Obesity: Is It Spiritual Too?
Obesity is a problem facing people in much of the developed world. Much is written about its genetic and environmental roots but could it also have a spiritual origin?
Is it perhaps, at least in part, a result of our lack of meaning and our emphasis on consumption above service?
Once a subject that was only discussed in medical or dietary journals, obesity is now becoming a part of our everyday cultural dialogue.
It makes headlines in popular daily newspapers. It has even inspired one of the year's hit movies: a documentary (groan) about convenience food (yawn, pass the french-fries) that's packing them into theatres.
Obesity is much more than a cosmetic problem; it is a health hazard. This year, 280,000 adults will die in the U.S. alone because of obesity-related disorders. These include type two diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, as well as certain types of cancer.
Here in Europe, governments are growing alarmed at the increase of obesity among children. Even in the famously fit and trim Scandinavian nations, governments are now launching programs to target child obesity. In Britain, the BBC recently launched its 'Fat Nation' campaign, which seeks to encourage whole neighbourhoods to take up exercise and develop better eating habits.
The word 'overweight' technically refers to an excess amount of body weight that includes muscle, bone, fat and water. 'Obesity' is much more specific: it refers to an excess amount of body fat.
People become obese when they consume more calories than they can burn.
There's a lot of dialogue today about the physical and psychological contributors to obesity, and rightly so – understanding the causes will help us reduce the threat. Yet very little is said about the spiritual side of the problem.
Knowingly harming our bodies, even in the most incremental ways, is self-destruction. Obesity, at least the kind that arises from behavioural rather than genetic issues, is a mild form of self-destructive behaviour.
Why do we harm ourselves, even in very gradual ways? There are many answers to that, but the bottom line is this: people don't shorten their lives when they have a sufficiently strong reason to live.
I believe that adult obesity as a society-wide problem is partly a reflection of our lack of spiritual purpose. Many people get up in the morning and struggle back into bed at night without ever feeling that their lives have any transcendent meaning.
I'm talking about more than just having jobs we enjoy, or knowing what we were trained to do. I'm talking about having some understanding of what we were born for.
Many people have nothing like that – in fact, they've been taught that life is inherently meaningless. We are just cosmic orphans alone in an absurd and random universe.
Put life in those terms and we shouldn't be surprised when people respond to issues like obesity with something like this: 'So what? Why change? Who really cares whether I have a long life or not?'
If life's about little more than putting bread on the table, paying off the mortgage and upgrading to a better car and holiday, there's not much to drive you to care for yourself. And even more so when times get tough and emotional reserves are at their lowest.
Obesity as a widespread social problem is also a reflection of an over-emphasis on consuming.
Our consumer culture wants to Super Size us on every level. It wants to feed our various appetites to the point where we imbibe more than we can possibly turn into useful output.
That's true on the spiritual plane as much as the physical or emotional.
If in this overwhelmingly secular age we are encouraged to develop our spirituality at all, it is only for the sake of our own well-being; it has little or nothing to do as it once did with better pleasing God or serving our fellow human beings.
In Jesus' famous story, the prodigal son returns to his father after wasting all his inheritance on riotous, fast-lane living.
At the beginning of the story we encounter him as a self-absorbed consumer. His only response to his father's hard-working lifestyle is 'Give me what belongs to me, my inheritance. I'm outta here!'
Eventually, after being reduced to feeding pigs for a living, he is graced with an agonizing but ultimately liberating moment of awareness. He comes 'to himself', as the Bible puts it.
After that, he returns home to find his long-suffering father waiting for him with open arms. The son's cry is, 'Father, make me like one of your servants.'
The father has no such thing in mind. The young man is welcomed back as a full son, with all the privileges of an heir.
What happened to that young man? He 'lost weight' spiritually.
The difference between spiritual obesity and wholeness is the difference between 'Give me' and 'Make me'.
The purpose of God's work in our lives is to trim us of the spiritual fat, the self-obsession and self-destruction that hinder our real progress toward completion, wholeness and even greatness.
© Mal Fletcher 2004
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You are right that we often shrink back from fully expressing our convictions because it puts us "out there". We must realise that the world looks at us at the same time as they hear us. We must learn the lessons & press on.
Eme, United Kingdom
Thanks for keeping us on our toes, Mal! As Christians living in today's ultra-pragmatic culture, our choices need to recognize the present reality while seeing it through the perspective of our God-revealed future.
I just wish that more people knew about your EDGES website. The world is dying to hear about such a message. Thank you!
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