On Being Fat

The pastor I worked with during my ministerial internship was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known. I came to ministry lacking, I think, a natural aptitude for the job. Even after a college degree, I was mostly clueless about how to be a pastor. Bob was my first role model. He was an excellent preacher, planner, writer and communicator. In the days before computers made audio-visual easy, he created amazing presentations with multiple slide and movie projectors synced with music and narration. He had an uncanny grasp of congregational dynamics: I remember him telling me before an important board meeting exactly how it would go, which member would say what and who would raise what objections—and he was right! (After pastoring nearly 40 years, I now can occasionally do the same thing.) And he had a wicked sense of humor that he unleashed when away from the church members.

Yet what everyone remembered about Bob was not his brilliance or his talent, but his size. Bob was not just pudgy. He didn’t just have a stomach overhanging his belt. He was massive—well over 400 pounds. Even to me, his young assistant, church members made remarks. The kinder of them tongue-clicked and mumbled “Isn’t it a shame? And such a brilliant man…” Sometimes there was no attempt to be kind: “How can this man represent our health message?” and “Clearly, he can’t control his appetite.” To these Bob’s corpulence wasn’t just a health problem, but a spiritual problem. They didn’t have the tackle to say it to him directly, but their intention was pellucid: being as fat as he was was a sin. He should not only be ashamed, but feel guilty.

Which he did. To a degree they could never have imagined. He didn’t require their behind-his-back scolding to feel bad about his body.

I felt defensive about Bob, and I still do when I run into someone from the old days who knew him. (He — predictably — died younger than he should have.) Bob was good to me. He defended me when a foolish administrator was giving me a hard time. He was unselfish: he pushed me to try every pastoral task that he did. He was praising and encouraging. His friendship and mentoring meant the world to me.

Of course, his enormous size was a handicap. He strained to get up out of chairs, and at least once, I remember, broke one to great embarrassment. He wore special industrial-looking shoes, and had to get his suits at special stores. Getting into and out or cars was a chore, and riding with him in my compact car wasn’t pleasant: he filled his space and intruded into mine. He moved slowly, and sweated heavily. Whatever his natural gifts, they often seemed eclipsed by what people saw when they looked at him.

I thought that his size should be worth overlooking in deference to all he had to offer. But Adventists aren’t known to hold back a criticism if we think we’ve got a good one, especially if we can nail it into the sinner with a Bible verse or Ellen White quote. Those who grumbled to me about Bob weren’t exactly ideal specimens of physical culture themselves. They just weren’t as fat as he was. Their scolding, it seemed to me, covered up the relief they felt in seeing someone more out of shape than they were.

We can agree that being fat isn’t healthy. But is it a spiritual problem?

The Bible isn’t as clear about this as some suppose. It was written in a time when people worked tremendously hard to get food, yet average people had fewer calories available to them than we have now. There are only two people described as being obese in scripture: Eli in his old age (1 Samuel 4:18), who was a beloved priest to Israel in spite of it, and the Moabite king Eglon, whose shape is noted mostly for the disgusting detail that when Ehud stabbed him, the sword was completely buried in Eglon’s fat (Judges 3:12-22).

But in general, being fat in those days wasn’t a bad thing: when the slaves in Babylon are praised for the outcome of their healthful kosher diet, they’re described in Hebrew as being nice and fat (Daniel 1:15), which in thatworld meant they were healthy.

The Bible does address gluttony, and when people make a spiritual matter out of being overweight that seems to be the deadly sin they’re referencing. That’s a questionable interpretation, for several reasons. First, biblical gluttony is almost always about selfish rich people who satisfy themselves at the expense of others. It usually appears not as a condemnation of health or self-control, but selfishness and lack of empathy (1 Samuel 2:29, Jeremiah 5:28, Psalm 73:7).

Second, it isn’t clear that gluttony is as simple as overeating. The Torah, Jesus, and the Proverbist all link it with drunkenness: “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty” (Proverbs 23:20–21). Health isn’t the issue here, but shirking one’s responsibilities. Thomas Aquinas thought that besides eating too much, gluttony included gourmandism: obsessing about finding the perfect foods, involving elaborate preparation and expense. That would make those of us who are infatuated with vegetarian or vegan diets (I have been in groups of Adventists who talk about little else) as guilty of gluttony as those who eat to gratify their tastes. (I am constantly surprised at the number of fat Adventists who speak boastfully of their strict diets, as though we’re supposed to believe they got that way by eating carrot and celery sticks. Come to one of our potlucks and watch everyone digging in, and only then assess our collective self-control.)

