I have long “struggled with my weight,” as they say. For as long as I can remember, adjectives like fat or overweight or husky or big boned have accompanied the way I have thought about myself. Even in my more athletic days when I played sports year-round and could jog a couple of miles without feeling any pain in my knees and shins and lower back, I was still a big guy; chubby even. A chubby, more-or-less athletic guy, who loved to eat, and was highly self-conscious about the results that eating had on his physical body.
Additionally, for as long as I’ve thought of myself as an overweight person, I have also thought of myself as a Christian. As far as I can tell, I’ve been following Jesus sincerely since the early years of my life (between 5-8 years old). Though periods of my life have been filled with serious sins of various kinds, I’ve never sought to shed my identity as a Christian, at least not with words. My actions have directly contradicted my profession of faith in myriad ways, but my personal conscious struggle with sin has always occurred under the banner of my Christian identity.
So, for many years, I have thought of myself as an overweight Christian. A fat guy who believes in and is trying to follow Jesus faithfully. And as wrongheaded as it is, that’s how I continue to think of myself to this day.
Yet, I also know that I am not alone, and that most public discussions about fat and weight are carried on by people who are either not Christians, and/or who haven’t been truly fat a day in their life, and/or who have very little to say about weight other than that you should do all you can to lose it and to avoid gaining it, and who apparently see the Gospel of Jesus as having very little to say to a person who thinks of themselves as “fat” and who is having a hard time doing anything of lasting consequence about it.
It’s my opinion that most discussions and teaching about weight gain and weight loss, gluttony (what some might call food addiction), and related issues are largely devoid of meaningful theological and Gospel-oriented reflection. And that’s too bad, because a lot of Christians, like me, love food too much, struggle to lose weight, and are preoccupied with their weight, such that they think of themselves as fat just as much as they think of themselves as Christians.
Because I really wish that there were more Gospel-centered resources and discussions about food and fat, I have long considered writing down some thoughts about my struggle with fat and weight as a fallen but sincere follower of Jesus, in hopes that other overweight Christians might benefit from it. So, this is my first attempt at something like that. Only time will tell if it will be my last.
Still, I hope that something I will say here might be helpful to you (if you are an overweight Christian), or to someone you know (if you know an overweight Christian), or to you (if you have the privilege of befriending and supporting an overweight Christian). Though these are personal reflections upon my experience as an overweight Christian, perhaps some of what I say will be helpful to others.
Personal Reflections on Fat, Food, Faith, and the Gospel
- Body fat is not the real problem. Idolatry is.
I will be the first to admit that my curvy figure has a good deal to do with my relationship with food. I love food. It is one of the idols of my heart. I can’t fully explain why I love it like I do, but I know that one of the reasons is that food makes me feel good. It serves my desire for instant gratification in a world of disappointment and pain. Food is place of refuge – or at least that’s how I’ve often treated it. I have no problem enjoying food; I have a problem with enjoying food more than I enjoy God. There is no other word for this but idolatry, and idolatry is a far greater problem than a high BMI. Therefore, until this root is struck, no matter how many Xs I go down in my shirt size, the real problem will persist.
- A healthy diet is not the ultimate solution. Worshipful gratitude is.
I appreciate and have sought to learn from resources that teach the values and benefits of various kinds of foods; and how to use food to in a way that promotes weight loss and better overall health. However, from a biblical perspective, simply eating less or eating specific kinds of foods more often, does not itself mean I have been sanctified in my struggle with food and weight. The ultimate objective for a Christian in regard to food ought not to be simply to eat less, but to receive food as a gift from God with a grateful heart (1 Timothy 4:5).
The reason this ought to be our objective is because food is a good gift (even unhealthy food in moderation!) from a good God (Genesis 1:29; Psalm 104:15). It’s a pleasure that God has graciously given to us to enjoy in this fallen world. So, the aim of a Christian shouldn’t be simply to eat less, but to put food in its place; to view it as a gift from God and not a god itself.
- Thinness is not next to godliness.
An obedient Christian does not have any one specific body type, or metabolic rate. Genetics has as much a part to play in a person’s physical appearance as do their eating and exercise habits. It is simply more difficult for some people to get thin. I know it has been for me.
Even when I was in the best shape of my life, I still thought I was fat; my friends still joked with me about my weight; I still had a softer mid-section and could’ve benefitted from a man-bra. I did all the same workouts as my friends, lifted all the same weights, and ran on the same track as them; yet those “big bones” of mine stayed big. (How I would love to have that high-school body of mine back now, however!)
