Grace-Motivated . . . Dieting?

We’re a few weeks into our new year’s resolutions. How’s that diet going?

According to The New York Times, Americans last year spent about $62 billion on diets, exercise, and gym memberships. But most us give up on these efforts by March.

It feels like an endless cycle. We’re unhappy with our weight, we make grand commitments, and we stick to them rigidly . . . for a couple of weeks. Eventually, the drive-thru lanes, frappucinos, and buckets of ice cream get the best of us, and we fall off the proverbial wagon.

Our failures recall Paul’s words in Romans 7:15: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I don’t want to eat that giant burrito, and yet over and over again, I eat the giant burrito. What a wretched man I am!

Perhaps, as we start to feel the pangs of temptation against our new year’s resolutions (or if we’re simply struggling to stick to a diet) we would benefit from a shift in perspective. If dieting is like life under the law, then it’s worth asking: Is there such a thing as grace-motivated dieting?

I think there is. There’s a way forward for those of us who feel unhealthy and eager for change, a way that can be motivated by grace and love, rather than vanity, guilt, or shame. It takes three things:

  • Shifting Perspective
  • Seeking Wisdom
  • Enduring Patiently

Shifting Perspective

I’ll never forget this moment, about six years ago. My best friend had recently gotten married, and my wife and I were spending time with him and his new wife, looking through the photo album from their wedding. As we turned to the back cover, I was horrified. The last picture in the album was from the morning of his wedding day, when the groomsmen had gone to a park to play basketball. For some tragic and inexplicable reason I am standing in this picture with my shirt off. I hadn’t been near a basketball court (or, apparently a scale) in a few years, and the sight was . . . unhealthy. Round. Big.

“I’m going on a diet,” I blurted out, eyes wide open, thinking photos are forever, photos are forever. For the rest of my friend’s life, this awful picture of me would grace the back page of his wedding album.

This is how many of us begin. Our bodies lose their youthful shape, and in a revelatory moment, we jump on the dieting carousel: gaining, losing, plateauing, gaining, losing, crashing, gaining again. We’re driven by a moment like this, a moment (or a long season) of shame and guilt. Words like fat ring in our ears, and every trip past a mirror is torture. Sometimes we blame ourselves, sometimes we blame our genes, sometimes we blame stress and work.

There are two possible motivations for the desire to transform our bodies, one that has the power to motivate and one that has the power to kill.

The latter motivation is more common. It’s the reason young faces and bodies grace the magazine covers in grocery stores aisles. These images help drive the market for plastic surgery and much of that $62 billion dieting economy. This motivation cannot be limited to a single emotion or sin. But some combination of vanity, obsession with youth, and fear of death results in anxious discontent, a deep feeling of inadequacy and desperation for acceptance. We foolishly believe that if we could get skinnier, bulkier, younger, prettier, or stronger, we’ll be satisfied.

This motivation literally leads to death. For some, the short-term fixes lead to crash diets, eating disorders, and a variety of other methods that do our bodies more harm than good. Ultimately, all of us face the ticking clock of time, slowing metabolisms, disease, grey hair, wrinkles, cellulite, and expired bodies. The desire to avoid death and old age that drives us to the gym can’t ultimately stave off our inevitable end.

We become enslaved to the “law” of fitness, obsessively fighting a losing battle against our wills and the march of time. Our victories are short-lived, our defeats are crushing.

But there’s a better way. Whatever we feel about our bodies, they don’t have to be the source of shame or guilt. Shame and guilt are not motivators; they are masters, filling our days with anxiety. The alternative starts with seeing our bodies as part of the great story of the gospel:

  • Our bodies were created by God. God made you with a fantastic attention to detail (Matthew 10:29-31).
  • Our bodies are subject to the plague of sin. Disease, obesity, dysfunction, and weakness are results of the fall (Psalm 38:3-4).
  • The gospel tells us that in Christ, we’re given a once-and-for-all seal of approval by the only One whose opinion matters (1 Corinthians 1:8).
  • That acceptance isn’t conditional or partial; it includes our bodies. We’re whole beings, bodies and souls inexorably knit together. The brokenness of both is covered by the sanctifying blood of Jesus (Romans 8:11).
  • One day, these failing bodies will be exchanged for gloriously restored and unbreakable bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42-45).

