This week, Bible Girl turns to Jared Binder, a graduate student at Dallas Theological Seminary and a Dallas Observer intern, for thoughts on the "deadly sin" no one ever talks about in church. Bible Girl posts from Bible Girl will be sparse in the next few weeks; I'm working on something for the paper version of Unfair Park.
The Bible Belt may not be expanding, but the waistlines of its residents are. It seems that the highest rates of obesity in the nation are in the East South Central part of the United States, according to ObesityinAmerica.org. That would include Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. A very close second to that is the West South Central states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and, you guessed it, Texas.
For those of us who live in the Bible Belt and actually believe the Bible, the news gets even worse. A 1998 study by Purdue University titled American Changing Lives showed that some religious groups such as Baptists and fundamentalists were more likely to be overweight than nonreligious people.
“The other thing that was very clear from the data is that there are certain religious practice issues that are very consequential,” says Purdue sociology professor Kenneth Ferraro, citing a more recent study. “We found that people who consume lots of religious media, TV and radio were more likely to be obese and actually to develop obesity over the study period.”
It sounds like a government conspiracy against Southern Baptists. But the problem is not with the government. The problem is with many of us Christians.
There’s this thing in the Bible called gluttony. The Bible says it’s a sin. But we don’t like to talk about that particular sin. We prefer to point a pudgy finger at others and decry the evils of drugs and alcohol, pornography, abortion and homosexuality. Compared to those, gluttony is just a little sin.
"I think as a church we’re pretty selective -- like for example, on the church sin list you’ve got alcohol and tobacco, and those tend to make a lot of the popular sin lists, but you don’t have caffeine. I could deny the Trinity and keep my job easier than taking away all the coffee pots on Sunday morning,” says Pastor Gary Brandenburg of Fellowship Bible Church Dallas. “Or how about church potlucks? There’s the greatest array of artery-clogging food and cholesterol-producing food known to man at church potlucks. That’s OK as long as you don’t smoke a cigarette outside the church.”
This “little” sin of gluttony is killing people by the hundreds of thousands every year. Obesity has now surpassed smoking as the No. 1 health threat in America. It can be directly linked to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type II Diabetes, acid reflux, sleep apnea, heart disease and many forms of cancer.
So why aren’t more pastors and churches talking about it? One reason is pretty obvious. We don’t want to risk losing church members by offending anyone.
“It is an issue that potentially could disaffiliate individuals," Ferraro says. "Remember that it is normal to be overweight in the U.S. The majority of the adult U.S. population is overweight. And so if you start speaking about that there is a potential risk that parishioners will not like that message.”
Dr. Don Colbert, author of The Seven Pillars of Health and What Would Jesus Eat?, points out that many Christians don’t view overeating as sin because their pastors look past it or condone it. In fact, many of Colbert’s patients are obese pastors. Colbert says that if parishioners see their minister eating junk food, sporting a bulging waistline and not exercising, they will often feel free to emulate his example. As the head goes, so goes the body.
Christians don’t talk about gluttony because we don’t think we are gluttons. Gluttony has been divorced from obesity in our minds so that it becomes merely a health issue rather than a spiritual and moral one. We don’t gain weight because we eat to excess. We gain weight because of our glands and our genes. Weight problems, we tell ourselves, are a result if living in a fast-food, high-pressure culture. There’s some truth to that, but instead of going against the culture and striving for a healthier lifestyle, we have embraced the culture. There are some people out there with legitimate problems such as thyroid conditions, but for most of us “the rapidly expanding man” disease is a result of our greed and poor choices.
The Gnostics held the view that the material world was bad and that only spiritual things were good. Many of us Christians appear to agree with this perspective by the way we give little or no value to the health and condition of our bodies. They’re just going to pass away some day, right? It’s the spirit that really matters. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and as such deserve to be treated with care and reverence. If we treated our church buildings the way many of us treat our bodies, no one would come near them.
I know that given the choice we would all choose fit, healthy bodies over sick, flabby ones. But the truth is we want to overindulge more than we want to go through the hard work of losing weight and staying fit.
There are three major roadblocks that I see standing in the way of overweight believers. One is that as long as we refuse to see our behavior as sin, there is no chance of our repenting of it and gaining God’s help in our battle against it.
The second thing is that we seem to know only one way of dealing with temptation. We abstain. Alcohol may lead to drunkenness, so we avoid it completely. Smoking often leads to cancer, so we don’t smoke. We abstain from sex until we're married. Abstinence works well with those kinds of things, but as we all know, we can’t abstain from food.
The Bible teaches us another way of fighting overindulgence. It’s called temperance or self-control. The Bible calls temperance a fruit of the spirit. When is the last time you heard a sermon about being self-controlled in your eating and disciplining your body through exercise?
The third roadblock comes when we so abuse our bodies through excess that they enter a state of addiction. Our hormones and insulin levels are all messed up, so they trigger a ravenous appetite and cravings for the wrong kinds of food. Escaping this condition is a very difficult process. People who are serious about changing their bad habits and adopting a more active lifestyle often experience withdrawal symptoms and depression.
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Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that we are passing all of our bad habits on to our children. They are not waiting until they grow up to get fat and lazy. They are modeling our behavior, and because of it they are developing diseases such as Type II diabetes and heart disease at an extremely young age.
Jesus called us to be salt and light in the world. That means we are supposed to be the standard of what is right and good. This is one area where we as a church are failing miserably. We need to get serious about the obesity epidemic and stop waiting on science to develop a miracle cure. We need to take action before it is too late.
One week before his death, Jerry Falwell said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN that he was praying to God for 20 more years of life. He wanted to see the rest of his vision for Liberty University come to pass. Obviously, God did not grant his request. Falwell died alone in his office of cardiac arrhythmia. Before the hate mail starts flooding in, please understand that I am not pointing fingers at Falwell or saying that he died of overeating. But I do know that he was very much overweight and that two years before this he’d had a stent implanted to treat a blockage in his coronary arteries. Falwell died at 73. Reaching the age of 73 is optimistic for many who struggle with obesity.
“I tell people, sure you can continue eating the way you do -- all the sugar and cake after meals and pies and cookies and Snickers bars and fried foods -- and you’ll still go to heaven,” Dr. Don Colbert says. “You’ll just go there much sooner.” --Jared Binder