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FIRST-PERSON: Self-control, obesity and stress

Editor’s note: The following column was first published in the Southern Baptist TEXAN, which dealt with the topic of health and fitness in its Oct. 4 edition.

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)–As a fellow struggler, I approach the issue of health and fitness with caution. I’m too large and inactive, and I sometimes let worry and stress rob me, and those around me, of joy. So how do I write about the subject without being a hypocritical nag? After a couple of false starts I think I’ve found an approach that addresses the broad subject and convicts even those who don’t yet struggle with their own health.

Some things we call bad habits are defiant behaviors we indulge so often that they become a normal part of our lives. Others are things that just happen if we aren’t diligent. They are entropic. I’m not making excuses for either class of sin but do believe that things like slander, violence, adultery and theft aren’t reasonably called “bad habits.” Much of what comes under the category of stress, bad health decisions, and inactivity — the stuff of this issue’s special report — “just happens” through lack of remedial action. For purposes of this column, that’s my definition of bad habits.

The Bible does say a few things about how we care for our bodies. We are not reading carefully if we use 1 Timothy 4:8 to excuse a sedentary lifestyle. Paul says that physical exercise or discipline is of a little profit, not that it is of no profit, or a sin. Daniel’s example of not eating the king’s rich food in Babylon was in the interest of devotion to God but also better health. Nowhere does the Bible speak kindly of gluttons either. So this matter is not inconsequential. We’ve all had that moment of knowing that we would be better off to abstain from something than to follow our appetites.

Appetite is a broad term. A beloved college professor told us that he (in his 70s) would set his alarm just a little earlier than he needed to wake up. He maintained that one mark of an educated person was the ability to deny the desires of the body. I took him to mean “disciplined” or “mature” when he said “educated.” He claimed it set the course for the whole day. My prof had a remarkable list of achievements already behind him. We were impressed to hear him say that he still struggled to discipline his flesh.

This is the idea that I think takes in the whole of our health-related issues — discipline or self-control. This is what the King James calls temperance or moderation. The idea also goes beyond the scope of mental/physical health but it definitely applies to those things.

Literally, the two words used in the New Testament and translated “self-control,” “moderation” or “temperance” refer to exercising power or being of a healthy mind. To lack self-control, then, is to be weak or unwell in mind. We don’t normally think of our Bluebell ice cream addiction in such strong terms, do we? The sin of bad habits is to despise self-control when God has called it a virtue — even a requirement for some kinds of service.

In Acts 24, as Paul is preaching to Felix at Caesarea, we’re told in verse 25 that when Paul spoke of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” that Felix became frightened and ended the interview. I’ve always thought that it was a fine moment of authenticity that the story of Jesus, which I assume began Paul’s message, did not offend the Romans so much as the personal and behavioral implications for those who follow — or don’t follow — Jesus.

And of course the lascivious excesses of wealthy Romans are legendary. How apt that this culture would be famous for designating a place where people could regurgitate their food to make room for another round of delicious delicacies. Self-control was for those who did not have the resources to live a life of excess. A man would have to change his friends or risk giving offense if he attended social events without indulging to excess. As today, those people did not enjoy the company of monastics or wet blankets. The idea that God would judge unrighteous and intemperate behavior was unpleasant for the governor to consider. If God changed those things, it would change everything. The Gospel was, at this point, too costly for Felix.

Excess is not merely a matter of food and drink. Ambition can drive us to excess. Because of their accomplishments, our society admires those who live frantic and overblown lives. The fact that many of these admired people, some of them religious figures, have lost their families, had notorious moral failures, and may require mood stabilizing drugs to continue their pace is of less importance to us than their resumes. Even we in religious vocations have been known to tolerate the wildest of inappropriate behavior because a man “built a great church” or is a “great communicator.” When they fall by the wayside like a soldier with heatstroke, marching by, we cluck our tongues and hope our own lack of self-control never comes home to roost.

We’re vulnerable when we decide that “we” will build something great for God. Self-control falls aside when we let accomplishments attributed to others change our priorities because of fear or jealousy. When our churches decline in attendance, evangelism, or giving, it is excess to think that working more hours or pleading more loudly will turn things around. Where does the pressure in your life come from? What robs you of peace and joy? I’d venture to say that it is not the call of God that disturbs your sleep or saps your strength. In my life it is usually things that I’ve let stand in for the call of God.

We also know people, some of them quite accomplished, who exude peace. I don’t mean the simple lack of conflict. Some of them are warriors. I mean serenity that makes us wonder why our lives can’t be as idyllic as theirs. We might ask, “Why does God spare them the trials that I face?” He doesn’t. Nearly all of these people have faced harsh trials and yet come through without being scattered by the storm. It is doable. We can follow God even into great and celebrated ministries without losing our minds, our health, or our family to misplaced priorities.

There is another aspect of self-control we must consider. In Titus 1:7-9, Paul writes that “an overseer must be … self-controlled … so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” In chapter two, the same Greek word is rendered “temperate” in the New American Standard in referring to the behavior of older men. While no reason is given for older men to be temperate, the counsel for older women has to do with their role as encouragers to younger women. We might infer that older men ought to be fit examples for their younger brothers. In Titus the point of self-control is effectiveness in the ministry and the roles God has given us within the body of Christ.

Think about the evident ways an intemperate life is displayed in our lives. Maybe too much weight, bags under our eyes, poor endurance, emotional rawness, a harried and messy lifestyle. Do those things affect our ability to exhort in sound doctrine, answer critics, and encourage our brethren? I think so. To some degree, we wear our testimonies on our faces, in our schedules and around our waists. Not to put too fine a point on this; God has used big guys and stressed-out people mightily on many occasions. But has he found us more usable because we are big or overwhelmed? Do some of us die young or are we too often sick or distracted because of “bad habits?” This is no doubt true.

Think of the many things we do under the category of “contextualization.” Missionaries learn the local language and adopt the native dress to some degree. We also do that in our own culture. Jesus didn’t wear a coat and tie, or a Hawaiian shirt. He dressed like the people of his time and place. We do, too. Personal taste aside, we dress the way we do so we’ll be accepted as part of our community. That’s one reason why nearly all of us regret the way we dressed 30 years ago, but at the time we did fit in. Some folks try to use hobbies or other entrees to gain a hearing for the Gospel. Would getting control of our health, getting help with stress-related problems, or practicing better self-control make us more winsome spokesmen for the Gospel? It seems likely that we would have a more general hearing if we exhibited some traits of discipline in ways that people could discern — even those who don’t have it do admire discipline in others. Paul’s advice to Titus regarding the virtues and behaviors of church leaders definitely indicated some concern for the reputation of leaders among those they would lead or teach. We might be missing something here.

Maybe this is not speaking to you. I’ll admit that I’m overweight and that I live in one of the most competitive anthills of religious endeavor known to church history. Not everyone is like me and not everyone is a metro Texan. But demographically, I’m given to believe that most of my readers need to consider if their own pursuit of self-control is energetic enough. To our shame and in some selected ways, I think we may be more guilty than our lost neighbors.

This is not the whole of the Gospel. Neither is self-control as applied to mental/physical health the bedrock of discipleship. If we’re honest, though, most of us would have to admit it’s more important than we’ve made it.
Gary Ledbetter is editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, on the Web at texanonline.net.

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