Our bodies are first and foremost a gift. God made them “fearfully and wonderfully” (Psalm 139:14) and intended them to be a part of the glorious harmony of creation, using them to serve him and others. Sin has disrupted that harmony, introducing sickness, weakness, and the vast host of problems that plague our bodies. We could despair of the brokenness, convinced that nothing will get better until the resurrection. But this despairing attitude neglects the fact that God has made us stewards of all of his gifts, including our bodies. As Paul says:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Rather than seeing our bodies in the light of the world’s absurd standards, we see them as gifts meant to give God glory and to serve others.

There’s no doubt that Americans have serious challenges related to fitness. Obesity is an epidemic, and health problems related to diets abound: cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes—the list goes on and on. Seeing our bodies as a gift should cause us to respond in much the same way we respond with our finances. As good stewards, we should examine all the ways we think about and care for our bodies.

  • Rather than being motivated by youth culture and absurd (and shifting) standards of beauty, we should be motivated by stewardship: how ready is your body to serve others?
  • When thinking about aging, rather than focusing on fighting the signs of age, or living in fear of the effects of aging, we should seek health for the sake of longevity. Should the Lord allow, we want to lovingly and enthusiastically serve God and others for the long haul.

Seeking Wisdom

Crash diets and exercise obsessions only make sense when they serve an idol in response to motivation like shame. We’ll gladly risk long-term injuries and damages to our health, sacrificing them on the altar of youth or self-image, if we think the ends justify the means.

But if we’re seeking health so we can be good stewards of the gift God has given us, the ends and the means are essentially the same. How we go about changing is just as important as the results that we’re seeking.

This calls us for wisdom. We need to be patient and sober, wisely avoiding the recklessness that accompanies diet culture like “abs in two weeks” or “lose 20 lbs TODAY!” We should talk to doctors and trainers, adopting a long-range plan for a lifestyle that promotes health and embraces the realities of modern life.

We need to be realistic, both in the methods we adopt and the results we expect. Not everyone can go to the gym every day, and not everyone can adopt the same diets. Nor is it necessary. Food, like any good gift, should be enjoyed as a gift and avoided as a master. It can master us in excessive consumption, and it can master us in obsessive and fearful nitpicking. Food shouldn’t consume all of our thoughts and conversations, and our decisions aren’t grounds for judging others. A self-righteous dieter—whether low-carb, high-carb, low-fat, high-fat, Atkins, Weston Price, or Weight-Watchers—is just another Pharisee, destined to frustrate and annoy far more than convince those around him. Hold your convictions about food gently and loosely, recognizing (as Paul did with the Corinthian church) that it’s an area open to a variety of convictions.

Enduring Patiently

Food is tempting. Exercise is not. And change is slow. Keep this in mind as you try to make real and lasting change.

My own efforts have resulted in mixed success. I lost a lot of weight after I saw the picture, dropping about 40 pounds in the year or so that followed. I focused on eating healthy and exercising, benefiting greatly from the counsel of a friend who worked as a personal trainer. In the years that followed, I’ve fluctuated a good bit, but I’ve enjoyed a base level of fitness that seems to help me bounce back quickly when I fall off the wagon. The first six months was by far the hardest.

In recent years, I find I’m far more motivated by how I feel than by how I look. When an injury required almost three months off from exercise last year, I once again stared at a bit of a discouraging “spare tire,” but I was far more concerned with my general fatigue and weakness.

When we’re healthy, we’re better able to serve, love, and bless others. We don’t wear out so quickly, and we’re not daunted by requests to help, whether it’s moving a table, leading a kids’ Sunday school class, or traveling to Africa.

The dieting roller coaster isn’t ending. So long as we have Big Macs and big screen TVs, there will be a host of people who wake up one day saying, “I need to lose weight.” And in the world of diet books and exercise tapes, there is plenty of good science and helpful information. We don’t necessarily need different goals for our weight and fitness. We need better motivations.

  • Florence

    Stewardship is the key. Unless God has called you to serve through the example of endurance and suffering, it makes no sense to neglect the body he gives you to use in service. I feel much better and am more able to serve at 57 than I did throughout my 40s. Strength training, aerobic training, and flexibility training has been the key for me. I want to sweat for at least an hour at least three times a week. And I am very aware of avoiding injury. I enjoy feeling able to do, so I do enjoy the exercise. We had to change our eating due to my husband’s health, and enjoy a mainly vegan diet. It tastes so good and the cooking and cleanup is so much easier. My arthritis is also much improved and warns me if I get lax regarding dairy. Start slow and learn to enjoy the process God is leading you through. Learn, adapt, and change what you do as you move through various levels of growth. Give God the glory for what He has done in your life.

