Starting Fresh: Growing in Love

Part Three

 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12: 30-31          

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions, partly because they don’t actually work. This can set us up to begin the new year with a sense of failure.

Research shows that the most popular resolutions for 2022 were living healthier (23%), personal improvement and happiness (21%), and losing weight (20%). In 2021 they were exercising more and improving fitness (50% of participants), losing weight (48%), saving money (44%), and improving diet (39%).

Yet this research also shows that most New Year’s resolutions don’t survive past February of the new year.

Is there a Biblical framework that helps us really grow as healthier people in the new year?

Markers of Health: Love God, Love Neighbor

According to Jesus, human beings were designed to love.

Framing health in Jesus’ teaching on the “great commandment” gives us a holistic framework to understand salvation and health, which are inextricably linked.

Jesus’ name literally means “he who saves.” The Greek word used to describe how Jesus will “save his people” is σῴζω (sōzō) (Matt 1:21). The church in the West has often translated “salvation” to refer to a postmortem destiny, in which we will be rescued from hell and translated to heaven. In this paradigm, Jesus “saves” by erasing penalties for sin from the divine score card. Yet σῴζω (sōzō), salvation more accurately denotes relief from suffering, healing from disease, making well, whole, and restoring to health. It has a present dimension that involves wholeness in this life, not just a condition in the next.

The word translated as “heal” (ἰάομαι) in the New Testament means to cure or make whole. This is the meaning every time Jesus heals someone, not to give them a golden ticket to heaven, but to heal the fragmentation in their life, and this often had a physical dimension. A diminished understanding of salvation is often emphasized in the Western church, whereas the biblical vision of shalom (a world at peace) is much more expansive than saving souls for relocation to heaven when we die.

What does it look like to live a life that is well and whole?

Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength… and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). I wrote a series of reflections on each dimension that Jesus describes: heart, soul, mind, strength and neighbor here.

On the foundation of proper self-care, based in wholeness as “growing in love” we can set healthier boundaries and practice spiritual disciplines that support growth.

For a person to be truly healthy, it requires an integration of all these dimensions of our humanity. To treat these parts as if they were totally separate is a false dichotomy. The Scriptures show us that there is a unified oneness to those different spheres of our being. A healthy soul is conducive to a healthy mind, a healthy mind is predicated upon a healthy body, and so on. Growing healthy in the Biblical sense is about growing in love and being good stewards of each of those dimensions.

In Judeo-Christian spirituality true health is a lifelong journey of restorative grace. Our life is a lived response to that grace, which requires discipline and continuous intentional effort in the right direction. We have a part to play, it doesn’t just happen, we have to cooperate with our healing. I want to focus the remainder of this reflection on the dimension of our humanity that Jesus called “strength,” as the physicality of our existence, or simply our “body.” Loving God with our entire being includes these marvelous flesh and blood bodies that will ultimately be resurrected from death.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1, emphasis added).

What does it look like to love God with our bodies?

The intent behind the mega-trend of New Year’s resolutions seeking to grow more physically healthy is good, but here I want to suggest a couple things that might actually help us love God with our bodies in a realistic and sustainable way.

A Fitness Plan that Works

Personally, I believe that we are often too ambitious with our fitness resolutions, or conversely not ambitious enough, and so that couch and the remote control win the battle for our long-term health.           

Perhaps you’re wondering why a pastor and professor is giving fitness advice? Well ten years ago I was a 50-pound overweight workaholic serving one of the most notoriously toxic congregations in the state of Florida. I was killing myself with food, expectations, and a cycle of hamster-wheel-like-work, that generated lots of energy but went nowhere. I’m not alone, while it varies between specific fields up to 75 percent of people experience burnout at least once in people helping professions.            

For over a decade now, I’ve stuck to a simple workout routine that keeps me the same weight and definition that I was in high school. I have five grandchildren, but I run a 5k in 20ish minutes, stay conditioned for competitive inline speed skating, and can press double my own weight.           

So, here’s three tips from my own journey that you might find helpful in loving God with your body.

