From the perfectly-sculpted and scantily-clad women smiling at us from the glossy covers of magazines to the consistent drone of news stories about America's obesity epidemic, we live in a swirl of confusion about our bodies. Should we aim to be sexy, thin, and "perfect"? Or is trying to get fit a "worldly" goal, incompatible with the spiritual life of a God-focused Christian?
Does it even really matter in the eternal scheme of things if we're overweight or if our eating habits and lack of exercise are leading to health problems? Rather than feeling bad every time we look in the mirror, shouldn't we just quiet the body-image demons that whisper constant lies about us not being good enough? Shouldn't we just be content in God's love?
If you take a close look, you'll see God-honoring truth woven throughout the questions above—but you'll also find some very unbiblical ideas creeping in. Why? Because the way we think about our bodies (and diet, eating, and exercise), can get really complicated. This isn't just some purely philosophical or theological discussion after all. We each have bodies. We each have our own issues with body image, fitness habits (or lack thereof), and self-worth. And our past experiences with success, failure, guilt, insecurity, or hope are inevitably part of the way we each value and care for our own bodies.
So back to those cover-girls and obesity headlines. These polar opposite trends of body-obsession and body-neglect are really nothing more than an age-old pendulum swing in new, postmodern clothes. There's idolatry of the physical body on one side (hedonism) and neglect and undervaluing of our God-given physicality on the other (Gnosticism). For some, the weight-loss goal, the ab-definition, the fastest marathon time, or body-fat percentage easily becomes an all-consuming obsession.
For some, exercise becomes an addiction, and trying to achieve the perfect model-type body sneakily takes over as the center of their identity and value. For others, our culture's body-obsession leads them to spiral into lethargy and dejection. While idolizing unrealistic perfection, they start to hate their own bodies. Feeling too fat, too flabby, and too out-of-shape to be worth much, these women buy into our culture's fitness idolatry while feeling cut down at the knees after their first taste of failure.
Then there's the modern-day Gnosticism that can lurk behind truisms like "God loves you no matter what" and "looks don't matter." Of course both of these ideas are fundamentally true! The danger comes when an elevation of the "spiritual" is inevitably tied to a disdain for the physical; when the importance of spiritual life leads to minimizing the importance of one's in-the-flesh life. When we lose sight of the value of what God made and called "very good" (Genesis 1:26-31), it's no problem at all to neglect our physical health. If bodies don't really matter (only souls do), then we can feel entirely justified in letting ourselves go.
Toss into this mire the difficulties we all face with self-worth, and it's a dangerous mess! How can we overcome weight gain when we feel utterly discouraged from past failures? How can we set realistic, God-honoring goals for fitness while avoiding the pitfalls of body-idolatry?
Your health—both physical and spiritual—matters. And, despite the challenges, there is a healthy middle between the extremes of body-idolatry and body-neglect. Wherever you are in this journey—whether you're discouraged about your weight struggles and feel timid about starting a fitness plan yet again, or if you're recovering from fitness addiction and trying to get your priorities straight—you can take a next step toward physical and spiritual health in your life.
Physical health and spiritual wholeness are important for everyone. Why are they worth pursuing? "For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago" (Ephesians 2:10).
Have you found the right balance between health and spiritual wholeness? What's helped you have a healthy body image?
Kelli B. Trujillo is managing editor of downloadable resources for Today's Christian Woman and the author of the Flourishing Faith series for women. www.kellitrujillo.com