In America, 2 in 5 adults are considered obese. With a quick Google search, you can find many more troubling health stats for Americans. Bad eating, low exercise, heart disease, and diabetes are prevalent in our society. On the other hand, the diet industry in America is a $75 billion industry. People try to eat organic, eliminate gluten and dairy, or follow Whole30, paleo, Atkins, or intermittent fasting. Additionally, the American fitness industry market is around $30 billion with its popular trends of CrossFit, Peloton, cycling, fitness classes, wall-mounted gyms, and home video workout programs. It can seem a bit like we are operating in extremes. There is both a health crisis and a health obsession. So in the midst of that, what is a healthy view of health?
As Christians, we know we are not to follow our hearts, even though it seems to be the prevailing secular advice. As sinners, our hearts are deceitful and can lead us astray (Jer. 17:9). But what about our bodies? Should we always listen to our bodies?
The older I get, the more I feel like my body is talking to me. But it is hard to know how authoritative that voice should be. Just like there can be a tension between the desires of our hearts and the voice of scripture, there can also be a tension between what our bodies are telling us and how the Word of God is directing us. If we are tired, should we always sleep? If we are fatigued, should we always stop? If we are hungry, should we always eat? What if a missionary in the Amazon jungle is invited to dinner at the home of one of the tribal leaders, and when the food is brought, she learns it is Suri — fat grubs that are the larvae of the South American palm weevil? But after one brave bite, her taste buds tell her no. Should she listen to them and reject the food served to her, insulting her host? What if your neighbor invites you over for some ice cream, but you know in an hour your stomach will be really upset if you eat it - what should you do?
Paul tells us, I beat my body and make it my slave (1 Cor. 9:27). Some people ignore their bodies, while others pay far too much attention to them. There is a fine balance, we should lead our bodies. As the masters of our bodies, we must take care of them. In doing so, there is often a tension to manage between good things that sometimes collide. Here is the question I hope to provide some wisdom to — not offer direct answers but wisdom to think through how we make decisions: How should Christians live in a culture that is both unhealthy and obsessed with health?
Our family has tried to navigate this by understanding that health is much broader than just physical health. There are many categories of life in which we are called to be healthy and many different ways we can be unhealthy. It is the tension between these categories that actually helps us make decisions. We want to be physically healthy. We also want to be financially healthy and have healthy relationships, a healthy marriage, and a healthy work-life balance. Health is multifaceted, and knowing that can help us have a healthier view of health. Think of it as stewardship and how the different areas in our lives that we are to steward can actually help give us a healthy balance.
We are stewards of our bodies.
Life is a gift, and life is lived in a body. Before I challenge some approaches toward this, I want to be clear: We are supposed to take care of our bodies. However, good things can become the most attractive idols, and we can take this too far. Sometimes, people go to 1 Corinthians 6:19 about how our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit to make a case about not eating saturated fats or processed sugar or even to justify a vain idol of our workout regimen. But that is not at all the point that Paul is making. His point is that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit, so don’t take it to a prostitute.
However, the Bible does teach us that our bodies have value. Jesus had a bodily resurrection. We will have physical bodies in the new heavens and new earth. We are warned clearly about laziness throughout Proverbs. God has made our bodies to need rest, to thrive better on good nutrition, and to improve with exercise.
Additionally, our physical health should have a missional motivation. When we are healthy, we can think more clearly. We also have more energy to devote to our church, family, and work. Godliness is tangible. It gets lived out in the physical, and taking care of our bodies is an important part of carrying out our mission. We are stewards of our bodies. We need to take care of them. Christians should seek to eat healthy and exercise.
We are stewards of our finances.
Eating healthy often means spending more money. Eating an organic-only diet ain’t cheap. The tension between those two categories calls us to be healthy as best we can within our means. And as Christians, in stewarding our money, we are also called to be generous to others and our church. This tension is helpful and should lead us to ask questions. Does my spending on food or gym memberships prevent me from being generous where God has called me to be generous? We must steward our bodies the best we can within our means as we steward our money. There are ways to eat healthy on a tighter budget, but don’t mismanage your money in the name of managing your health. The stewarding of our health needs to function within the constraints of stewarding our finances.
