The United States is facing an obesity epidemic. That's a fact. In the past 20 years, obesity rates have more than doubled in the U.S. and they are on track to double again in the next 20. Experts predict that by 2030 more than half of Americans will be obese with 13 states having obesity rates above 60%. This will result in millions of new cases of diabetes, coronary heart disease, and stroke and other chronic illnesses.
Sadly, those numbers are even higher in our nations churches. A 2006 study conducted by Purdue University Professor Ken Ferraro examined the relationship between religion and obesity. The study found that church members are more likely to be overweight or obese than the general public, and are by far the heaviest of all religious groups, led by Baptists at a 30% obesity rate, compared with Jews at 1%, Buddhists and Hindus at 0.7%. These findings prompted Ferraro, a professor of sociology who has studied religion and body weight since the early 1990s, to comment, "America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity, and churches are a feeding ground for this problem."
Ferraro is not alone in his findings. Other studies confirm this phenomenon: A 2011 study conducted by Northwestern University tracked 3,433 men and women for 18 years and found that young adults who attend church or a bible study once a week are 50% more likely to be obese. Likewise, 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. A 2001 Pulpit and Pew study of 2,500 clergy found that 76% were overweight or obese compare to 61% of the general population at the time of the study.
There is no doubt that excess weight poses a very serious threat to our physical health, but it goes beyond even that - we are greatly limiting our usefulness in kingdom work.
In a 2012 op-ed for FoxNews, Scott Stoll, M.D., observed, "The obesity epidemic in the church appears to be undermining the primary purpose of the church and its missions work by straining church budgets, decidedly absorbing money that would be spent on missions abroad, and consuming the time and energy of pastors and church members."
Stoll went on to say, "The contemporary church culture has unwittingly contributed to the rise in overweight and obese parishioners. Today it is rare to hear a sermon preached on the stewardship of the physical body and even more rare on the vice of gluttony; it has become a secret and acceptable vice in the modern church."
An "Acceptable" Vice
The truth is that what we wink at, God calls sin. Although some excessive weight problems may be related to medical issues, more often than not it indicates a spiritual problem. Food is not the issue here. God created us with both a need for food and the capacity to derive pleasure from food. We are told in 1 Corinthians 10:31, "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." If we can honor God in our food, we can also dishonor him with food. The problem comes when we allow our desire for food to control us or to harm us.
Scripture condemns overindulgence in many things, including food. Proverbs 23:20-21 says, "Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags." Proverbs 23:1-3 advises, "When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food."
The point? Keep your appetite in check. Even if you have to put a knife to your throat. A reminder perhaps that if you indulge yourself you are slitting your own throat.
The Apostle Paul laments, "For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things" (Phil 3:18-19 ESV). We make our belly our god whenever our appetite dictates what we eat and drink regardless of the consequences to our health and the damage it does to our body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul also says that these people glory in their shame. In other words they boast about the wrong that they are doing. When we boast about our large size, or how we have built God a bigger temple, or that we will just get to Heaven sooner, we are glorying in our shame. We wink at our sin and cheapen the grace of God poured out at Calvary. When we do these things we are enemies of the cross of Christ and our end is destruction.
We easily recognize the health risks of smoking, alcohol abuse, and sex outside of marriage. We understand that it is sinful to engage in these habits and encourage their avoidance. But don't you dare talk about our food.
You would be shocked to walk into your church on Sunday morning and find a full liquor bar or a table full of cigarettes, but would be greatly annoyed to not find your weekly fill of donuts, bagels and cream cheese, and coffee with cream and sugar.
For some reason we recognize that it is wrong to tempt a recovering alcoholic with his favorite vice while tables at potlucks strain under the weight of fried chicken, creamy casseroles, pizza, pound cakes and cheesecake. And let's not forget the sweet tea you can stand a spoon up in. No fellowship is considered complete without these rich, decadent - and yes addictive foods. We are very literally "killing each other with kindness."
Think I'm being over-dramatic? Think again. A recent RAND report concluded, "obesity is linked to very high rates of chronic illnesses - higher than living in poverty, and much higher than smoking or drinking."
I am not judging here - I was as guilty as anyone of this offense. In fact, I was the one driving out of my way to bring fresh, hot Krispy Kreme donuts to our Sunday School class. I was also 274 pounds and had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and pre-diabetes. Now when I bring food to a church function, it is both healthy and delicious. As Paul said, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Cor 13:11 ESV). We have to "grow up" and put away the immature habits that are destroying the body.
Desecrating the Temple
Scripture is absolutely clear on what God expects of us and the importance of taking care of our physical bodies.
"Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?" (1 Cor 6:19 ESV)
As obesity rates continue to rise in the U.S., and in our churches, so do rates of diseases associated with obesity. In a research article published published in the October 27, 1999, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Center for Disease Control (CDC) director Jeffrey P. Koplan stated, "Obesity and overweight are linked to the nation's number one killer--heart disease-- as well as diabetes and other chronic conditions."
Overweight and obese people are at increased risk for developing conditions like coronary heart disease (CHD), type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension, high cholesterol/trigclycerides, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and other respiratory problems, several types of cancers, liver and gallbladder disease, infertility and even death. Not to mention low energy, low self-esteem and lack of confidence.
We would be deeply offended if someone vandalized our church, yet many Christians are destroying the temple of God with high calorie-low nutrient food, overindulgence, insufficient sleep, and physical inactivity. Oswald Chambers put it this way,
"I am accountable to God for the way I control my body under His authority... What I must decide is whether or not I will agree with my Lord and Master that my body will indeed be His temple "
Poor Stewardship and Irreverence
Not only is our body a temple of the Holy Spirit, it isn't even ours. We were bought and paid for with the blood of Christ.
