Fitness programs like the one launched at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church rightfully teach us that exercise and healthy eating are not spiritually ‘neutral.’
By Laura Leonard
Where do you exercise? Your basement? Your backyard? Your gym? Your church?
Browsing the list of weekly programs offered at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, fitness classes and weight-loss support groups are now listed alongside baptism and leadership training classes.
Warren made headlines last month when he announcedhis New Year’s resolution: to lose a whopping 90 pounds in 2011. Warren is certainly not alone in his goal: Every January, millions of peoplepledge to lose weight, get in shape, and eat healthier, and evangelical Christians have long used Christ-based fitness programs, like Gwen Shamblin’s The Weigh Down Diet and Jordan Rubin’s The Maker’s Diet, in their personal routines.
What make Warren’s announcement headline-worthy was the significant commitment of his church’s time and resources to pursuing health and fitness, in the form of what he calls “the Daniel Plan: God’s Prescription for Your Health.” Developed specifically for Saddleback by Dr. Daniel Amen, Dr. Mark Hyman, and Dr. Mehmet Oz (Oprah’s health guru), the Daniel Plan, Warren says, is a “healthy lifestyle program including a six-week small group study, an online profile you will create on this Website that will help you track your progress, monthly Webcasts with me interviewing leading health experts, an optional healthy choice menu, and new outdoor fitness equipment set-up on the Lake Forest campus.”
When Rick Warren decides to do something public, it becomes a big deal. Over 6,000 people attended the kick-off event, which featured speakers Amen, Hyman, and Oz (all of which are advisers to the program), and thousands more watched at the church’s satellite campuses and online. The church has evangelistic hopes in mind. “This is God’s prescription for your health,” Warren told The Orange County Register. “This is the greatest opportunity for you to introduce friends to Saddleback Church through a non-threatening event.”
As Saddleback focuses its energies on physical fitness, I have as well — and have come to believe that a focused diet and fitness plan can drastically reshape our spiritual lives.
If you’re anything like me, you think about food a lot during the day: whether or not you’re hungry, what you’re going to eat for dinner, what you need to buy at the grocery store. My thoughts are dominated by food, but I had never really thought of this as a spiritual issue. Out of physical necessity, food is part of our daily routines. Because of this, to think of food as a “neutral” human activity, one that God doesn’t care about one way or another, is to create a dangerous divide that removes God from a significant portion of our lives. And his presence makes this part of our lives fuller and gives us purpose, connecting us to his purpose and creativity in coming to more fully understand the unique ways God created us to enjoy every kind of food.
Though not all of us may “feel God’s pleasure” when we run or spend time on the elliptical, the act of exercise can strengthen our understanding of our bodies as God’s creations. I’ve never been an exerciser — much less a runner — but when I feel my muscles burn, I am reminded that God has created me with the ability to do more than I can right now, and that to strive toward that goal is a way to more fully pursue all that God has intended for me. The same is true with food. For all the complex rules and plans marketed in the multibillion-dollar diet industry, weight loss can really be broken down to one rule: eat less calories. You could lose weight eating nothing but potato chips, as long as you consumed fewer calories than you burned.
But this is not what a Christian vision of health looks like. As I’ve begun learning more about health and nutrition (with the help of two recent Christianity Today cover stories) I do my best to fill my body with nutritious, natural foods that help my body function better. This is a new way of thinking for me. Before, food was all about pleasure. As long as it tasted good, I had little concern for how it might affect my body. This seems like such an obvious idea, but I have to believe I’m not the only one who has allowed myself to settle for this low view of food and my body. And this is not how God has called us to live! By eating foods that allow our bodies to best perform the functions for which God created them, we glorify him as best we can (1 Cor. 10:31). For me, this attitude spills over into every area of my spiritual life. Once I let go of the idea that life is about pursuing tangible pleasures, I learned to focus on the great intentions God has for my life rather than the realities I often settle for.
By bringing this whole process into the context of the local church, Saddleback has enriched these experiences by encouraging their community to expand the meaning of living life together. Too often the Christians who do decide to pursue healthy living and eating do so independently, either because they don’t want to admit their issues with food (and so many of us have them) or don’t want others to feel judged for their own choices. But as a result, it’s not getting talked about, and we’re closing off a large part of our lives that does, in fact, have spiritual implications from the people God has placed in our lives to offer support. Any effort to more fully live life together is one worth pursuing.
This doesn’t mean every Christian should embark on a rigorous diet or an ambitious exercise program. But to pursue more fully what it means to be God’s physical creations, to submit our daily choices to his will, and to share together in these pursuits — surely this is something closer to a healthy understanding of health and fitness as they could be and should be in the life of the church.