"I'm not going to spend my Sunday afternoons swapping recipes with a bunch of women!"
Bill Patterson knew he was overweight, but when his wife, Angie, asked him to join a healthy-living group at their church, his reaction was decidedly less than positive.
"I had a bit of an outburst," laughs Bill, referring to his anti-"recipe-swapping" remark. "I thought I had the discipline to lose weight on my own; I didn't need a program. My attitude toward Angie was, 'You go to class. You learn to cook the food. I'll eat it.'"
In fact, weighing upwards of 300 pounds, Bill was self-conscious about his weight. Angie wanted to lose some extra pounds too. But the real challenges the couple faced went deeper than issues of calories and exercise.
"I was stuck in neutral," Bill admits. "I needed to fix my life, but I didn't know how. And the things I needed to fix weren't just physical."
Angie felt the same way. While weight gain was the immediate concern that brought her to a point of change, the increased pounds were symptomatic of a deeper dissatisfaction.
What Bill and Angie really needed was practical help in cultivating daily balance within their marriage. From the outside looking in, things seemed to be fine. The two were obviously in love. They were financially okay. They appeared to successfully juggle their busy schedules.
But in reality, Bill and Angie found it difficult to carve out a meaningful life together beyond the "hamster wheel" of their daily demands—especially in their faith.
"People looking at us would have thought things were going well," says Bill. "But spiritually, I was away from God. I never prayed, never read a Bible. I'd go to church with Angie on Sunday mornings, but that was the extent of it."
Angie recalls similar feelings. "My spiritual life was a little more indepth, but it was still inconsistent," she says. Bill and Angie found it hard to make a consistent commitment to any balanced system of nurture or growth within their marriage. Whether it was starting an exercise program or finding a few minutes together just to talk, nothing seemed to stick for long.
"I believe that for couples to grow and be a great team, they've got to share an outward focus and work together on something that's bigger than themselves," Bill explains. "We didn't have that."
"Hit or miss was the theme of that time," Angie says, remembering her frustration. "I finally just cried out to God for help."
Help arrives—disguised as a weight-loss program
Little did Bill and Angie know their key to finding a lasting sense of balance and direction in their lives would begin with their decision to lose weight.
Angie served on the women's council at her church. A Christ-centered health program called First Place, dedicated to encouraging a balanced lifestyle, was being considered as a new women's ministry.
Angie lobbied to make the program coed and invited Bill to come along. Reluctantly, he agreed. At the orientation meeting, he got a surprise.
"When First Place ends their orientation, they hand out a commitment form," Bill says. "To join, you have to sign. At the bottom of the form it says, 'For the next 12 weeks, I'll put Jesus Christ in First Place in my life.'"
While Bill wanted to lose weight, he wondered what "putting Christ first" had to do with finding balance in his physical life.
A week later, he was still undecided. "In a moment of testosterone-driven maleness, I told God I was going to find out just how powerful he was," Bill says. "I picked up the form, signed it, and thought I'd made a huge mistake."
After their first meeting, Bill still wrestled with private doubts. "That night I sat in the living room after Angie went to bed. There was never a time in my life when I'd taken a personal problem to God, but finally I said, 'Lord, I've got this problem and I can't fix it. I need your help.'"
A familiar first step
Carole Lewis, national director of First Place, recognizes Bill's late-night living room prayer, and Angie's heart-felt cry to God for help, similar to the first steps she took on her journey toward a more balanced lifestyle nearly 20 years ago.
During the mid-1980s, Carole went through a time when she felt increasingly overwhelmed by negative circumstances. "Many years earlier, I'd given my life to Jesus Christ," she writes in her autobiographical book entitled First Place. "But in reality, I had no idea how to let God be the Lord of my life. How could I give my life to God when I'd been running it on my own for so many years?"
Finally, prompted by an increasing sense of desperation as her family struggled with financial difficulties, she responded to a statement her pastor made during a sermon one Sunday morning. Regarding the human will, the pastor suggested that God would honor this prayer: "Lord, I'm not willing, but I'm willing to be made willing."
Carole asked God to take control of her will and assume first place in her life.
"While I had no idea where God would take my simple prayer, I'd found the key to change," Carole says. "I was willing to be willing. Many choices came later, but this choice was the starting place."
John Smith agrees. He was single when he decided to make a positive change in his life, beginning with losing some weight. But after sitting through a First Place orientation meeting, he quickly decided he was too busy for such a significant commitment.
"The whole theme of the program is Matthew 6:33: 'Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,'" says John. "When I prayed about my decision, it was as if God said, 'Nope. You're 30 years old and it's time to put everything else aside and seek me first.'"
