How a weight loss diet has taught me about worship, idolatry, and the Gospel

I’m fat.

I’m not saying this so you’ll say ‘no you’re not’ or whatever. It’s a statement of fact; backed up when I step on the scales.

I’m fat; I don’t really have a body image problem that is driving me to this pronouncement, it’s more a body problem.

I almost always have been. I’ve certainly always felt fat; even when I was a kid and involved in swimming training almost daily and swimming club on Friday nights, I was pudgy. Big. Overweight. Being overweight isn’t much fun; eating is though. I love food. Bad food. KFC. Chocolate. Ice cream. If there was one sin I’d scratch it’d be gluttony. I’d have all of the foods. I comfort eat and I holiday eat. I just like to eat.

The scales tell me I’ve almost always been overweight; I hit the 100kg mark in grade 12 and have only dipped back under it once since. I’m tall so I’m always going to be heavy; but there’s a difference between heavy and fat. I get that. I’m not just heavy though.

I’ve had some sense that fatness is a problem internally for almost the whole time I’ve been fat; I resented it when my weight became an issue in my family, which probably drove me to rebellious comfort eating. Who knows? I’ve also had some sense that my being fat is caused by a lack of self-control; which the Bible says is a ‘fruit of the Spirit’ and the result of gluttony and greed. I also know that being fat stops me doing some of the things I would like to do; it makes sport hard, it makes parenting and chasing small children more taxing than it could be, and it does, despite my best efforts to live in denial about this, make me self-conscious about what I wear and do.

The good thing about being fat is that unlike other problems, I can do something about it. At least that’s what I said to a bloke who sledged me on the soccer field once. I’m in total control of my destiny.

The first time I seriously ‘did something about it’ was a couple of years ago. I was tipping the scales at 113kg. I signed up for the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation Challenge, and 12 weeks later I’d hit 97kg. I felt more confident, skinnier, healthier, but still fat. I also felt the urge to enjoy some of the food I’d had to give up to get under the 1,800 calorie a day mark. Those 12 weeks were interesting though. I had more energy; more pep, and I had a more disciplined approach to all the other aspects of my life, it seemed. Saying no to McDonalds drive-thru on the way home, where once that’d been a detour I’d take on auto-pilot, made it easier to say no to a bunch of other auto-pilot decisions I was making that didn’t fit with who I wanted to be.

One other thing I noticed while in the midst of this 12 weeks of becoming ‘the new me’ was that I became very judgmental of people who were like ‘the old me’… unenlightened me. Unlightened me. People making terrible decisions about what they were eating. I’d walk through the grocery store judging people by what they put in their baskets, their size, or their stop at Donut King on the way to the carpark; when I’d been doing the same thing just weeks before.

I felt proud of the discipline I’d adopted of only buying fresh food, cooking healthy meals with small portions, and religiously counting and recording every calorie. I’d attend to my mass every week at weigh in. And I was thrilled to see steady signs of progress; of me becoming my more ideal self. When I could stomach it, I’d watch Michelle’s videos and read her emails and hear her lay out the core tenets of my new regime. I was irregular in doing that though (perhaps a bit like the Christian who is happy to miss a few weeks of church when they get the gist of what gets said).

One thing the 12WBT did well, that I ignored, was it built an online community of fellow travellers who’d encourage each other in the pursuit of ‘body transformation’ — fashioning ourselves into some ideal image, but doing it together.

I didn’t really let the habits sink in though; I got what I wanted from the program. And moved on. If my ideal self really is the 90kg non-fat self then I didn’t get there and the 12WBT liturgy failed because it did not establish new habits in me, or ultimately transform me.

But it was powerful. The training. The narrative. The new habits. The equipping. Michelle sends you encouragement and gives you the meal plans and recipes you need to succeed. If I’d kept it up; who knows, I probably wouldn’t be fat now.

2 years (and one slightly less-successful return to Michelle Bridges) later, I was tipping the scales at 108kg, and I decided to arrest my return to the old me. But this time I needed a new image of success; a new personal trainer, a new ‘priest’, who’d lead me to a better image of myself.