We are stewards of our time.
Is spending two hours a day at the gym a good use of time? Maybe? I don’t know your schedule, family demands, or church involvement. But I do know if you spend two hours a day at the gym and then don’t feel like you have time for your family, connecting with friends, or serving in your church, that is unhealthy. If you are willing to get up early to go to CrossFit but won’t get up early to read your Bible — that is poor stewardship. We must steward our bodies within the constraints of also stewarding our time. There are other really important things also competing for our time. Let’s not be ignorant of this competition.
We are stewards of our relationships.
Have you ever considered how your health convictions might impact your relationships? Do you ever find yourself taking a condemning posture toward others who don’t share your health convictions? Fighting about food is not a new thing. The first-century Christians had their own food controversies. They were not fighting about carbs or dairy. For them, it was:
- “Is it okay for a Jewish Christian to eat pork?”
- “Should a Christian eat meat sacrificed to idols?”
Peter had a hard time when God gave him a vision of a bunch of unclean animals and told him to kill and eat (Acts 10). Jesus gave his disciples an anatomy lesson telling them that whatever a man eats from the outside cannot defile him because it does not enter his heart but his stomach and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods (Mark 7). Paul instructed the Corinthians that if an unbeliever invites you over, feel free to eat whatever is put before you, but if they make it a religious thing by pointing out that it was sacrificed to an idol, don’t eat it because you don’t want to communicate the wrong thing to them about more important matters (1 Cor. 10). Yes, there are more important matters than what we put into our bodies. For Paul, it was a love issue, not a food issue. How does love temper your food convictions?
Sometimes our health convictions and our relationships can collide. For example, if I am on a diet and someone invites us over for dinner, do we not go because that might hurt my diet? That would be selfish. Do we go but don’t eat what they serve? That could be rude. To feed someone is an act of hospitality and care. They spent more money and cooked more food for you. To eat what someone has made for you is an act of gratitude and care. In most cultures, it is rude not to eat what someone has prepared for you. We can miss this in our very individualistic culture, where we tend to prioritize our needs and preferences — there are times when love comes before health. Paul told us to consider others better than ourselves and to look out for their interests over our own (Phil. 2).
Think about it. Do your health convictions ever prevent you from participating in a celebration with friends? We can be quick to celebrate the self-control of someone who turns down the cake at the party but slow to see the feelings of the person who spent much of the day baking the cake that half the people did not eat. Nehemiah told the people to eat the fat portions. There are times to celebrate, even with food. Christians are a people of both fasting and feasting. Everything in moderation, even moderation. Don’t let the stewarding of your body keep you from feasting with your friends in celebration. Our stewarding of our health needs to function within the constraints of our stewarding of relationships.
Yes, we are stewards of our bodies. So, to those who constantly fall into gluttony and overeating, to the one who does not seem to care about their fitness, to those who are lazy and refuse to exercise: Repent. Steward your body better. Eat healthy and exercise.
And to those obsessed with health, to those who will never miss a workout but can’t seem to develop a habit of Bible reading, to those who can seem to always say no to the donut but not the gossip, to those who always stick to their diet but never celebrate with their friends: Repent. See the many other things in life that we are to steward.
If you have a flat stomach but no time to serve, or if you can finally fit into those jeans but have no deep community — that is not healthy. We need to have a broader view of what it means to be healthy. Not only physically but also spiritually, financially, and relationally.
And Christian, understand that even our reason for caring about our physical health differs from the world’s. We have a higher calling than living long on this earth or looking good while we do so. We are to do everything to the glory of God, including our reasons for wanting to be physically healthy. We should not be driven to be healthy by vanity. The goal is not to look better in those jeans or attract attention to ourselves. Nor should our pursuit of health be driven by the fear of cancer or illnesses. Anxiety over health is not healthy. We aim to have a vessel — a body - that best serves the work the Lord calls us to. We should have energy at the end of the day for our family or have the stamina to serve others.
Unhealthy habits lead to sluggishness, and sluggishness is detrimental to doing ministry. So take care of yourself, eat right, exercise, and practice self-control and discipline. Wisely steward your body in tension with also stewarding your money, time, and relationships. We can say no to the donut, but there are also times to eat the fat portions.