The Fitness-Driven Church
Sadly, the loose stakes and flapping corners have let in more than the usual share of hucksters and cure-alls. One diet book claims that "every part of you will know and experience the optimal health we were all meant to have." Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down program, all the rage in the late 1990s and still going today, promises "permanent weight loss and the solution to all addictions." The best-selling What Would Jesus Eat? prescribes the diet that Christ apparently ate, but without considering that he ate whatever he was served, meaning he ate exactly what everyone else in first-century Israel ate. Another promises to "eliminate sickness" through eating "God's way," which means a return to the Old Testament dietary laws. Jordan S. Rubin, author of The Maker's Diet, is one of several who have created their own line of food and supplements with extravagant health claims and prices. His Garden of Life products have repeatedly been censored or shut down by the Food and Drug Administration for unsubstantiated claims. All of these seem to suggest that God's plan is full health for all and that a return to "biblical living" will end all ills.
"A lot of this is part of the health and wealth gospel," says Peter Walters, professor of applied health science at Wheaton College in Illinois. "I feel like we're doing a disservice to the kingdom by representing Christianity in that fashion."
Margaret Mohrmann, a medical doctor and professor of pediatrics and education at the University of Virginia, is also concerned. "Good health is not to be an end in itself," she cautions in Medicine as Ministry: Reflections on Suffering, Ethics, and Hope. "Health can never be anything other than a secondary good."
Even when we aspire to better health to better serve God and others—a noble goal, to be sure—it's crucial to remember that God does not require us to be healthy to accomplish his mission on earth. Exercise and healthy eating will not guarantee a more fruitful ministry. Indeed, God chose not to heal Paul of his "thorn in the flesh," electing to use Paul's very weakness to display his own strength. Nor did Paul's many imprisonments impede his songs of worship or his injunctions to "rejoice, and again I say, rejoice!"
There are indeed sicknesses we bring upon ourselves by our own choices. We must take our self-inflicted sickness seriously. But others come to us unbidden, as the consequence of genetics, aging, viruses—all realities of a decaying world groaning under bondage. When we overemphasize the "good" of good health, we may stumble into the mindset of the Jews in Jesus' day who equated disability and disease with sin. Such a perspective can reel out a new measuring tape for godliness and spirituality: the strictness of your diet, the size of your jeans, the rigor of your workout, the amount of energy you possess.
True and complete health comes when we are restored to the Healer, whom we cannot know apart from our bodies. Even when we profess belief in Christ, it is not enough to "believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead," we must also "confess with our lips." What does real health look like, then? The psalmist gives us a beautiful portrait in Psalm 103, where he enjoins us to "Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits." His benefits to us are vast and generous. This is the God who "forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's."