20 pounds. When I went for a checkup in mid September that year my vitals were back into the normal range, although still on the upper side of normal. I continued to do the best I knew how, and avoided too much unhealthy food, but it was a struggle. It seemed I had reached a plateau, but I knew there was more I could do.

That fall I decided to participate in a health and wellness program designed for clergy called “Spirited Life“. It was a program done through the Duke Clergy Health Initiative that had been studying clergy health in North Carolina among United Methodists since about 2008. Spirited Life was part of a longitudinal study to test the effectiveness of certain training and practices to improve overall clergy health. Their studies indicated that overall clergy health (physical and mental/emotional) is poorer than the general population of North Carolinians, which isn’t all that great to begin with.

At any rate, in the fall of 2011 I became a participant in the first of a few cohorts of United Methodist pastors to go through the Spirited Life program. The first health screening I received through Spirited Life in November of 2010 revealed that I had regained several pounds since September and had suffered a bit of a setback in terms of my vitals. Full participation in the Spirited Life retreats and seminars began in January of 2011.  Among other things, such as stress management, part of the program included participation in a weight loss program called “Naturally Slim“.  With the knowledge and information I gained from this program I formulated a plan that helped me to lose a lot more weight and achieve an even better level of health.

During Lent that year I committed to giving up sweets altogether with the exception of one small dessert one time per week, mainly on the Sunday feast days. I also committed to not eat any snacks between meals and, according to the advice given in the Naturally Slim program, to only eat meals when I was truly physically hungry. I discovered for me this was only a couple of times a day. At night before bed if I felt a little hungry, I would eat a small handful of plain mixed nuts to take the edge off so I could sleep. By doing these things by Easter (April 24, 2011) I had lost another 25 pounds or so – I got down to 148 pounds.big-cliff-little-cliff

Although I didn’t monitor it closely, from the Spring to early August of 2010 I had probably lost about 10 to 15 pounds to weigh around 195 when I had that checkup for the insurance company. By changing my diet a little more I got down to around 175. In November I went back up a few pounds. By Easter, through the plan that I was faithful to through Lent based on what I learned in Naturally Slim, I weighed 148 pounds and was in much better overall health. When I had my physical later that summer my vitals were all well within the normal range and the doctor thought that I may have lost too much weight and should adjust my diet to gain back a few more pounds. Over the last few years I did gain several pounds back, but, overall I have been able to maintain a much healthier weight.

Through all of the initial weight loss,  I continued my long established exercise routine. The main factor for me was a change in my eating habits. After the Naturally Slim program I didn’t worry so much about the types of foods that I was eating as much as how much and how often I was eating. This is not to say that the former is not important – it is – but the later is arguably more important. That being said, the most important component of my change in diet seemed to be drastically limiting my intake of sweets, including desserts, sodas, sweet snacks, etc. Inspired by my successes, my lay leader at the time also cut way back on sweets and snacks, especially soda, and lost about 60 pounds.

Having sweets more than once or twice a week gets me off track. So I have to really watch it. The other important component was not snaking between meals. My meals usually consist of the foods I have always enjoyed – for me just about anything in terms of meats, cheeses, and vegetables. Bread has never been a major part of my diet. I usually only have bread when my meal includes some type of sandwich. My two meals per day, usually around 10:30- 11:00 am and 5:30 pm, are pretty hearty though. Occasionally, such as Sunday morning when I can’t eat lunch until around 1:00 I will have a handful of raw almonds and half a banana so I will have the energy I need to preach and lead worship, etc. Sometimes I may have a larger breakfast, but if I do I don’t eat another full meal until supper. If I need to I may have a small snack like a handful of Almonds and fruit before supper on those days.

Knowing what to do, however, is not the only thing necessary for weight loss and better health. Having the power to do what we know we should do is also important. Overcoming our human desires corrupted by sin and the deceptiveness of our fallen human emotions is easier said than done. Eating is not just a physical act; it also involves our minds and emotions; and it is spiritual as well. Briefly, here are a few things to consider when trying to become physically healthier through eating better.

Christian salvation involves the whole person and the whole person is spirit, soul, and body (see 1 Thess 5:23 for example). Sometimes some Christians think that what they do with and to their bodies is completely irrelevant to their salvation. Some even think that who they are is completely independent of their physical bodies. From the Christian perspective our spirits, souls, and bodies, are each an integral part of who we are. Saint Augustine, although he was influenced by Platonic thought, which tends to view the body as non-essential to who we are as humans, said, “the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man’s very nature” (The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 13).

