A few days ago my friend Matt Hosier wrote this post in which he (rightly) pointed out that our society has some strange ideas about what to tolerate or not tolerate. His examples were our strange acceptance of promiscuity and our hostile rejection of obesity. I wondered (in a comment on his post) whether Matt had gone a bit far in saying obesity didn’t matter, I wondered whether it wasn’t in fact linked to sin in some way.
I posted a comment and in reply I got this post. The ante has been upped, the stakes have been raised and he challenged me for a response. So here it is (it’s a longer than usual post in reply)
Healthy debate makes for more interesting reading but there are a whole number of things that (boringly) I actually agree with. For example, it’s very easy to slip into self-righteousness about body image, the healthy and thin among us become examples of righteousness because of how we look. This is rubbish. 1 Samuel 16:7 famously tells us that God isn’t nearly as impressed by outward appearances as we are. While James is talking about material wealth you could easily apply his admonition against favouritism (James 2:1-4) to our perception of a person based on physical appearance.
Of course not all weight issues are down to poor diet or lack of exercise, medical reasons can play a part, as this lady responding to Matt’s post experiences. Matt also points out that making a call based on a person’s BMI isn’t going to work, I’m not going to be taking my scales to church any time soon.
Finally, the last thing that anyone who genuinely struggles with their weight is some skinny type making them feel guilty. We’re supposed to be in the business of bringing love and grace to bear on people’s lives and being transformed from the inside out and not the other way around.
So, having got all those points of agreement out of the way, is there still a case for our weight being an issue of discipleship? I think there is (with exception for genuine medical grounds). Matt thought that gluttony (and after all Jesus was called a glutton), greed (mostly linked to money) weren’t all that helpful in determining who was guilty of the sin of being too fat. Culture is indeed an issue, in many places fat is good but not here and not always in the Bible either (Eglon not being put forward as a role model). In fact, fat is a mixed picture – sometimes the sign of God’s blessing (Neh 9:25) and sometimes of sin (Jer 5:25-28). So, is there any biblical guidance on offer?
I think Matt discounts self-control too quickly,
“Another exegetical line of attack might be over the frequent biblical exhortations to be self-controlled. This indeed is a reasonable line to pursue, but it doesn’t do very much to help us in deciding when someone is too fat, due to an absence of self-control, or merely pleasantly chubby, for some other good reason.”
Of course, when we become the judge then we must have a line, but there are some other areas of Christian discipleship where the line is not clear at all. Take giving (a regular theme on this blog) for example, are you giving enough? Are you sinning if you’re not giving more when you are able to do so? Who is to set the line, is it the same line for us all? Various factors come into play such as income, family, location, work etc…yet the bottom line is many Christians are not giving what they should, their freedom is not being used well, they’re not honouring Christ as they could with their money.
Does the principle hold when it comes to food? For many people the cause of obesity is down to two things poor diet and lack of physical activity. Those two things alone would be hard to challenge, after all there’s ‘Christian freedom’. But our freedom can be misused.
In challenging the Corinthians about their sexual immorality Paul makes an aside about food (1 Cor 6:13). The church was arguing that sex was a desire just like food and it must be satisfied. Paul comes back to them with while it may be permissible it’s not beneficial and that we shouldn’t be mastered by it.
Here’s the point, food can have mastery over us in two ways. We can indulge in it or we can be fearful of it. Those who put too much store in the body beautiful have a fearful attitude to food, never letting themselves enjoy it and be free to taste all that is good (in extreme cases this is seen with anorexia or bulimia). They become bound by the laws of the calories. Others have a different issue, they love food or their sofa too much. One or the other has mastery over them and only Christ should have that.
Paul concludes his challenge to the church to ‘flee sexual immorality’ (1 Cor 6:18) by reminding them that ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you…therefore honour God with your body’ (1 Cor 6:19-20; the temple theme is also in 1 Cor 3:16 and 2 Cor 6:16)
I’d argue that this principle of ‘honouring God with my body’ would apply to a number of issues in addition to sex. Smoking (another modern day sin – although I’ve been known to appreciate a good Cuban cigar), drinking (although I appreciate a good wine or a chilled beer), obsession with physical appearance and food would all be cases in point. I can dishonour God with these things and if I’m not careful they can all end up having mastery over me.
As Matt says, there could well be other underlying reasons for why food has mastery over us,
“In my experience very few seriously overweight people are happy with how they look, so is calling them a sinner going to help? The question really is as to why they are the size they are. Again, in my experience its rarely due to gluttony, but more often reflects some other underlying issue – her husband doesn’t show sufficient love and leadership; he’s terribly insecure; she’s bored to death – which results in too much eating and not enough exercising. In these kind of circumstances it is difficult to claim the fat is sin, more that there is a need for redemption in other areas of their life.”
True, true. But ‘fat’ then is seen as a symptom of sin, deal with the cause and you deal with the symptom. Only it’s never quite as simple as that. Bad habits need to be broken as they can have a power all of their own.
So, what to do? Well let’s briefly go back to the money and giving issue. The solution is to make Christ Lord and as love for Christ replaces love for money we are freed to give and generosity grows. Likewise, when Christ is Lord our value and beauty come from him and not outward appearances we are freed from being slaves to the beauty myth and are free to enjoy a slice of cake, or conversely when Christ is Lord he gives us mastery over our desires and we find comfort in Christ and not in a bar of galaxy, a bottle of wine and a packet of crisps.
Whatever the right answer in this life, in the next we will be able to enjoy a feast and a banquet (without worry.