  • Mitzi

    Stewardship is key, as Florence said, and health is often the reason to turn diet and exercise from a resolution to a way of life. You grow in it, just as you do in the faith. I have the “back-handed blessing” of a rare disorder that gives me mild asthma (no going to bars or parties in college-couldn’t breathe around smokers). It also affects my joints, causing pain if I sit around very much. I have to keep moving and stay active. My digestion only works well with lots of whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruit. While pain, asthma, and digestive issues are not fun, they force me into a healthier lifestyle. Doctors can’t help, because I’m allergic to cancer-causing substances. The joint pain isn’t arthritis yet. The digestive issues are best handled with diet.
    Informing people of the reasons I’m so strict about standing upwind of you if you are smoking, or eating the veggies at potluck, helps them to understand. I really am doing this because I must. God gives me a choice between pain and health, and I must choose the healthy course in order to serve Him.

    • J.E. Williams

      May not seem like Grace, but it’s as if God has given you this grace to have ko option but to be healthy. So cool.

  • Matt Lane

    I strongly believe that if we focus on what gives us the most energy we would not have a obesity problem in America. Eat for energy and recognize what gives energy and what saps energy. This thinking goes a long way to remove the idol of food from our lives.

  • Frank Gantz

    Helpful words, Mike. Perhaps we can test our fitness in a renewal of a flag football game.

  • Nate Claiborne

    This is a great article. I started paying more attention to my health the latter two years of college and tried to maintain a healthy lifestyle through seminary. My wife and I promote a 90-day health challenge that helps ( us stay off the dieting carousel, but it still hard in our culture.

    It’s easy to make an idol out of our bodies and over-pursue a certain physique. On the other hand, we can go too far the other way. Thanks for sharing some wise thoughts navigating the issue

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    I’m a happy fat guy. At least most of the time.

  • Steve Martin

    Stewardship is key.

    And we all are failures in our stewardship of the gifts God has given us. Does that mean that we don’t try? That we should then just give up? Of course not. We ought strive to be better better stewards, in all areas.

    But we will fail from time to time in many areas.

    Thanks be to God that we have a Lord who loves us in our errant ways. He does doesn’t love our errant ways…but He does love sinners.

    So, we keep at it, and know that one Day, all will be made right, made whole again, not by our efforts…but by His…alone.


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  • Dean P

    Great article! However, the top two comments above have the faint smell of legalism to them.

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  • Kathryn Sumner

    These are some very encouraging words, and even more encouraging to hear them come from a man. It is rare to find gospel-centered resources targeting the issues of eating and exercise, and I am thrilled to find it on this blog. Praise the Lord for His truth that relates to all areas of our lives!

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  • David Derksen

    Good article. I wished more people wrote such quality pieces upon this issue. More attention to defining “health” and “stewardship” might have made the article even stronger. Also, I’d suggest exploring the communal contributions to this issue more–both present day community and generational. We DO relate to God as communities as well–not just as individuals, and I think that’s worth exploring on this particular issue. For more of my thoughts visit my blog post:

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  • B.

    I’ve been struggling with my weight and body image for a very long time. Back in October, I discovered this (free, ministry-run) online course:

    Check it out – it is teaching me to attack the root of my body image issue, using Scripture and scriptural truths.

  • Christina

    Grace Motivated dieting is the only thing that has worked for me long term. I have lost over 40 pounds (slowly, over the years) after I found the book Thin Within, which is written by a christian nurse and doctor pair ( I did also start the setting captives free program as listed by B. in the comments, but found this to work better for me. I struggled with an eating disorder and image issues all through college and found this helped me to take my eyes off myself and consider the way God made our bodies to function. I will never go back to crash diets again.

  • A

    I remember reading an article by Ralph Winter in “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” that cited the costs per month to maintain each extra pound we don’t need (I believe it was $2, just for the food, not including the medical consequences caused by being overweight). He made the excellent point that if we are 20 lbs. overweight, that is $40 a month we could be using to further God’s kingdom around the world—feeding a Compassion child, supporting our church’s missionaries, drilling a well. We don’t need the extra weight—it’s killing us—while others desperately need the help we could provide. Convicting!

  • Cathy Graham

    This is excellent! Thank you a million.

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