Pursuing Healthy Eating via ‘Heart Surgery’

The latest health-care statistics tell us that seven in ten Americans could stand to lose at least a little weight but, apparently, the majority of that 71% have grown weary of the demoralizing cycle of trying-and-failing, trying again and failing again. According to TIME magazine’s June 5th cover story, we Americans have never been more unhealthy and less willing to do anything about it.

​Last week, I wrote about the heart issues that were all-too-quickly revealed as I sought to tear down my own unhealthy behaviors​ as they relate to food (Away from God, Toward the Buffet Line). This week, I hope to flesh out those heart issues a bit further, along with what I perceive to be the deeper spiritual truths behind them.

The Supper at Emmaus (1650) by Jan Cossiers

The Supper at Emmaus (1650) by Jan Cossiers
(Luke 24:13-35)

As a starting point, I have found that attending support group meetings can do wonders for peeling back the layers of one’s own entrenched self-deception.

Because Jesus was right, and we really do see the speck in each other’s eye with far more clarity than we see our own foolishness (Matthew 7:1-5), spotting unhelpful thinking in others can do wonders for our own recovery, but only if we are willing to immediately ask the question, “OK, but in what way am I doing the exact same thing?” Absent a willingness to ask and respond honestly to that question, we are almost certain to enter into judgment of our fellow sufferers.

I’ve only been at this for about a year, but it seems to me that, as a society, our unhealthy​ eating habits aren’t so much about carbs, calories or convenience as they are about unbelief and idolatry, namely a failure to trust God for His future provision, alongside an unwillingness to believe that Jesus offers us more than does our next Oreo binge.

The Bible makes it clear that when we move away from God, one corresponding result is fear; fear then brings with it a need to self-soothe or “medicate.” If the enemy of your soul can’t get you to dive headlong into heroin, perhaps far too many donuts will serve the same purpose.

Assuming that anyone takes the time required to do the deep work of soul archaeology, pretty much all of our self-destructive behaviors are rooted in one form of fear or another. Fear of death (paradoxically) inches us slowly toward killing ourselves off sooner than God intended. In the case of the Israelites coming up out of Egypt after hundreds of years of enslavement, the fear of starvation or warfare translated into disbelief that the same God who had parted the Red Sea was also aware of their very-real need for food, water and protection. Seeking to horde anything is the next logical step once you begin believing that God is somehow unaware of your physical needs:

Exodus 16:14-20 (ESV)
And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.'” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning.” But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them.

Well-known pastor and author Rick Warren likes to say that you can’t possibly resist a temptation that you are unable to stop thinking about; giving in is a foregone conclusion whenever we fail to focus our heart and mind elsewhere. Translating this biblical truth into one’s need to lose weight, it might be better expressed by saying that “You can’t possibly be freed from food until you are freed from constantly thinking about it.” Negative reinforcement never works; our hearts require redirection​ – “a bigger story,” if you will – not forceful suppression. I’m convinced that all of my previous efforts at losing weight failed because I spent ​far to​o much time obsessing over my next meal, just like the ancient Israelites, blind to the larger spiritual truths behind an otherwise-inexplicable drive to eat more than is needed to sustain life.

​If you – like me – are struggling to get a grip on your eating habits, I encourage you to consider four bigger spiritual truths related to food’s role in your life:

  • Healthy eating is about our relationship with God. Healthy eating demonstrates confidence in God; a willingness to eat reasonably ​can itself become a form of worship, an indicator​ that I trust God to protect and provide for me every day. I therefore don’t need to stuff myself but can ​instead ​choose, as an act of the will, to believe that God will provide for me both today and in the future (Matthew 6:33).
  • Healthy eating is about our relationship with other people. Eating well and in moderation can be an act of worship designed to serve those we love. If overeating can be thought of as a means by which we descend into poor health, fatigue and (ultimately) an earlier death, ​then ​healthy eating can be seen as a means by which we grab hold of the other people in our life and tangibly demonstrate to them that they matter to us, that we want to stay in relationship with them as long as possible by extending our lives and enjoying more activities together.​
  • Healthy eating is about our relationship with an unbelieving world. A few years ago, I read an account of an itinerant pastor who was quite popular and toured our country giving moving speeches about the evils of pornography and other sexual sins. However, this very same pastor, on the lunch break, could be counted upon to consume two or three plates of food, a fact made all-too-obvious by the size of his waistline. While agreeing heartily with this brother that pornography is indeed destroying an entire generation of young men, I couldn’t help but think that this man’s thoroughly-biblical exhortation was made “a bit easier to ignore.” Unbelievers are always looking for reasons to explain away Christian teachings; the exhortations of a man who very obviously cannot control himself tend to fall on deaf ears. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with this perspective says that you understand that your life isn’t all about you.
  • Healthy eating is, lastly, about our relationship with ourselves. What I mean here is not self-obsession, but rather the often-needed shift toward thinking less, not more, about our bodies as our own property. Most Christians are quick to agree with the Apostle Paul that their bodies belong to God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and each other (1 Corinthians 7:4), but that doctrinal truth can all-too-easily be silenced by the shouts of the Fried-Twinkie-on-a-Stick vendor at the county fair. Caring rightly for our bodies by watching what we eat is less about what the results will do for ourselves and more about how we care for the temple God has given us to inhabit this side of heaven. After all, as Christians, we believe that we’re not the only ones inhabiting these “jars of clay” but rather that the Spirit of God dwells within (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).

After a year of listening to others speak openly about their battles with food, I am convinced that our biggest problem really isn’t our waistline​; it’s buried in the depths of our self-deceptive hearts. The toughest battle I have faced in my desire to lose weight is not waged in the candy aisle at Hy-Vee; every lost battle began by paying attention to the deceptive voice within that whispers that I don’t really God when a bag of jelly beans will do the trick. Jelly beans provide a quick fix to emptiness…and have never once asked me to pick up my cross and follow after, love and pray for my enemies or serve others with a heart of gladness.

Proverbs 23:1-3 (ESV)
When you sit down to eat with a ruler,
observe carefully what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
if you are given to appetite.
Do not desire his delicacies,
for they are deceptive food.

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one-the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
C.S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters

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