Over the last 4 years I have lost a total of 43 pounds and have improved my physical health in a number of ways. But, I still sport a full-blown dad-bod and would find it hard to prove that I have actual abdominal muscles. I have to fight discouragement about this on a near daily basis, reminding myself that the goal of my life must not to be thin, but to be obedient to Christ and love him more than I love food (or any other created thing). I’ll probably never be thin, or particularly fit looking, but I can be obedient, I can still know Christ with ever-increasing intimacy, and I can continue to be sanctified by the power of the Spirit. And those are the things that really matter in this life (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
- The judgment of others simply does not matter.
I can tell you from my 35 years or so as an overweight Christian; some people are extremely judgmental and uncompassionate about fatness. They assume things about you that are simply not true. They make insensitive comments. If you lose any significant weight they make disproportionately positive comments to you about it. Like, why are they so excited for you!?
Truth be told, one of the reasons I desire to lose weight and get physically fit (noticeably so), is to have people recognize me as someone who’s physically fit, and not as someone who’s physically fat. I don’t want to be known as a fat guy. I want to be known as a fit guy. I want people to look at my frame and view it as attractive. I want them to wish they possessed similar health and fitness.
But why in the world do I care so much about what people think!? Honestly. I’m not going to face them on Judgment Day. And the One I will have to face on that day isn’t going to make me climb up on a scale to see what it says before welcoming me into his presence. What will twenty pounds of belly fat matter when I see Jesus eyeball to eyeball? It won’t. In fact, he’s already rendered his verdict upon my life and has declared me completely righteous in his sight; not because of a single pound I’ve ever lost, but because of the perfect righteousness of his Son, who suffered the judgment of my idolatries and shares his status of righteousness with me through my faith in him.
So, what I really need is help from heaven to live my life with increasing concern about his approval than about the approval (or envy!) of others – realizing that I already have his approval in Christ – so that I will neither be rocked by the judgments of men, nor satisfied by their complements, whether about my physical appearance or anything else.
- Death will come to you, no matter what.
Here I think the book of Ecclesiastes might have something to say to all of us. Death comes to us all.
“It is the same for all,” the Preacher says, “since the same event happens to the [fat] and the [fit], to the [healthy eater] and the [binge eater], to the [Crossfitter] and the [couchsitter]… (Ecclesiastes 9:2, additions entirely mine).
And he’s exactly right. I’ve been amazed in recent years by the number of stories I’ve heard about people who appeared to be in extraordinarily strong physical health die at an early age of cancer, or by some other tragic and unexpected means. Death comes to us all. In a mere 70 years, if Christ does not return first, every reader of this blog (most likely) will be dead and gone, whether they had exemplary eating habits or terrible ones, and no matter how much time they will have spent at the gym throughout their lifetime. You can’t avoid it, friends. The day of death is coming for us all. And much of this life is simply about getting ready for that day. Are you ready?
This is exactly why Paul says what he does in 1 Timothy 4 where he compares the value of physical training and physical health to training for godliness and spiritual health. Whereas “bodily training is of some value,” (and the emphasis there is very much on the word “some”) “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8). In other words: Sure, physical training is a good thing, but it holds literally no promise for the life to come.
And yet, if I’m honest, not only do I see and hear Christians equating physical health with spiritual health at times; some of them seem far more concerned about their physical health than their spiritual health. They’ll spend hours in the gym or running on the trails each week and then confess prolonged seasons of self-inflicted spiritual dryness, struggles with enslaving sins, and difficulty finding time maintaining consistent practice in the spiritual disciplines. Could it be that they have things out of order, just as I do, but simply in a different way? It should be obvious, but a Christian’s physical body could easily be in great physical shape, while their spiritual life suffers greatly.
It’s important to remember that no amount of weight loss and no amount of physical training – by themselves – prepare a single soul for the most important day of his life; his last day. Nor do these things protect anyone from having to face that day. We all need to keep in mind the fact that this life is coming to an end no matter what we do. This enables the overweight Christian to put things like healthy eating, faithful exercise, and weight loss in their proper place. These things may be good things, but they are not everything. They are important, but they are not all-important. Losing weight can be a good thing in certain circumstances; but knowing Christ with increasing intimacy and sincerity cannot ever be beat, and only the latter can prepare a soul for the day when he steps over from this life to the next.
As I said earlier, this is the first time I’ve written anything public about this topic. In many ways I’m just spit-balling here. These are raw thoughts I’ve been chewing on for some time, and they no-doubt need further development. But, I thought they may be somehow helpful to share. I hope that’s the case. Feel free to interact with anything I’ve said here. And please pass it on if you believe others would be helped by it.