When you sign up, he sends you this picture to share on social media. This is the image I’m cultivating by my new habits. This is the picture of the ‘flourishing human life’…

nathan-gets-commando-fit
What I’m realising is that it’s very hard to separate the pursuit of this image from idolatry; and that really getting there and keeping there doesn’t simply require discipline but liturgy, or worship. I need to replace my desire to eat delicious comfort food; my love for that food; with the expulsive power of a new affection; I need to not only learn that those foods are toxic and bad for me, but adopt habits that are good for me. I need to take control of my life. I need to change the script I’m living, and adopt a new vision of what my life could be.

One of the reasons idolatry is so powerful is that it has the capacity to deliver results (or we wouldn’t bother), it just can’t deliver real meaning or satisfaction. This is because idolatry doesn’t just work at the heart and our desires and the ‘story’ or vision of life that tugs us through the world and guides our decisions, or in the mind our knowledge and imagination, but in our habits; our actions; and the repetition of actions shapes us. That’s why piano players practice the piano, athletes train, why Gladwell’s 10,000 rule largely holds true, and why diets work when they change your habits. Idolatry isn’t always as destructive as pornography, in the temporal sense, but even good and wise habits; morality, study, budgeting, self-discipline, and dieting can pull you away from Jesus while they shape you into a better version of you. Idolatry of this kind doesn’t just pull you from Jesus though, it also distances you from people who don’t have the same vision of the good life; both as you are transformed, and as they are not. It has the potential to make you as judgmental and insular as any traditionally religious person. It brings a whole new vocabulary and culture, puts you in a new ‘in group’ community… it’s powerful stuff. I went to the mechanic last week, and my mechanic is clearly a man who takes cars very seriously, one might say he lives for them; I felt judged because I don’t look after my car right, he spoke to me in a language and terms I didn’t understand, about new things I would need to do if I wanted my car to give me pleasure rather than pain; and I gained some small insight into my judginess of the other shoppers at the supermarket, and perhaps also how people feel when they join us in Christian community…

I don’t have to go far to find an example of this from the program. I hadn’t read today’s email until I started typing this paragraph and thought I’d check what Commando Steve says… and here are some highlights. He starts with a pitch to encourage us to push beyond the temporary gains; to avoid fad diets and myths; to really buy in to his story of the flourishing human life… not just the “superficial, fast, measurable results” but the fruit that comes from adopting “this new routine, way of life as part of your everyday for the long term.” What he really wants for us; and he repeats this at the end of the email, so it’s important, is for us “to start living a flourishing, meaningful life.”

Sounds like the sort of thing you might hear in church, right? That’s cause it is. He says some of the key ‘dot points’ we need to sort out to make this lasting change include:

  • Identity – Who do I want to be? Where am I going? What do I want to do? These are all questions you must answer. But to do this you must live your answers in the quest to shape your identity and the person you want to become.
  • Education (Knowledge) – Is the means by which we have greater understanding and the ability to make more informed, conscious choices. Are you willing to learn?
  • Our actions are what define and shape the person we want to become (identity). By taking what we learn and experience along our journey, we then implement it into our actions. Through repeated consistency, we begin to forge and reinforce the identity and person we want to become.
  • By taking time to reflect on where it is we have come from, and where it is we are headed, do we then begin to gain insight and understanding about how we have shaped the person we are becoming

And then he says if I’m going to embed the right sort of change, and avoid the fads, I need to ask: “What is my real purpose in life? Why am I doing this? Am I willing to fundamentally change how I think, move and eat for the long term or am I just looking for a quick fix?” And then says: “When you begin to answers to these questions that’s when you will begin to live a meaningful, flourishing life.”

What he could say is I need to ask: “Who do I want to worship my way into being? So what do I need to worship?” These are ultimately questions and observations about the way we’re wired as people; about the way real change happens. We’re mostly profoundly changed by what we worship.

If I really want to buy in to the Commando’s vision of fitness, I need to buy in heart, mind, and body. And I’m sure he’ll deliver. I mean look at him.