"You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." (1 Cor 6:20 ESV)
We are also told that we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God.
"I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." (Rom 12:1 ESV)
Christ willingly sacrificed His body on our behalf, therefore, we should offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to him. John Piper commented on this verse:
"The point here is not to present to God your bodies and not your mind or heart or spirit... The point is to stress that your body counts. You belong to God soul and body, or you don't belong to him at all. Your body matters."
In an article for the Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention, Wendy Ashley stated, "As Christians, we must take care of our bodies in such a way that we are physically prepared to do whatever God asks of us, whenever He asks it. Honoring the body means making a commitment to live a healthier lifestyle by carefully considering the foods you put into your body, making exercise a regular part of your life, and getting enough sleep."
Not only is obesity poor stewardship of the body, it is also poor stewardship of our financial resources. In her book, The Real Cost of Living, personal finance expert Carmen Wong Ulrich estimated that the price tag for obesity is $6,454 a year. "Add together the higher annual costs of health care and medication ($1,429), wage discrimination ($2,500), travel costs (a conservative $25), and other lifestyle costs such as mobility and clothing ($2,500), and the cost of being overweight is around $6,454 a year, or $538 a month. Over a lifetime (40 adult years), that's more than $258,000. And had you instead put that $538 a month in your retirement account, earning a moderate average of 6 percent interest, you'd have $1,082,675. But that's without diabetes or complications. Consider those pricey add-ons, and you're looking at $19,454 a year in total costs - that's $778,160 over a lifetime and over $3 million if that money had been invested."
Perhaps the thought has crossed your mind that we are only supposed to talk about "spiritual" things in church and that being overly concerned with the "flesh" is worldly or evil. This common misconception is rooted in an ancient heresy called Gnosticism or Platonic dualism, the belief that the spirit is sacred and the physical body is corrupt and inconsequential. This bad theology serves to perpetuate the problem and assists many in justifying unhealthy nutritional habits and lack of exercise. Scripture exposes this fallacy.
"Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Th 5:23 ESV)
God wants to sanctify us entirely: spirit and soul and body. These three are equal and interconnected. To neglect any one of them is to be incomplete. It would be like neglecting one leg of a 3-legged table. Without all three legs in balance, the table will not stand, or at least it cannot be used to the full potential it was made for. Likewise, we cannot pick and choose areas of our life to give to God, it is all His.
Repentance and Healing
"Churches across America stand at a critical crossroad urgently in need of a decision to be a cause or a cure to the growing epidemic of disease and obesity. But in the midst of every crisis is an opportunity." ~ Scott Stoll
In many other health contexts, churches can have a very positive influence. Ferraro noted that prayer, meditation and the social interaction found in churches can be good for people's health. Likewise studies have shown that people who read the Bible more often have lower blood pressure. People who are involved in church are also less likely to be depressed. Most churches are also very good at encouraging restraint or abstinence from tobacco, alcohol and sex outside of marriage. If we can be a positive influence in these areas, we can certainly do the same when it comes to physical health. There is hope. We can do this!
In as much as we have contributed to the obesity epidemic, we can be an even bigger part of the solution. Stoll concluded his article by saying that the solution for obesity in the church is the Church itself. "Couple this with solid faith based teachings on health, stewardship, and a return to foods provided by their Creator and the church could quickly reverse the obesity trend and serve as a positive influence and resource to surrounding communities." Similarly, Ashley concluded her article by reminding us, "the Bible addresses eating, indulgence, self control, self discipline, gluttony, and other related sins, we need to be able to address this topic in our churches without fear of offense. Congregations are blessed when their pastor encourages them to make changes in their lifestyles that will ultimately bring glory to God.
Changing our eating and exercise habits isn't easy, but with the help of God, it can be done. First John 5:14-15 says: "And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him." (1 John 5:14-15 ESV)
We are also promised that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength (Phil 4:13). I am living proof of that. God has given me a ministry to reach out to those who are caught in the same trap I was. Our churches and communities are filled with people who are suffering the consequences of neglecting and abusing their bodies, many unknowingly.
God wants to use us to bring healing to a sick and dying world (Matthew 10:8). As followers of Christ, we are uniquely equipped to battle this epidemic. We have community, proper motivation, and most importantly, we have the Power of God.
"If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land." (2 Chr 7:14 ESV)
This is where the rubber meets the road. You have to choose what you will do with what you have just heard: 1) You can choose to simply ignore me and go back to whatever you were doing. 2) You can dismiss me as a fanatic. 3) You can take these words to heart and join us in the fight to save lives - and the first life you save may be your own. The ball is in your court. It's your choice.
"Choose this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."" (Josh 24:15 ESV)
1 CLINE, K. M. C. and FERRARO, K. F. (2006), Does Religion Increase the Prevalence and Incidence of Obesity in Adulthood?. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45: 269-281. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2006.00305.x
2 "Fat in Church", FoxNews
3 "The Health Risks of Obesity Worse Than Smoking, Drinking, or Poverty," Rand.org
4 Obesity epidemic increases dramatically in the United States: CDC director calls for national prevention effort
5 Oswald Chamber, My Utmost For His Highest (December 5)
6 John Piper, Present Your Bodies As a Living Sacrifice (June 13, 2004).
7 Wendy Ashley, Obesity in the Body of Christ, SBC Life
8 Wong, Carmen, The Real Cost of Living: Making the Best Choices for Your, Your Life and Your Money (2010)