"Losing weight" or "getting fit" will likely lead many New Year's resolutions as we head into 2012. Balanced eating and enough exercise is an outcome of obedience and discipleship, Gary Thomas argues in Every Body Matters (Zondervan). Matthew Lee Anderson, author of Earthen Vessels, spoke with Thomas about the connection between body and soul.
What prompted you to look at food and fitness?
I've been steeped in the Christian classics, and they have a consistent message challenging gluttony and sloth that I hadn't heard addressed much in modern times. Also, gluttony wasn't an important issue in my life for a while, because when you're younger it's easier to look like you're okay. But when I turned 40, I gained three or four pounds a year. That was fine for a while, but then I started notice both the personal effects and the spiritual consequences as well.
Focusing on gluttony and sloth as we age is almost a natural evolution in life. If you look at Augustine, he talks about how lust was a struggle early in his life. But when he became a monk and put himself in a situation where lust wasn't an issue, gluttony became a far more intense temptation. If you can create a sexless life, you can deal with lust, in one sense. But we can't create a foodless life; we are always on the precipice of having to manage this temptation rather than just kill it.
What do you mean when you suggest that our efforts should not be for fitness per se, but building a "silver soul"?
The goal is not an athletic looking body or a magazine-worthy body, but understanding better how these struggles affect our soul. We keep up our bodies because our bodies carry our souls. They are what we minister out of, what we speak out of, what we travel out of, and ultimately what we pray and worship and serve out of. But Scripture keeps the focus on how this relates to our spiritual journey.
Some people have used spirituality to try to help the weight loss issue. I think that's backwards. I'm trying to say, "How can being a better steward of my body prepare me more spiritually, help me grow more spiritually, help me experience God more deeply, give me greater victory over sin, give me greater energy for service to God and ministry on God's behalf?"
How should Christians who want to avoid replicating cultural errors about the body speak about health and fitness?
The cheap line is that we should look at our bodies as instruments, not ornaments. The idea comes from 2 Timothy 2:20-21, which is a picture of our progressive sanctification. The question should be How we are making ourselves available to God? If I live to 70 or 80, am I keeping up a body that will have the energy and ability to still minister in those years?
My longevity is set by God, but I can affect both my frailty and my availability. I could eat myself into a place or neglect myself into a place where I'm become so absorbed by doctor visits and a lack of vitality that I'm not as effective as God would call me to be.
That's not to say there aren't immediate benefits right now. I notice an enormous difference if my body is in shape in terms of my availability to people than if I'm carrying a few extra pounds and haven't been working out.
Are there lessons Christians can learn from the muscular Christianity movement (which spawned the YMCA)?
One of the lessons is about whether we have a compelling message and presentation. They found that the messengers of Christianity at that time—and there were some theological reasons for this—were undercutting the message. They felt like people who were out of shape and "effeminate men" (which is where it gets a little more perilous) had little interest for those with a more adventurous view of life. They wanted to open up the door that Christianity is a struggle, a battle, a challenge. In making Christianity easier to draw more people, we've made it so easy that it shuts out others who want to live the challenge.