Third, the glutton is proud of his gluttony. He doesn’t hide it. His appetite for quality and quantity of comestibles is apparent. That’s not true for most unhealthily fat people I know. They feel bad about their weight, and castigate themselves for lacking self-control.

It is this last point that Ellen White speaks when she writes about appetite as a sin. She goes so far as to characterize Eve’s eating the fruit at the fall as a function of appetite, which is why, she says, Jesus’ first victory had to be over appetite (when Satan asked him to turn the stones into bread.) “The fall of our first parents was caused by the indulgence of appetite. In redemption, the denial of appetite is the first work of Christ” (God's Amazing Grace, p.162). These interpretations may be forgivably eisegetical, considering the teachings about diet that she was then expounding. Granting that self-discipline is surely necessary, I have a hard time thinking, as Ellen White seems to, that appetite is the original sin. Unless that tree grew KrispyKremes powdered with cocaine, I’ll go with the sin identified by Genesis: disobedience.

I’m not defending being unhealthily overweight. I am insisting that self-control is difficult, and very few are as successful at it as you might suppose. Genetics and upbringing, not conscious decision-making, has much to do with what our bodies look like.

Let’s also admit that a not inconsiderable factor in our preoccupation with weight is vanity — also a biblical sin. I’m fairly sure that if our culture valued large bodies (as some cultures do) we’d probably figure out a reason to make spiritual judgments about slim people.

I‘m not fat, and I don’t gain weight easily. A few have erroneously assumed that that shows marvelous appetite discipline. I was blessed by genetics with a great metabolism and an adequate but not exceptionally vigorous appetite. (The same gene pool that blessed me with some less admirable qualities, by the way, that I don’t have to mention.) It would be dishonest for me to take credit for my frame: I was born this way, like someone would inherit natural artistic or musical talent. I deserve no plaudits for self-control.

My overweight friend, on the other hand, was constantly trying to lose weight. He didn’t succeed in keeping it off (not many people do) but he exercised more self-control in one week than I’ve had to exercise in my whole life. If self-control is a measure of spiritual strength, who had more?

Which reminds me to note that Christians occasionally take credit for spiritual victories they’ve not actually had. Old people scold young people over their sexual behavior, because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young and horny. You might call it righteousness by age and infirmity. Poor people criticize the greed of the rich, sometimes because they’ve never had enough money themselves to be as greedy as they’d like to be. Some people’s righteousness is only a lack of opportunity or skill.

After a lifetime of being a pastor (which means occupying other people’s heads a bit more than the average person does) I know that many Christians harbor sins of self-control. Some sins they can get away with longer than the person who eats too much, because it doesn’t show as readily. Your body size may be a function of genes, metabolism, upbringing, self-control, and habit, but it fiendishly displays your trespass in the very thing that houses you and carries you around. And you’re stuck in it.

Bob undoubtedly had a metabolism that easily turned food to fat. He was also a compulsive eater. I’m not enough of a psychologist to explain why, though I suspect there was some emotional aspect, maybe a way of comforting himself. Perhaps the fatter he got, the more he sought the solace of food — a vicious cycle he couldn’t escape.

Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (A conditional statement sadly false in its latter part: I’ve seen no evidence that not judging others means that others won’t judge you anyway.) I am quite certain (because Jesus said so to the Pharisees) that the prohibition against judgment is more significant than how you eat.

As for good health, it is mentioned only in passing in the Bible, and by Jesus not at all, which makes it surprising that so many of us have moved diet to the top of our spiritual to-do list. Our bodies, let’s remember, are of this corrupt old earth — what we occupy before the moment when, in the twinkling of an eye, this corruption puts on incorruption. Storing up treasures in heaven means that character development takes precedence not just over possessions, but over the state of these mortal bodies, too.

It’s lovely to be healthy. But no one will be saved by a good diet or a trim figure. No one. The question for us is how we, as people who claim to exalt good health, are to assure unhealthy people that they can have full confidence that they’re saved.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

Image Credit: FreeImages.com / Asif Akbar

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7993
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He “ate” his pain and it showed on his body. So many, many, others deal with their various “pains” in different ways that might not be so visible. He most likely needed a mental health professional to deal with the “why(s)” that he was obese. We will never know what demons he was fighting…and we all have them.

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Jesus comment on not judging that we not be judged, in my understanding had nothing at all to do with being judged by our fellow man, but everything to do with how God judges us. It is my studied opinion that Loren’s otherwise GREAT article has only this very minor fault. I strongly recommend it as being spot on!

