My doctor and I were shocked. I, a seemingly healthy 40-year-old woman, had a blocked artery. Then there were my blood profiles: both cholesterol and blood sugar too high. I determined to set things right, chopping veggies and putting them into baggies, adding salads to each night's downsized dinner. As the knife struck the cutting board, I heard the Holy Spirit murmur, It takes time and commitment to be healthy, doesn't it? I knew he wasn't just talking about my body. He was talking about my soul.
Because it's easier to ignore spiritual issues, God often uses physical symptoms to help me take a closer look at what's happening inside. Insomnia forces me to examine what I'm not handing over to God. Tension headaches ask me to slow down and loosen my grip. My physical illness got my attention, so I decided I'd work on what lay beneath.
I'd developed a pattern of taking on too much. In order to (falsely) comfort my overly busy self, I ate the wrong things in the wrong quantities. I finally understood that my overfed but malnourished body was an outward reflection of an overfed but malnourished soul. While I had many activities that looked good on the outside and garnered praise, they ate up time I might have spent deepening my relationship with God.
I'd relegated my prayer life to rushed pleading in the midst of trouble; my relationship with God felt empty and silent, stagnant and struggling. My body displayed on the outside what was happening on the inside. In the process of healing one, could I heal both? It was time for me to take a serious assessment.
First, I looked at how I ate. I'd run to a warehouse store and stock up on high-quality processed foods that were easy to slap together—maximum bang for my time and buck. Lots of prepackaged items, lots of convenience, lots of microwave ding. Though my family dined together many nights a week, when we timed ourselves, we were astonished to be finished and rushing to the next activity in fewer than 15 minutes.
Sadly, that's what my spiritual diet looked like too.
Instead of savoring and pacing my lessons, I'd wait till the night before to scan the Bible and fill in the blanks for my weekly Bible study. I was more concerned about showing up with filled blanks than in deeply understanding what the teacher, and the Word, might have in store if I'd spend the time to digest slowly and meditate. What was the "real" meal I needed to savor? In Matthew 4:4 Jesus reminds us, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."
That wasn't how I wanted to handle physical or spiritual eating, so I had to make some changes.
Considering my blood-sugar profile and that I'd had gestational diabetes, I knew I had to minimize my refined carbs intake. I'd heard if you cut back on bread, after awhile you lose your taste for it. With a twinge of sorrow, I realized that abstaining from daily Bible reading had caused me to lose my taste for it. I'd put off spending time with Jesus and reading the Bible to the end of the day—after I'd gotten everything else done. Unfortunately, by then I was either too tired to learn, or I simply told the Lord that I needed time for "me," certain he'd understand.
Like a husband who's been ignored, God became distant. The apostle James urges, "Come near to God and he will come near to you" (4:8). I can testify that the opposite is also true. Lonely for our former intimacy, I realized that just as I needed to decrease the amount of refined carbs I put in my body, I needed to increase my time with Christ, the Bread of Life for my soul.
I spent 10 to 20 times the number of hours reading books or talking with friends as I did reading the Bible or talking with God. Most of the Bible studies I attended were based on supplemental books—valuable, but not direct, exegetical study. What I got tasted good and, to some level, nourished my soul. But it was predigested—it didn't require my body, or my soul, to do the hard work. God designed our bodies to extract nutrition, phytochemicals, minerals, and other good things from raw food. Supplements are only supposed to supplement! Might our souls work that way too?
Next, I looked at what I ate. When I made a commitment to eat only healthy, natural foods, I weeded out much of the refined sugar in our diet. My 13-year-old daughter came to me one day, asking, "Where did you buy this orange?"
"Safeway," I answered. "Why?"
"It's so sweet," she said.
The oranges weren't really sweeter. They tasted that way because we'd removed everything from our diets that would give us a quick high—refined sugar and its diet dupes.
When my body and spirit are tuned only to recognize "sugar high" experiences, the natural sweetness and goodness of a quiet relationship between God and me goes unnoticed. Instead of demanding immediate (and positive) answers to prayer, great insights, or tangible blessings, I'm developing a taste for simple conversations, Bible reading that reaffirms what I've learned but doesn't necessarily lead to great insight, and long-haul trust without instant answers.
A friend and I recently reminisced how when we were kids, dessert was atypical—a looked-forward-to experience. I realized I needed to stop expecting dessert every day. Once in a while, God gives me a spiritual brownie—an immediate answer to prayer, a financial windfall, or a situation immediately resolved. When he does, I relish the sweetness for its rarity.
Just as we use the healthy food pyramid to know the types of food to eat, we can use Scripture to guide what we ingest spiritually. The apostle Paul tells us, "Let the words of Christ, in all their richness, live in your hearts and make you wise. Use his words to teach and counsel each other. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through him to God the Father" (Colossians 3:16—17, NLT). This means that I spend regular time ingesting the message about Christ and let it fill my life. Sometimes I listen to the Bible or hymns or praise music on my iPod; sometimes I spend a few minutes reading in the morning or online over my lunch break, or I sing along to worshipful music.
As I continued these habits—hard to build, at first—I realized how much I missed them when I skipped a day. I'd reacquired my taste for God.
Finally, I realized it's not just about eating; it's about getting active. An article in the New York Times noted, "Fitness isn't about working out at the gym or running a marathon … . Fitness is important for coping with life's emergencies, big and small, whether it's running to make an airport connection or fleeing a burning building." Our motive shouldn't be to look good, although that might be a pleasant side effect. We need to exercise for overall health and to prepare for unexpected but unavoidable calls upon our reserves.
Similarly, the spiritual muscles I'm building aren't for flexing at Bible study, hammering my family, or pontificating with others. In addition to helping me live more healthfully day-to-day, they allow me to flee when tempted, endure when tested, and stand firm during suffering. Our family recently took an unexpected and harsh financial blow. A restored relationship with God allowed me to weather the storm with tears and faith—not a bag of Doritos. Taking care of my body and my spirit isn't for vanity, it's for health.
I'm allowing myself the kindness of slow but steady increase in health and spiritual growth. I used to be in the "Three pounds a week or I'm switching" diet plan and the "Read the Bible in 60 days" camp. I now understand that my body will release weight gradually and my spirit will mature slowly. That's okay. I'm willing to take a "long obedience in the same direction," as Eugene Peterson put it. "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30, NASB).
As this transformation takes place, both physical and spiritual health fall into alignment. I don't give myself quotas—with Bible study, with counting calories, or any other measurable results. I rely on progress in my health and the quality of my relationship with God. In her Bible study, Thin Within, Judy Halliday writes, "When we stumble and fall, we rely upon God's amazing grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. He gently leads us back onto the path of his provision."
My heart health extends more deeply than a clogged artery. God graciously allowed the physical pain to draw attention to my spiritual need, the heart that in the end, matters most.
Sandra Byrd is the author of Let Them Eat Cake (WaterBrook). www.sandrabyrd.com
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