Final salvation for the Christian happens at the resurrection of the body. The apostle Paul calls this moment for which all of the physical creation longs “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:24 ESV). The ultimate goal of Christian salvation is not to discard the body to live a disembodied life in heaven, but for our bodies to be redeemed to live an rembodied life in a renewed physical creation. And it won’t do to act as if it doesn’t matter what we do with and to our physical bodies now since we will get new bodies in the resurrection. Even now our bodies are sacred space for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and should be respected as such as we seek to glorify God in our bodies ( see 1 Cor 6:19-20).

Likewise neither is human sin purely a spiritual reality. Sin is a spiritual disease that corrupts God given human desires, which manifest within the mental, emotional, bio-chemical, physiological,and social aspects of our embodied existence. In his discussion of sin in Romans 7, Paul’s desperate rhetorical question, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:24) is more than a metaphor, but points to the reality that our bodies too have been corrupted by sin. One of the major categories of sin that has been delineated over the centuries into what has been called “The Seven Deadly Sins” is gluttony. Gluttony is a corruption of our natural God-given desire for nourishment to sustain life and health. This is one of the ways that sin manifests itself in human life. As with other corrupted desires we must master it rather than allowing them it master us (see Gen 4:7 in context).

Our whole lives are an interaction between the spiritual, psychological, and physical. We are not spiritual beings who just happen to live in a body for a brief stint on earth. We are physically embodied spiritual beings who are destined to lived physically embodied lives in the New Heaven and Earth forever.

Eating is also an emotional thing. We do eat for pleasure, but pleasure should not be the main reason we eat. We should enjoy food, but the enjoyment should not be the only factor that we consider. We also may eat to soothe our anxieties and relieve stress. Finding comfort in comfort food is obviously not the best way to deal with anxiety. Saint Augustine again said, “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee” (in “Confessions”). We must seek our ultimate comfort in God and in being at peace with the God who made us. We have that peace through Christ Jesus who also delivers us from the fear of all fears, the fear of death (See Rom 5:1; Heb 2:14-15). Emotional eating can lead to enslaving cravings, food addictions and bad habits. We must learn to starve those enslaving cravings and truly feed and nourish our bodies. So we must distinguish between cravings and true hunger. Fasting can help with this. For me fasting for a day or two has also functioned like a reset after I have overindulged. This too is spiritual, psychological, and physiological.  And fasting, along with prayer and many others things, is a means of grace, an intentional Christian practice through which God strengthens us.

Exercise is also an important component.  Don’t be too overwhelmed by the thought of starting an exercise routine. If you are not doing anything now, don’t underestimate the benefit of small beginnings. Do something rather than nothing. Even if it is only walking briskly for 10 minutes at first. Even now my whole exercise routine only takes about 30 minutes. I had to cut back for a while earlier this year because of nerve pain in my lower back, hip, and leg. I’m working my way back up. The pain is gone so I’m running again, so far a mile to a mile and a half. I also do about 50 pushups and 25 pull-ups – I don’t have the Bowflex anymore. I always try to do something. Something is better than nothing. Just walking regularly makes a huge difference.

But we also need to make time for rest. Sometimes something is better than nothing, but there are also times when nothing is better than something. Making time for rest is also an important Christian practice, which just makes good sense for any human being. We call this sabbath; it too is a means of grace. Rest is important because when we are are overworked and under-rested we are more vulnerable to succumbing to cravings. Being overly tired seems to increase the power of unhealthy desires and decrease our power to resist them. So finding time to rest and relax is important.

The good news is that we aren’t left to the mercy of our own will power; we have the mercy and grace of God to relieve our guilt through forgiveness in Christ and to empower us through the Holy Spirit.  Sin of any variety is too strong for us to overcome on our own, but with God all things are possible. The power of God enables us to become and to do what we could never become and do on our own. Yes, we are called to “work out [our] own salvation,” but we do so knowing that as we do “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philip 2:12-13). Truly, we “can do all things through him who strengthens [us]” (Philip 4:13). And the primary way God has chosen to strengthen us is through the means of grace as they are practiced within the body of Christ. The Christian life is meant to be lived out in community. God has placed us within a body of fellow believers through whom he works to strengthen us. We need others as God works through them to challenge us and encourage us. A community living in the means of grace becomes a place where streams of mercy flow freely from the fountain of living waters to bring healing and health, in spirit, soul, and body.

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One thought on “Weight Loss and Health: The Physicality of Christian Spirituality

  1. I love this! I learned a lot from this and believe it is going to also help me quit smoking. I felt like i was writting the first part of this. Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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