We will only be forgiven as sufficiently as we forgive.

Christ is risen!

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Anorexics, persons consumed with exercise, extreme vegans, a whole lot of BEHAVIORS, including
ingesting more calories than the body can use can be ways to manage Emotional, Mental difficulties.
Persons consumed with Do’s and Don’ts in their religious experience are no different. Emotional, Mental difficulties. Self-image either to one self, of to others around us.

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He is not too fat,he is just too short. Givens Adams height he would just right.
Too bad we have the ability to grow out but not up. At best humanity is a sorry lot.

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Re “judge not”: The text is ambiguous, but even if it refers to God’s judgment, the same qualification applies: I’m not going to escape that no matter how non-judgmental I am.

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For most of man’s time on this earth, we have lived on the edge of starvation. Many times in history a cold winter caused 20% of the population to starve to death. Here we are in a time when science and engineering, makes food production very efficient. We moved from 95% of the population making food to less than 1%. Starvation is no longer a function of weather but a function of political events. When a president rapes a country and used the money to buy guns, people starve.

You are most likely to die of diabetes, heart attack or chocking to death on a french fry at McDonald’s.

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Bob sounded like a great friend .We in this body , fight daily to be healthy . it is not sin , but the result of sin that we see our bodies as they are . A friend once taught a health lesson by saying that most fruit on a tree is roughly the same size . While that is true for fruit trees ,it’s not true for people . We come in all shapes and sizes . This is not good or bad . Judge not means , that another man’s thoughts should not be the standard by which we should live. Let every man search out the word of God for himself . Jesus is the standard by which we all should live.

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Loren, my view is that you are citing a special case of what might be called the Adventist dilemma, i.e., what are the requirements for salvation?
On the one hand Adventism subscribes to the traditional Protestant assertion that salvation is a gift of God to us (as Paul asserts repeatedly in Romans and Galatians) based on His mercy and grace and received solely by faith in what Christ has done on our behalf. Is this not what Scripture calls the gospel or ‘good news’?
On the other hand in Adventist teaching there is an undercurrent of salvation by works i.e., that each of us must reach and hold a certain level of sanctification to be saved. Thus, as I understand it, Adventism has made salvation dependent upon our behaviour or performance. Because this requisite degree of holiness is never defined, (I don’t know how it can be) in my opinion Adventism cannot offer this man (nor anyone else) any assurance of salvation. But, Adventism is right in asserting that there will be an investigative judgment of believers at the end of the age. Adventism is also right in saying that this judgment is based on our works. Many New Testament verses state this. Hence the confusion - is salvation a free gift of God to us or must we somehow respond, change our ways and therefore in some way be judged worthy of it?

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this is such an interesting question, i can’t resist jumping in…i believe the answer is that it’s both…if we are doing our best to progress in sanctification, even if we don’t match someone else’s best, we are justified by christ’s righteousness…if we don’t do our best, because we can’t match someone else, or because we just don’t feel like it, we are not justified by christ’s righteousness…

everyone’s best is different, depending on genes and environment…bob may very well have been doing his best to be slim and healthy, and a slimmer church member may not have been doing his best…a gay or intersex person may be doing his best to glorify god in his sexuality, while a straight person is only doing what comes naturally, and is merely going with the flow…the person who’s doing his best to be christlike is the one who is being covered by christ righteousness, and is therefore the one who is being saved…no-one is ever saved through sanctification…salvation is always through justification, that is, through christ’s merits…but those merits come with a price, which is our best, whatever that best is:

“Christ looks at the spirit, and when He sees us carrying our burden with faith, His perfect holiness atones for our shortcomings. When we do our best, He becomes our righteousness.” 1SM:368.

“When it is in the heart to obey God, when efforts are put forth to this end, Jesus accepts this disposition and effort as man’s best service, and he makes up for the deficiency with his own divine merit.” ST:1890-06-16.006.

“When He sees men lifting the burdens, trying to carry them in lowliness of mind, with distrust of self and with reliance upon Him, He adds to their work His perfection and sufficiency, and it is accepted of the Father. We are accepted in the Beloved. The sinner’s defects are covered by the perfection and fullness of the Lord our Righteousness. Those who with sincere will, with contrite heart, are putting forth humble efforts to live up to the requirements of God, are looked upon by the Father with pitying, tender love; He regards such as obedient children, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed unto them” HP:23

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Thank you Loren, for this elegant observation. We do have the tendency to parade from the battlefield victorious in battles we never fought. And while it is easy to criticize others’ lack of (external) self-control, still no-one can seem to tame the tongue!

