For years I’ve felt I should lose a little weight – five or ten pounds, max. But my doctor, from time to time, would tell me I needed to lose about 20. Twenty! That, I thought, was unreasonable; after all, that would put me back to where I was as a Junior in High School. Besides, not only has my metabolism naturally slowed down over all these years, I was a jock back then (seven varsity letters, boom!) and I’m pretty sedentary now. Not to mention that bulging disc at the base of my neck and the pain in my knee, limiting my ability to exercise. Twenty pounds is simply not possible.
But the thought came one day recently that these are simply old man excuses. I WILL lose the weight, and it’s been pretty easy so far. So far it’s not required any major changes; I just downloaded an app to monitor what I eat and how much I exercise. Needing to track everything isn’t that much of a chore, and helps motivate me when I feel like skipping exercise or reminds me to ask myself, do you really want to eat that? It’s working; I’ve lost almost five pounds since starting four weeks ago. Easy, steady, slow but sure victory.
I’m certainly not the only one who needs this kind of reminder. Dr. Mehmet Oz says that the average human consumption of sugar is 150 lbs per year, twenty times more than what our ancestors ate in the 1700s (how he calculated that is not explained). Americans eat or drink 36 lbs of high fructose corn syrup annually – an allegedly addictive high sugar food product that did not exist a single generation ago. Perhaps you’ve seen photos showing how everything from candy bars to burgers to soft drinks have doubled or tripled in size over the last few decades.
All of this brings with it a cost: Depending on whose research you look at, roughly half of Americans are obese.
This is not something a libertarian can simply shrug off as a personal lifestyle choice. The social costs are staggering: billions of dollars to deal with weight-related health problems, for one. I work in the healthcare industry, and we’re getting word that more and more providers are having to move from curing problems to preventing them. That means incentivizing weight loss (and tobacco cessation and modifying other unhealthy lifestyle choices). The approach, for now, is mostly carrot (lower medical premiums) but increasingly will involve stick (companies firing/refusing to hire smokers, for example, or CVS Pharmacy’s decision to penalize employees who do not provide body fat percentages & blood glucose levels).
But is more than simply a social issue? Might it not be a spiritual one, too? Might it not be a discipleship issue? I suggest it is.
Yes, the Apostle to the Gentiles wrote that physical exercise was of only limited benefit (1 Timothy 4.8). But should that be taken as a carte blanche to indulge every gastronomical whim with gusto and pass on Pilates? If indeed the human body is the temple of the Lord (1 Corinthians 6.19), was he referring solely to denying sexual lust while permitting gluttonous lust? Doesn’t it mean we have some responsibility for the upkeep of the temple, some service of stewardship in maintaining our health?
In both Judaism and Christianity gluttony is regarded as sin. Rarely is obesity mentioned in Scripture; the few times the subject appears, it is mentioned only in passing yet always in a negative light (1 Samuel 4.18; Proverbs 23.20-21; Amos 4.1). But what is mentioned a great deal is its polar opposite, fasting.
Fasting has been a discipline of the Church from its inception. I don’t really enjoy it, to be honest. But I cannot escape the fact that the Bible encourages it, and, indeed – by his saying “when (not “if”) you fast” – that Jesus expects it.
In what may be the most famous Old Testament passage about fasting, Isaiah chapter 58, the Lord, speaking through his Prophet, lays out his criticism of those who fast for religious reasons. Afterwards he says:
“Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
A lot of ink has been spilt throughout the ages on the need for fasting. There are things about it I don’t understand, such as how it can make a difference in the heavenlies. I guess I must confess my spiritual radar just isn’t that well-adjusted. The more practical need for fasting is easy to grasp: take the food you would have eaten (or the money you would have spent on food) and donate it to the less fortunate. God likes it when we do this.
When I pastored an urban church in NW Missouri, I always made a point to call for a Daniel Fast (no meats, no sweets) every January, in conjunction with a season of concentrated prayer. I couldn’t control what people ate in their homes (nor would I want to), but I did insist that all the church meetings and potlucks were both vegetarian and dessert-free during those weeks. The first year a lot of people participated; it was a novel idea they were willing to try. Fewer people seemed interested every subsequent year.
There was an influential person (a non-staff member) in the congregation who at last tried to discourage me from calling for a Daniel Fast again. He acknowledged that it was biblical, but said we shouldn’t do it because “Not everybody will participate.” That’s true, I replied, but is that the deciding factor? Not everyone will refrain from extramarital sex and perverse language; not everyone will give to the poor. Should I quit talking about those, and every other unpopular admonition in the Bible? He couldn’t answer, and so the Daniel Fast went on as planned.
Don’t forget, the root of the word ‘disciple’ is ‘discipline.’ There is work expected of Christ’s people. But there is also reward. Isaiah’s text goes on:
“Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”
Do you not want these thing for yourself? I do! If – WHEN – we fast the right way, with the right motives, God will pour out blessings on us. He has promised it, and he does not go back on his promises.
Fasting is both a spiritual discipline and a physical discipline. It’s something to get used to, and then practice routinely. It’s not something we’re supposed to make a big deal out of while we’re doing it, as Jesus pointed out. It isn’t easy, fun, or comfortable if you’re not used to it. But it’s valuable even if you can’t discern the immediate benefit.
I don’t mean to conflate fasting with weight loss; while there may be some overlap, the two are clearly different. I don’t mean to bring condemnation on anyone struggling with their body image, either. Nevertheless, this blunt fact remains: if you cannot discipline yourself to resist that box of doughnuts your coworker brings to the morning meeting, if you hopelessly indulge your late-night craving for ice cream, if you will not give up your ‘addiction’ to your daily can of cola, can you possibly undertake the self-mortification needed for a biblical fast?