A few years ago, I ran a half marathon, and during the race I remember seeing a shirt on a fellow runner that said “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” with a picture of a pair of running shoes and a reference to Philippians 4:13. At the time, I thought it was really neat to see someone proudly proclaiming their faith in an objectively “secular” activity. For that intent and purpose, the shirt was awesome.
And maybe, that’s all it was.
But as I’ve become more involved in the intuitive eating space (and the “Christian” health/wellness space) I’ve come across more and more references to verses like Philippians 4:13 which use scripture as a motivation for physical fitness, weight loss, dieting, skipping dessert, and more of the like. For another example, a popular Christian fitness blog recently posted the following verse as part of a 3-week health program:
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. “2 Timothy 4:7
It made my blood boil.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that God is not nearly as concerned with a “perfectly trim physique” or following training plans as we are. Making the argument that He is lays the breeding ground for unnecessary Christian guilt. God will not condemn you if you skip leg day. He will not bless you if you don’t.
First and foremost, the problem is that the above verse is not talking about running. Yes, in his second letter to Timothy, Paul references a race…but it was used as a metaphor to refer to persevering in commitments to preaching God’s word, evangelizing and adhering to “sound doctrine “(verse 3). The truth of the matter is that 2 Timothy 4:7 has nothing to do with exercise, fitness, weight loss, or anything else related to the body. In fact, this very passage was cautioning against using scripture out of context — the exact thing that Christian bloggers do when they use it as motivation for exercise or dieting.
There are definitely times and places that are appropriate to use scripture as motivation, and I firmly believe that we are called to bring everything to God in prayer.
However, from my own understanding, our prayers are only effective and blessed if they are in line with the heart of God — and quite frankly God is not nearly as concerned with running marathons or losing weight as he is with evangelism and teaching the word.
That’s not to say that physical health and well-being aren’t important — they are. Folks who aren’t physically fit and well aren’t able to embark on missionary journeys, invest in the lives of their children, or go out and spread the love of God in the world. They’re usually too tired, too sick, or too stressed out to think about anything beyond their own present circumstances. However, diet and exercise efforts are often just as all-encompassing as the physical limitations that result from poor health.
Here’s an example: let’s say for a moment that you’re trying to lose weight by exercising more. So, you sign up for a month of spin classes at a local gym, and after the first session realize that you actually hate them. However, you’ve paid for them, so you want to use them. Plus, you feel like you “should” because you think you pant size is “too big” or your body isn’t “bikini ready” (whatever that even means). All day at work, you keep thinking about how much you’re dreading the class. When 5:00 pm rolls around, you’re still feeling particularly unmotivated, so you put it off and promise yourself you’ll go to the 7:00 pm one instead. So, you stay at work an extra hour to procrastinate — scrolling through Facebook, completing menial tasks, and just wasting time so you can avoid spin class for an extra two hours. Finally, at 7:00 pm, you decide you’re too hungry to go to the gym, swipe the last donut in the break room because “you’ve already blown it” and promise yourself to hit the gym tomorrow.
How much better would that time have been used if not for dread, procrastination, and avoidance? Even if we decide to suffer through the workout, I still believe it would have been a waste. Exercise isn’t the due punishment of God for being “too fat.” It’s something that we can do as a gift, a celebration, and to honor and respect the bodies God created for us. If exercise feels like punishment, we’re probably choosing the wrong activity.
Of course, not all fitness plans look like this.
Some people genuinely enjoy spin class, some folks truly like running, and training for the marathon comes easily.
With the exception of professional athletes, however, running marathons is just a form of exercise. At the end of the day, the physical accomplishment is meaningless.
I don’t want to sound to critical or dismissive — I know that conquering a physical challenge can be very gratifying, empowering, and exciting — and God doesn’t condemn us for taking pleasure in exercise or hobbies. In fact, the exercises we do should be enjoyable. But there’s a difference between doing something because it makes you feel good and making the argument that you’re doing it for God — or worse, making the argument that God called you (and by default, everyone else) to run a marathon by referencing out-of-context bible verses.
I’ve shared on this blog numerous times before that I used to have a really complicated relationship with exercise. For me, part of that meant running mini marathons (or just running in general) to try to change the size and shape of my body and avoid the problems in my life. The excessive running took a toll on my health (which was absolutely not honoring to God) and did absolutely nothing to solve the problems I was trying to numb out through exercise and dieting. As time went on, I often asked God to help me lose more weight, not realizing that my desires were not in line with God.
Yes, I still lost more weight. No, it was not for the sake of holiness.
God isn’t concerned with weight-loss efforts. He is concerned with holiness, spreading love in the world, and the things that make those possible.
Doesn’t God want me to be healthier?
As a fit and well woman, I don’t think that God wants me to be healthier. I already am about as healthy as I can be — within the realm of my control. If I were to fall prey to a terrible disease or a traumatic accident, that would not have been “my fault.” It would’ve been God’s will — no matter how frustrating and devastating as it might seem.
Some people are not fit and well, and their physical health would benefit if they made some changes. With the correct motivation, I believe that nutrition and exercise habits can sometimes be changed for Holy purposes, but only if those changes are the means to an end. Pursuing fitness or diet changes for the sake of themselves (or for the sake of vanity) are not holy purposes. Excessive weight lifting for the purpose of body sculpting, pushing the boundaries of human health to conquer an ultra marathon, or limiting carbs to the point of physical exhaustion are actually things that get in the way of holiness. They distract us, confuse us, and can harm us.
“Christian” diet and fitness blogs are saturated with scripture references that are supposed to motivate weight loss, nutrition, and exercise efforts. I personally believe that those bloggers are in the wrong (whether inadvertently or not) for using scripture to back up arguments that they are making out of their own personal beliefs.
Nowhere in scripture does God condemn larger bodies. He doesn’t say that we need to exercise for X amount of minutes per day or limit desserts to X amount of times per week. In fact, most of the references to nutrition and exercise are either used as metaphors for something else (“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” – Psalm 34:8) or are cautioned against valuing them too much (“For physical training is of some value, but Godliness…” – 1 Timothy 4:8).
So, the moral of my story is this: dieting, weight loss, and physical fitness aren’t Christian values, and there is danger in suggesting otherwise.
[To learn more about God’s views about the intersection between food, faith, and Christian freedom, check out my devotional, available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle: Faith, Food, Freedom]
The floor is yours: what are your thoughts about Christian weight loss programs?