A piece of advice that I believe is a wise one comes from the mouth of old Professor Kirke in The Lion, The Witch And the Wardrobe. Peter and Susan Pevensie, concerned about their younger sister Lucy’s behavior after she claims to have visited another country through the wardrobe, consult the professor. After reassuring them that Lucy is not insane, Professor Kirke says “there is one plan which no one has yet suggested and which is well worth trying…[w]e all might try minding our own business.”

I think we might need to confess and repent our sin of inveterate nosiness.

Pax,

David

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The first sin was succumbing to the temptation to be as God. That’s what was held out to Eve in the narrative…a higher experience of existence that was being denied her. Surrounding this was the clear controveting, by the serpent, of what God said…“In the day you eat it, you will die,” with, “You shall not surely die.” This seems to say that the first sin, and mankind’s problem ever since, is the attempt of creatures to usurp the authority and position of the creator. And that attempt is grounded in unbelief.

EGW’s reduction of the issue to that of physical appetite for food truly misses the heart of the matter. It reveals her own preoccupation with diet and what one eats as a major component of the gospel. While this has been the impetus in Adventism to teach people how to live healthy lives, a truly good thing, it has also fueled theological distortions of what the main issues of Christian life are about. In its train has come judgementalism over what people put or don’t put in their mouths, misplaced priorities concerning true spirituality, and emotional angst in sensitive people over how their diet affects their standing with God…a sick state of affairs. This originated within the denomination from her mind and her pen, not from the NT.

“The kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul was after a community that would live together like this. Jesus was after followers who cared more about meeting the needs of those who were in want for food and clothing and friendship and hope, than being preoccupied with their own diets… or with that of others.

Thanks…

Frank

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“righteousness by age and infirmity”

I hope I will be forgiven the chuckle I derived from this line. It was a sensible chuckle. Not uproarious laughter like some uncouth Adventists, who’ve clearly never read Sister White’s admonishments about jesting and joking behind the sacred desk. :slight_smile:

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The epitome of YOUTHFULNESS is a SKINNY WAIST.

If you had to choose just one attribute that would signify YOUTH in both men and women, it would be a SKINNY WAIST.

So those of us who worry about our lined and wrinkled faces, and our gray hair, can take courage by reducing our waist size!

An easy task by eliminating ALL wheat – bread, bagels, muffins, cakes, cookies, pasta. And eliminating all white foods – white potatoes, white rice, white flour— only white food allowed is cauliflower and skim cottage cheese.
Also SUGAR in all its forms, cane sugar, beet sugar, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup should be banned. ASPARTAME IS BRAIN TOXIC, but if you have to have a sugar substitute STEVIA is safe

QUINOA is good as a breakfast cereal, and a substitute for rice, cous cous etc,
and added to salads. It is low is starch/carbohydrates, and high in protein.
It is the ONLY plant based food that has ALL the essential amino acids – the protein building blocks.

It also helps to have two meals a day-- a late breakfast and an early dinner.
If you can have sixteen hours fast between your early supper and your late breakfast, that sixteen hour fast will be beneficial to your waist line.

No one need feel deprived or hungry by following a largely vegetable diet and eliminating the above banned foods.

The higher the FIBER intake ( fruit and vegetable fiber ) the greater the longevity-- a proved scientific,correlation!

Also the MICROBIOME ( gut bacteria ) of obese people is radically different than the germs in skinny individuals – a probiotic maybe indicated-- and the good ".beneficial " gut germs love to feed on FIBER. so those of us who feast on refined fiber free foods-- and dairy and chees, and eggs, and meat and poultry and fish,
– all of which have ZERO fiber, are creating a TOXIC MICRO BIOME.
The good gut germs love artichoke and asparagus and fibrous foods!

So here’s to a youthful, skinny waisted Adventist population that exudes health and vitality no matter their chronological age!

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A friend sent me this response:

My familiarity with this particular issue comes from my career in Exercise Science. There are a host of complexities that determine the weight of an individual. Genetics, self control, education, and financial position, just to name a few. You will never hear me speak of body weight as coming anywhere close to the area of sin. In my opinion, those who do so are treading on ground that is called judging. And, unless I'm mistaken, that's not a place God has given His/Her permission for created beings to enter.

The struggle I have is with the hypocrisy shown regarding weight in contrast to other human health struggles, be they physical, mental, or spiritual. Optimum weight isn’t always a choice that humankind can make given the many different variables involved in living a basically healthy life.