1. The Right Motivation… Exercise is a Spiritual Discipline.

Most people fail to keep up a fitness plan, because we do it from the wrong motivation. Wanting to look good is not necessarily spiritual, that’s called narcissism. This word has its origins in the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image, staring at his own reflection in a pool of water until he died, then a flower sprouted up bearing his name. Ego will get you so far, but it probably won’t be enough to sustain a long-term fitness plan.

It was an epiphany for me to discover that God puts a lot into our bodies. They are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and our body is a “temple” of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Contrary to Western pseudo-Christianity, we will not just fly up into the sky as disembodied spirits one day, to play harps on pillowy clouds. We will be resurrected from death in our physical bodies (1 Corinthians. 15:20-23).

To separate the body, mind, and soul, is a false dichotomy. If we truly understand that we are stewards of these marvelous organisms, made in the image of God, then spiritual growth includes what we do with our bodies.

Exercise is a form of prayer. Click here for a whole reflection on this.

2. Stop Eating so Dang Much! (especially in one sitting)

If that sounds harsh it because it’s meant to be. In the US we eat too much. We often eat more calories in a single sitting than some people in the world have for a whole week. The global disparity between the haves and have nots should be alarming for followers of Jesus. As we throw away piles of leftovers every day, others die of starvation.

It takes willpower, but portion control is a key to having a healthy body. Rather than eating three large meals a day, perhaps we can split those meals into six smaller meals. It gives our body a chance to process calories at a rate that doesn’t overwhelm. An abundance of calories becomes stored as fat. Eating as much of a plant-based diet as possible is important, but you don’t have to go vegan to be fit. Eat what you like, just eat less of it. Also, don’t drink soda, but hydrate with lots of water.

I personally don’t pay for weight loss programs. I just eat enough in one sitting… and stop.

3. Stink and Sweat Every Day

God didn’t create our bodies to be sedentary. A healthy body stays in motion. We aren’t designed to sit in front of screens all day. We were designed to run, hunt, forage, walk, and then sleep well.

The key here is finding something you actually enjoy doing that makes you sweat and stink. Cycling, yoga, running, skating, swimming, speed walking, or pickle ball… anything that you like doing that makes you sweat!

A good strength training routine is good as well. I don’t use a personal trainer. There are lots of strength training plans you can pull for free off the internet. The challenge is having the time management skills and then discipline to work your plan.

Don’t waste money on expensive proteins, muscle drinks, and supplements. I don’t take anything not naturally produced in my body. Lots of people talk about “bulking up” with muscle. If that’s your goal, knock yourself out. My focus is to sculpt the body that God gave me in its natural prime condition. I’m not on the “get big or die trying” hype with some of my beefcake friends grunting it out in the gym. I maintain a body that is lean, cut, and fast.

When you alter your natural body frame in an unnatural way, it’s harder to maintain and actually has long term negative effects on health. The lighter and lower fat index you can achieve on your frame, the more long-term advantages for your cardiac, respiratory, and digestive health. It’s also much better on your back, disks, and musculoskeletal system in general.

When we add a bunch of weight that is not natural to the design of our body, it harms it, not makes it stronger. When the pandemic initially struck, I paused my gym membership and purchased a simple $20 home “multi-gym” device that can be hung from a door frame. It enabled me to do pull ups, dips, push-ups, sit ups, and by hanging bags of books from the handles… curls, squats, and so on. Throughout the pandemic I sustained my weight, strength, and muscle definition using this simple device.

We have some helpful clichés in the recovery community, “simple but not easy” and “one day at a time.” What I’ve suggested here is simple, but not easy. We will not do it perfectly, but that’s the beautiful thing about the journey of grace, it’s about progress not perfection. We can do anything for one day at a time.

My only resolution in the coming year is to continue to grow spiritually as I seek to love God with every dimension of my being and love my neighbor as myself. I will fail… a lot! Yet, in the intention and the process, hopefully I will become a more whole and healthier person. I pray this for you too as we journey into a new year!

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