Last year around this time, Oprah was telling us that maybe we needed to shed some pounds to find the real person hidden underneath and how Weight Watchers could help. This year, it’s those really convincing NordicTrack commercials that show how easy it is for the weight to melt off with just 30 minutes a day on the newest invention. Or we are being made aware of our need for “evolved fitness” from the Peleton, the new at-home biking system that lets you be a part of cycle classes from the comfort of your living room. A majority of the people in these ads are the gold standard of fitness and beauty—toned, tan, and thin. Watching them work out or hearing their success stories makes me feel rather blah. When I compare myself to them, I feel like I’m lacking. It’s not unusual to hear the voice in my head that says, “You ate too much at Christmas (and all last year, really), and now it’s time to pay the piper with this diet restriction and that exercise regimen. Time to be a better you.”
I might make a New Year’s resolution to be healthier and to lose weight, but it never lasts very long. I have been through this very cycle quite a few times, and I have to ask myself why I always fail at these attempts at self-betterment. Even as a Christian—although I understand my depravity and know the self-improvement journey is something I need divine help with—I can’t seem to stay on the wagon. I’ve implored heaven for help to lose weight and to be healthy, particularly at New Year’s, so why wouldn’t God bless me with success?
I propose it is because my fitness goals and dreams of a culturally glorious body have focused on the wrong thing: me. Gradually, I have come to believe that it is possible—and downright necessary—to mold my worldview of fitness and health around someone else, someone God has called me to love as much as myself: my neighbor.
It started when I was reading chapter 2 of Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
“Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulation—‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (2:20-23 NKJV).
Even though I’d framed my fitness and weight loss efforts through a Christian lens, they had still been focused on what I wasn’t touching, tasting, or handling, like sugar, gluten, and artificial or processed foods. I could see that my attempts were like a self-imposed religion, a false humility, a neglect of my body (because there were some pretty harmful practices), which at the time seemed like wisdom but yielded me no value against the indulgence of my flesh.If the traditional American approach to dieting and exercise doesn’t help us tame our flesh, what will?
If the traditional American approach to dieting and exercise doesn’t help me tame my flesh, what will? Colossians 3:5, 8, and 9 give us some clues: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another” (NKJV). I see a lot of these things in me, but I rarely take the opportunity of the New Year to address them. And I must add that the two things we typically try to target with our New Year’s resolutions—gluttony and sloth—are conspicuously absent from this list of sins.
I’m not saying that these two areas of sin, overindulgence and laziness, are not things we need to address as followers of Jesus. But I am suggesting that perhaps they aren’t the best place to start when we are trying to tame our flesh, as counterintuitive as that seems. If the kingdom of God is based on two commandments—loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves—perhaps our starting place needs to be found in this foundation.
I reached out on Twitter to Christian fat acceptance activist J. Nicole Morgan for her input on this question: In light of Paul’s warning in Colossians 2:23, how do we restrain the indulgence of our senses, if not by dieting? She responded, “I truly believe it is by loving our neighbors. If we care about what the implications of our choices are on others . . . I think we make more holistically healthy decisions. We feast to celebrate[;] we say no to avoid laying a burden.”
And just who is my neighbor? Jesus has already answered this for us (Luke 10:25–37), but I really like looking at it from a linguistic perspective. In Spanish, the word for neighbor is prójimo. It comes from the same root as our English word approximate. My neighbor, mi prójimo, is the person within my approximate area—in other words, the person in front of me. So it’s not just the people who live next door, although they are definitely included; it’s each person with whom we come in contact.
Also, we have to talk personal priorities. It is not a new revelation that our priorities can affect the people around us. Therefore we have to consider if the pressures we put on ourselves to conform to a certain health standard, particularly at New Year’s, can translate into a burden for those around us. This burden can be because of non-medically necessary dietary restrictions (no gluten! no processed food!) that prevent us from fellowshipping with our neighbors out of fear of failing in our dietary resolve. This burden can also come from an exercise regimen that keeps us from spending time with others less athletic or able, justifying it to ourselves that “we’re just not interested in the same things.” But more insidiously, this burden is birthed of a class structure within our culture that is not being effectively countered by the Church, that being thin and/or in peak physical condition is not only the desired state of being but the holy one. As I’ve written before for this magazine, “[w]e must be careful that the message of our churches does not simply mirror the culture around us—that being our best selves means being thin and beautiful.”
As Christians in U.S. culture, we have the opportunity to make a difference in the coming year by choosing to engage with our neighbors, particularly those whom others have forgotten—the chronically ill, the elderly, those in prison, the poor, the disabled, and the immigrant. We need to refocus on the mission that Jesus presents for himself and his Church in Luke 4 and remind ourselves how much more important it is for us as his followers to be proclaiming the year of the favor of the Lord rather than the year of our best bodies. (It’s important to note that I am not championing a neglect of self. Self-care is very important, but it is different in scope and focus from the self-obsession which drives most New Year’s resolutions and our diet and fitness culture in the United States.)
I suggest that framing our New Year’s resolutions around our neighbor is a more excellent way than to resolve to fight—in the American “burn it to the ground” style—the tendencies in ourselves toward overindulgence and laziness. What could such a neighbor-centered New Year’s resolution look like?
Resolve to feast with your neighbors. Invite people into your home and share food with them. (This is the original meaning of companion—one with whom I share bread, my “breadfellow.”) Resolve to celebrate victories and milestones, yours and your neighbor’s, with bread and wine or cake and champagne. Resolve to coach a little league team and get to know your neighbors while mentoring their kids in team-building and physical activity. Resolve to walk—literally—with an older lady who goes to your church. There is so much room to be creative here; the possibilities are endless.
Returning to Scripture, what Paul writes just a few paragraphs later in Colossians 3:12–17 gives us an effective roadmap for how to truly love our neighbors—the people in front of us—well: be merciful, kind, humble, meek, patient; forgive each other; love each other; let peace rule your heart because we are called to unity; be thankful; immerse yourselves in Scripture; teach one another and sing to each other; and in everything you do, thank God (c.f. Colossians 3:12–17 NKJV).
I am confident that if we resolve to shift our focus from ourselves to our neighbors—by investing our time, energy, thoughts, prayers into the lives of our neighbors—and away from a self-obsessive priority for physical fitness and thinness, we will thrive more in 2017 than in years previous. I can’t think of a better way to join with Jesus as he prays, “Let your kingdom come, and let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” than to resolve to love mis prójimos.
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