If you are addicted to food, overweight, or struggling with an eating disorder, the good news is that you are not alone. It may feel that way; in fact, if you attend church, it can feel incredibly lonely. You wonder how many other people struggle with it. It has become the sin that we don't talk about. Make no mistake, it is a sin because we hope to find wholeness, completeness, fulfillment, and happiness in food, eating too much, eating too little, or working out.
Who Temptations Hurt
We often think of ourselves as the victims when wrestling with temptations. We rationalize why we do what we do. I don't trust people because my dad broke promises to me. I don’t take charge in my life because my mother always dominated it. So, I’ve just learned to sit back and wait for it to be taken care of. I buy things so that I’ll feel like I belong with my neighbor or good friend. I eat like I do because it makes me feel better after a long day.
Our addictions and temptations often start as someone else’s fault. This is why it is so easy for us to live with the addictions and think, “This is just who I am. I can’t do anything about it.” I’m just the guy who gets angry. I’m just the girl who can’t keep her mouth shut. I just need to have the newest gadget.
You may believe that you are overweight because of something your parents did, how they raised you, or what someone said to you in high school. We play this record over and over in our heads. We use those words as reasons to keep us from dealing with what lies underneath.
When we sin, we hurt. We feel guilty and we feel distance from friends and family, but ultimately, we feel distance from God. The scope of sin and temptation is almost exclusively bent toward us.
Do You Really Hate Sin?
One of the problems in our culture is that most of us don’t have a biblical view of sin. We talk about sin as guilty pleasures or vices. Many in our culture believe sin is something made up by Christians to make us feel guilty. Many of us approach sin as if it’s something we can live with, something that is true of everyone. So what’s the big deal?
While sinfulness is true of everyone (Romans 3:23), we are told in Scripture that sin is death (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:1), and that sin is committing adultery against God (James 4:4).
When you sin, do you have that view? When you gossip, are stingy, look at porn, or eat too much, do you think, I am cheating on God?
Scripture teaches this because when we sin, we are living outside the way God designed life to be lived. We are choosing our way over God’s. In that moment, we believe that sin will be more gratifying and more fulfilling than God.
When it comes to food, eating too much, or seeing food as a crutch, the church is silent on whether this is a sin. This allows many to continue living without a worry. It is also why we don’t see food as a spiritual issue - only a health issue.
Lies We Believe
Tim Keller has said, “Every time we sin, we believe a lie.” In that moment of sin, we believe that it will be more gratifying, more enjoyable, and more fulfilling than the life Jesus has promised us. When Jesus came to earth, he promised that he came to give life - life to the fullest (John 10:10). This life is beyond what we can dream or imagine. A life many of us only hope is true. When we sin, we believe this life is not possible for us and that we can find life on our own.
If we’re honest, sin, in the moment we commit it, feels fulfilling. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t do it. When you eat, it feels good, it brings you comfort, and it is a friend in your loneliness. This is why many of us eat like we do. Then something happens after we eat. You know the feeling. The guilt and shame that quickly follow is a different story.
The lie many believe is that they can’t persevere. Often we give into temptation before it even comes. We are defeated people, broken down by life, hopeless to withstand any temptation or trial. We simply acquiesce to the idea that we will always be overweight. We shrug our shoulders and eat another scoop of ice cream. I’ll always be the overweight girl that is excluded. I’ll always be the last picked for the game.
Another lie we often believe is that our sin or temptation is not our fault. Maybe you are like me and blame your weight on your upbringing and how your parents didn't teach you good eating habits. Maybe it is God’s fault that you can’t have the metabolism of a fourteen-year-old now that you are thirty-five. I don’t know why God created people who could eat Taco Bell four times a day and lose a pound in the process when I feel like I gain a pound every time I smell McDonald’s. We rationalize that we aren’t the most sinful person we know. In fact, if you made a list of the ten most sinful people you know, my guess is that you wouldn’t be on it.
This gets at the fundamental question that gets debated in our culture, “Are people basically good or bad?” According to Scripture, we are sinful and broken. We sin out of our desires. You might be thinking, “I sin because of what happened to me.” On the surface, this may be true, but underneath it is another level. Maybe you sin out of protection, to not let people see your brokenness, or have to deal with the brokenness and hurt in your life.
God and Our Bodies
When I was at my heaviest, I had a conversation with my brother-in-law that proved to be a life altering conversation. We were at Starbucks and he asked me, “How can you challenge people in sermons to have self-control when you don’t have any in the area of food?”