The very leader of the Adventist Church lived almost her entire life in poor health. Not once in my experience has there been judgment about that, except in claims that her strength in withstanding those trials is further evidence of her being a prophet.

Loren, just as your dear mentor should not be judged either publicly or behind his back for his health struggle, neither should my mentor who struggled with prescription drug addiction. Picking and choosing which health struggle falls into the category of sin or rises to the level of prophethood requires much more caution than the consideration usually receives.

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A very encouraging article, Loren. My parents, who were 2nd and 3rd generation Adventists, quit eating meat when I was three. They gave us a healthy diet, in light of their times, but it wouldn’t pass muster today. Reward and punishment were associated with food. Sweets were rewards. I’ve had a weight problem since my first pregnancy, and was totally convinced it was a sin and something I had to overcome, but had no success. Advancing nutritional knowledge has only increased my guilt. One of my top concerns has been that I would die “early” and people would say, “She died because she didn’t lose weight.” Now that I’ve finally reached 80, I feel I could die in peace, as far as other people are concerned, but still face God with a guilty heart. I have, however, finally come to believe God loves me just as I am, and understands my struggles!

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Equating obesity i.e. eating too much with other disease causing behaviors such as alcoholism or smoking cigarettes or anorexia nervosa, poses a moral dilemma, eh? Of course, hormonal causes for OBESITY should be ruled out first,then should we address the issue w/ a fix the outcome approach w/ stomach surgery, diet and exercise, etc? Or as Pastor S. has done, ponder the spiritual, psychological causes of such behavior, and modify it if possible? Because the lethal outcomes of OBESITY are well documented, I think the Christian duty is to intercede early w/ kindly concern and loving advice to someone who appears waddling toward OBESITY. Prayer is a good dietary supplement also.

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Nothing like starting a conversation about food to bring everyone out of the woodwork!
Compulsive overeating is not about knowing how to eat. Addictions are complex and gripping. And pervasive. Solutions are elusive. I believe they involve all aspects of being… physical-genetic-chemical, emotional, social, and spiritual.
As someone who has struggled with food, guilt, shame, failure, hopelessness, helplessness, and self-condemnation since childhood… and has yet to find consistent freedom as I approach my 70’s… I empathize with anyone struggling in this terrible, painful, defeating cycle. On my better days I have hope. Jesus came to set the prisoners free. On my worst days I believe the Holy Soirit has deserted me because obviously I lack the gift of self-control…or perhaps there is no Holy Spirit at all. Our thinking becomes horribly twisted around our attachments and our spiritual beliefs. And the twistedness feeds the addictions.
The first step, I think, is lifting the condemnation around these issues and separating them from the salvation dynamic. It can be helpful to be involved in a 12-step program and get professional help. But if churches could become safe, supportive places for all seeking, struggling humans, I can only imagine how much more clearly we could see the face of God and feel His unconditional love and acceptance!
Thank you, Loren, for your thoughtful piece. Having been with you in conversation, prayer, and honest exploration these past couple of days, I sense your very sincere concern and compassion. It is very healing.

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Thank you, Loren Siebold, for your insightful essay. I am of average height and I have weighed up to 280 pounds. I have lost 20 pounds, but I am still too heavy. People assume that I eat way too much. The truth is, I gained weight after the death of our daughter. Since that initial gain, my weight has remained rather stable.

In my last congregation, there were several members who loved to criticize our pastoral team. It was reported to me, that one person blamed the churches financial problems on me “because the pastor does not support the health message.” The truth actually was that a group of like-minded members had diverted all of their tithes and offerings to another Conference.

This criticism and criticism on other issues sent me into a deep depression. As a result, I was squeed out of the ministry about 18 years earlier than I had planned. My self-esteem has been destroyed and my financial situation has been affected. I am not bitter with the Church, and after much prayer, and the working of the Holy Spirit, I have forgiven my critics.

A survey, conducted by a church leader from another conference, found that 86% of my congregation were pleased with my leadership. Only 14% rated me poorly. My problem is that compliment “slide off” me as if I were Teflon, but criticism sticks to me as if it were Super Glue.

I choose to believe that those who see themselves as critics (and critics of their FAT pastor), do not maliciously try to destroy their pastor’s life, but rather they just do not realize how harmful their words can be. They might even see their criticism as doing the Lord’s work.

Am I still fat? Yes. Am I still clinically depressed? Yes, but it is controlled with medications. Am I bitter toward my critics? God has graciously made it possible for me to forgive them. (Thank you, my Lord!)

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