So John stayed with the program. "I lost 20 pounds, was reading more Scripture than I ever had, praying more, and attending church regularly," John says.
His First Place leader noticed the positive change so she introduced him to Ginger. The two hit it off, and John's former First Place leader soon became his new mother-in-law.
How does balance work?
For Bill and Angie Patterson, Carole Lewis, and John and Ginger Smith, as well as thousands of others, the first step toward a positive lifestyle change was a conscious decision to put Christ first. Then First Place provided a practical model for godly balance.
The program identifies four areas of life that need to be balanced—or nurtured—equally: spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical. These four areas are highlighted as biblically representative of the balance Jesus encourages. When asked to name God's greatest commandment, he answered: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart [emotional] and with all your soul [spiritual] and with all your strength [physical] and with all your mind [mental]" (Luke 10:27).
As a weight management program, First Place advocates balanced nutrition based on the usda Food Pyramid. It includes servings from all the food groups, with an emphasis on choices that are low in sugar and fat, and high in complex carbohydrates. Regular exercise is an integral component.
Participants agree to nine commitments, including regular attendance to weekly meetings, daily prayer, Bible reading, memorizing Scripture, maintaining a food and exercise diary, and encouraging one other member each week.
Since the first group met in Houston in 1981, the program has grown to include more than 500,000 participants worldwide. It's active in all 50 states and usually meets in small group settings, in churches of every denomination.
For such couples as Bill and Angie Patterson, the most important benefit offered by First Place was the systematic, daily framework for cultivating godly balance. Shifting out of "neutral" meant changing the way they used their time.
"In order to make sure we got our Bible study and exercise in, we essentially eliminated tv from our lives," says Bill.
He also cut back on extra hours at work. "There's always the fear you'll hurt your career by doing that," Bill says. "But I got more promotions after I got some balance in my life."
Angie remembers the hard work she and Bill put in, honoring their commitment to exercise by walking in the 95-degree Texas heat. "It wasn't easy and it wasn't something that happened overnight," says Angie, "but when you start honoring God with your life and with your body, he'll bless your efforts."
John and Ginger Smith have learned about helping each another with accountability. Along the way, they've also learned a thing or two about "failing successfully."
"If you've had a bad day and you've eaten horribly, we've learned you can still do the 'next right thing,'" says Ginger. "Instead of getting bogged down in all the negative things, stop and do the next thing you know is right." That's good advice, in any aspect of a marriage relationship.
What does it mean to have a marriage marked by emotional balance? "Emotional balance is not reacting to everything that comes into your day," Carole Lewis explains. Sometimes people experience problems that make them respond in ways that are uncomfortable for others, especially their spouse. "But you don't have to react every time somebody has a wrong response," Carole points out.
For her, mental balance means focusing on what God would approve of in her thought life. It means resisting the urge to think negatively about herself and her circumstances. In a marriage, that includes refusing to dwell obsessively on the negative aspects of a spouse's personality or behavior.
Is it really worth the work?
"Finding balance together has changed our lives—physically, mentally, socially," says Angie. For one thing, since getting their physical lives back in balance, Angie and her husband reap the benefit of being able to hike and take overnight backpacking trips.
But both Angie and Bill acknowledge that the biggest positive impact has come from the regular Bible study. "First Place was really designed to lead you through the process of realizing why you need to be healthy; it's to be obedient to God," says Angie.
"It was such an eye-opening experience for me to see God regularly, consistently answer prayers," Bill says. "I learned to take my needs to God and to let him work in my life."
Spiritual growth had the most profound effect for John and Ginger's marriage as well. "I think the Bible study opens the door for talking about some of those deeper, more intimate issues we should be discussing as a couple," says Ginger. "But sometimes we just get busy and don't take the time."
"It gives us more common ground," agrees John. "First Place differs from just a weight loss program because it's seeking God first, trying to have a balanced life so you're a better witness."
Carole Lewis agrees. She's seen similar results time after time. "From my years in First Place, I've heard many weight-loss stories," Carole says. "In each case, the person is quick to say that the weight loss is great, but the spiritual changes are greater."
In the last five years, Carole has faced significant hardships. Her husband, Johnny, has battled cancer successfully. Her elderly mother moved in with them after a series of mini-strokes placed her in a wheelchair. And tragically, Carole's 39-year-old daughter, Sheri, was killed last year by a drunk driver.
Carole believes her strength, and her husband's, come from their 20 years of shared commitment to a balanced Christian lifestyle within their marriage. "I wouldn't be standing upright today if I hadn't learned the principles of balance," says Carole. "I've learned that God will not only hold my hand, he will hold me up."
Renae Bottom, an MP regular contributor and author, lives with her family in Nebraska.
2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.