The reality of being overweight in the Christian community is that until you have a heart attack or some other health issue, no one will say anything to you. It isn’t seen as a sin, so what’s the point of saying anything? If you choose to be overweight, it’s your choice.
Back to Temptation
We’ve all had that conversation with someone we love who has been hurt by our addictions. We utter these hopeful words that often feel empty, “This is the last time.”
Why do they feel empty?
These words are brimming with the opportunity of freedom. But they are empty because they are overused. Men addicted to porn swear to their wives they will never do it again. They will get accountability, and this time it will be different. After a mother screams at her children, she tells them she won’t do it again. On the verge of bankruptcy, we tell our loved ones that this is the last time we will spend more than we make. We will stop buying things. We will stop drinking. Stop gambling. Stop gossiping. Stop eating too much.
This is the year that I’ll lose weight. How many times have you uttered those fateful words? How many January’s have you said or written down, “This is the year I will get healthy?”
The personal issue my brother-in-law pointed out is that pastors are unhealthy and many of them are overweight. Ouch. A 2001 Pulpit and Pew study of 2,500 clergy found that 76% were overweight or obese compared to 61% of the general population at the time of the study. For many, it has to do with a lack of controlling their schedules when it comes to their sleep and exercise habits along with making poor choices at their lunch meetings or laziness. I think the larger issue for people who say they believe in God is that we compartmentalize the gospel to the point that it is strong enough to save us for eternity but not to transform our eating habits or body image issues.
It’s not just pastors who are overweight. The problem has moved into the pews. A 2006 Purdue study found that fundamental Christians are by far the heaviest of all religious groups, led by the Baptists with a 30% obesity rate compared with Jews at 1%, and Buddhists and Hindus at 0.7%. This study prompted the lead researcher, Ken Ferraro, to say, “America is becoming a nation of gluttony and obesity and churches are a feeding ground for this problem.”
Similarly, a 2011 Northwestern University study tracking 3,433 men and women for 18 years found that young adults who attend church or a Bible study once a week are 50% more likely to be obese. The Pawtucket Heart Health Program found that people who attended church were more likely than non-church members to be 20 percent overweight and have higher cholesterol and blood pressure numbers.
There are a few reasons for this reality. One reason is that churches don’t talk about food as an addiction, the need for exercise, or body image issues. It can be awkward. I didn’t realize this until I lost all my weight. I remember standing on stage talking about this, weighing in at 170 pounds, and looking out at my church. I saw some people who were overweight; some were very obviously overweight, while others just slightly. Whenever you bring up weight, body image issues, or food as an addiction, immediately everyone thinks you are talking about them. While you are speaking to them, it is beyond each individual, and leaders must see it as a larger issue as well. It isn’t that we as pastors want to shame anyone in our church or any leader wants to bring guilt on someone who works for them. But we know they will feel so much better about themselves and their lives if they can gain the freedom that Jesus offers in this area. We want them to experience the life Jesus promised. Too often, we interpret the life described in John 10:10 as simply about heaven. This life, an abundant life, is also about the pace we keep, what we put into our bodies, and how we think about our bodies.
A second reason this isn’t talked about has to do with the leaders of churches in America. You can’t preach about something you don’t believe or don’t live out. You can’t talk about believing in the life Jesus promises when it comes to weight and body image issues while eating the way we do at the church potluck. You can’t challenge your church to have self-control in areas in which you struggle to have self-control.
The last reason this isn’t discussed in churches and why pastors and those who sit in our churches every week are unhealthier than the culture around them is we don’t believe that Jesus is better than food, work, and our pace in life. Since we don't believe it, there is no sense in living it. For many who attend church, the gospel is simply how one gets to heaven and how we spend eternity. Yet, the gospel, the truth of Jesus, is so much bigger and impacts the here and now of our lives. Until this changes, we won’t see how the gospel can free us from food as an idol or an addiction. In short, we won’t be able to see the glory of how God created us in his image and why this is an amazing truth.
Josh Reich is the Pastor of Preaching & Vision at Revolution Church, an Acts 29 church in Tucson, AZ. He is married to his high school sweetheart and they have 4 kids and are adopting any day from Ethiopia. He is currently working on a book about weight loss, health, body image and the gospel. He blogs at www.joshuareich.org and you can follow him on twitter at @joshuareich.