And for a fat guy who has pretty much always been fat, that’s tempting. Whether it’s as tempting as a Zinger Stacker Ultimate Burger meal from KFC is an interesting question; but I’m three weeks in and no drive-thru… Temptation doesn’t always come in neon lights and cheap hits to your senses; sometimes it is in the perversion of wisdom where something other than God is organising your life and setting your vision for what humanity should look like.

But dieting works; training works; we become what we behold, and that happens via our habits. This shaping isn’t a good thing if it pulls us from loving God and from loving others. So this time around I’ve been more conscious of not buying into this alternative vision of flourishing; of keeping my eyes fixed on where real purpose is found and why I’m doing this. I don’t want a quick fix; sure, but nor do I want to be so transformed that I lose sight of Jesus and stop seeing God’s image in the people walking next to me in the Supermarket simply because their ‘god,’ or the image their god fashions them into, doesn’t look like the Commando or Michelle. This means I’m working hard not to be judgmental of others; but also cutting myself some slack. I hate dieting, and my approach has been to channel the Commando and be hyper-disciplined and a bit unpleasant. I need to let that go, or I’m cultivating the wrong habits; and I’d be better off fat for my family’s sake.

The Bible doesn’t say heaps about fitness; though greed and gluttony are problems… Paul uses racing and fighting analogies in his letters, and it seems he has some familiarity with the training regimes required for both; then, in his first letter to Timothy, he says:

“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” — 1 Timothy 4:4-8

This should be what shapes my diet and my training regime. Knowing the goodness of God from creation (including food, and wisdom regarding how our bodies process it); thanking him for it and seeing him and his goodness through his creation of good food and intricately woven bodies that need work. Like the Commando, Paul suggests avoiding myths and focusing on training; but his main concern is not healthy habits but godliness. It’s godliness that will flow through to how we approach food and dieting.

Fitness isn’t a bad thing; it’s a natural product of discipline and self control, and probably an inevitable outcome of making decisions to wisely steward what God has given us; and a thing that enables us to love others better (it’s also part of that ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ thing). But it’s not an ultimate thing, and there are much more important measures of true meaning and flourishing than your weight or waistline.

Fitness isn’t a bad thing, but it can be, like other good created things, or other fruits of wise living, if it becomes an ultimate thing, or caught up with an ultimate version of myself that does not look like Jesus. If I look at Commando and I look at Jesus I know whose arms I think are more admirable; those hands that were nailed to a cross are more worthy of my admiration and pursuit than any CrossFit trainer, and his image is a more worthwhile template for my transformation than some bloke with big guns and a diet plan who is helping me shed some weight. As Paul puts it in Colossians:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” — Colossians 1:15-20

The Commando is kinda right in his approach and the questions he asks; his vision of flourishing is a knock-off though; while Jesus offers the Rolex; an alternative vision of flourishing. His image; his habits; his life and death and resurrection as an invitation to flourish. This is where a real and satisfying body image should come from — the ‘physical body’ and life of Jesus an image that might then flow through to how you treat your body and pursue your health. In whatever weight loss program I get caught up in, I need to remember that it’s more important to practice looking like, and being like, Jesus because I want to find my identity in him; not my biceps or waistline. This image is enough for Paul to adopt some new habits. Physical habits, ‘filling up his flesh,’ embodying the Gospel… I do like how this passage emphasises the bodily reality of Paul’s ministry. This; the Gospel; is where the real flourishing life is found. Resurrected and eternal life; we start cultivating that lifestyle and the habits of eternity now.

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation — if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” — Colossians 1:21-24

2 Comments How a weight loss diet has taught me about worship, idolatry, and the Gospel

  1. Tim G

    Good to read.
    I hit 112kg, dropped down to 85 (weight watchers app) back up to 106, back down to 85 again & now I’m back to my original weight.
    It’s a tough battle with judgement of ones’ self (God loves me even at this size) and others, but I’ve been thinking that lasting change lies in something else being the end.

    The discipline to be thoughful with my eating is the discipline that feeds into other things too.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: 14 (not easy) ‘new years resolutions’ for Christians who want to live more radically in 2017 | St. Eutychus

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *