Review of Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul by Gary Thomas
It comes as no surprise to anyone, ever, that Americans as a whole have what Tommy Boy would call ‘a little bit of a weight problem.’ We are, by and large, fatty-fat-fat-fats. And those of us who don’t tip the scales at ridiculously high numbers, well, if we’re honest, we still probably don’t have a 100% holy and righteous relationship with food. Whether we’re obsessed with shaving off every possible calorie or trying to break the record for Most Donuts Eaten In An Hour, food and us tend to have a rather rocky relationship. And the same goes for fitness in general—if we’re not actively sculpting our bodies into an object sure to elicit the worship of our peers, we’re attempting to achieve a biochemical melding of forms with our overstuffed sofas. We swing to extremes, and it is a rare thing indeed to find an American—and American Christians are no exception—who is not, in some sense, enslaved by or obsessed with food and fitness issues.
This is hardly optimal. We know from Scripture that Christians’ bodies are ‘the temple of the Holy Spirit.’ We are not our own; we were bought with a price. It follows, therefore, that we are to honor God with our bodies. After all, everything we have—including our bodies—was entrusted to us by God for the purpose of glorifying Him and enjoying Him forever. It is our chief end. But all too often we act like our purpose is to dishonor Him (or glorify ourselves), and enjoy bacon forever. Our gods are our stomachs, and we alternate between expanding them by our indulgences and making an effort to undo those indulgences and shrink them down again. We enjoy our Doritos (or our flat abs) more than we enjoy our sovereign creator who loves us and redeemed us. Like the servant entrusted with one talent, we are crummy stewards, and thereby tell the world that the Master we claim to serve really isn’t worth respecting. (And you high-metabolism folks don’t get a free pass here, either—skinny folks can be every bit as gluttonous as Two-Ton Tony; and heavier folks may still struggle with vain and sinful motivations for slimming down. We’re all in a bad way, is what I’m saying. Or most of us, anyway. If you’re that one-in-a-million person who has no sin issues related to food, health, or fitness: congratulations!)
I’ve had this discussion with myself every time I’ve gone on a diet. And listen, food is a tough issue. You can’t eliminate it—no quitting cold turkey cold turkey, if you know what I mean—and it can be really, really hard to determine whether eating this brownie is a sin. I mean, I can confidently say I have a generally sinful relationship with food, on the large scale (heh). But it’s hard to draw a bright line in the moment. And even when we experience what the world might call ‘success’, our hearts can remain chained—enslaved, obsessed, and dominated by holding onto that success. We may be no freer than we were when we started.
Into this mess comes author Gary Thomas, and his wonderful book Every Body Matters. Don’t let the title fool you—this is no I’m-ok-you’re-ok, gold-stars-for-everyone self-esteem fest. Quite the opposite; Thomas is explicit that our biggest problem is that we are sinners one and all, and we’re in desperate need of a savior. He also wisely notes that most of our (ok, my) efforts at health and fitness tend to be self-focused. It’s all about me—what people think about me, what I think, how I feel, my health, my pants size, me me me me me. Instead, Thomas encourages Christians to reorient their thinking to the God whose body this ultimately is.
Thomas’s theme verse—and it’s a good one—is II Timothy 2:21; he exhorts us to be ‘vessel[s] for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the Master of the house, ready for every good work’ (emphasis mine). Rather than focus on appearance or even performance, Thomas advocates a more utilitarian mindset—and one with a decidedly eternal focus. We eat healthy because we want our bodies to endure well, so that we may serve the Lord better (and longer) on earth. If God entrusts me with money, I shouldn’t blow it on dames and horses. He’s entrusted me with a physical body, so I shouldn’t waste that either. Similarly, I lift weights, not out of any self-aggrandizing desire for admiration, but so that I am strong, and stand ready to use that strength when called upon, whether by lifting a crying toddler or helping my non-Christian friend move (thereby making a way for the sharing of the gospel). My focus is not myself, my feelings, my appearance—instead, I should see myself as a tool. And a pretty hammer (or a thin hammer, or a hammer that looks great in a swimsuit, or even a super bulked-up hammer with crazy definition and sick pecs) is not nearly as valuable to a Craftsman as a hammer that works.
This mentality fits well with Paul exhortations elsewhere in scripture—that we should train well for our spiritual race (I Cor. 9:24-27), that physical discipline has merit (though spiritual discipline has more) (I Tim 4:8), that life is like a race and we should run it well (Heb. 12:1-2). The physicality of Paul’s examples and metaphors is striking.
It’s no wonder, then, that physical discipline can have additional spiritual benefits. Thomas notes—and my experience bears this out—that learning to resist temptation in one area reminds us that, in Christ, we have the power to resist temptation in other areas. If, the argument goes, I can, by God’s mercy, haul myself out of bed to go for a run (even when I really, really don’t want to), then by His mercy I can also respond patiently when my husband does something obnoxious, or some jerk cuts me off in traffic. I don’t have to what my desires dictate; through Christ, I can and should choose which desires to indulge—not just because I want to do (or not do) X, but because doing (or not doing) X is consistent with the holy and perfect character of God and brings honor and glory to Him. My life shouldn’t just be one big Pavlovian response—desire, do, desire, do—but a Christ-ian one: desire, hold the desire up to the light of Scripture, decide to conform to biblical standards, and then do. And the more I do this in any area of my life—even whether or not to binge-eat Pop Tarts right out of the box (don’t judge me! Or, you know, do)—the more I am reminded that because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross in my place, and though the power that raised Him from the dead, applied in my life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, I can do this in all areas of my life.
So if you, like me, have Issues With Food (And/Or Exercise), I wholeheartedly recommend Gary Thomas’s book to you. It is a gospel-centered, biblically sound, and practically useful work, and well worth your time and money. Thomas writes in an open and engaging manner, and he is clear about what the Bible does (and does not) say about issues of gluttony, laziness, and our bodies. Thomas does rely on some extrabiblical sources—including some authors whose theology doesn’t always jive with my Reformed sensibilities—but he does so thoughtfully, carefully, and, I think, appropriately, giving them some weight but being sure not to equate them with God’s Word.
Pound for pound (heh), this is the best book I’ve read on this subject. I hope it will be as encouraging to you as it has been to me.
Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.