Americans are suffering from a health crisis.
The Mayo Clinic recently released new research that suggests more than 97 percent of the entire U.S. population does not meet the minimum standards of “healthy.”
To fall in the top 2.7 percent, a person has to take part in “moderate or vigorous exercise” for at least two a half hours a week, maintain a diet score in the top 40 percent of the “Healthy Eating Index” (so, basically, eating moderately healthy), have (what they consider) a healthy percentage of body fat (under 20 percent for men and under 30 percent for women) and not smoke.
According to the Mayo research, just a tiny fraction of Americans meet all four of these criteria. The unhealthy lifestyle—as defined by the study—carries with it a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and other longterm health risks.
“Health”—especially when it involves issues like diet, body fat and exercise—can be a sensitive subject, and, rightly so. Unhealthy messages about body image and body shaming can have damaging effects on individuals’ self-image and even mental well-being. By very definition, our own embodiment is literally one of the most personal topics that we can think of.
But, the intention of the Mayo Clinic study isn’t to shame 97.3 percent of the population. Considering it involves almost every American, the problem it underscores—widespread unhealthy lifestyles—isn’t really just an individual issue. It’s a cultural one. It’s a collective one. It’s one we’re (almost) all suffering from.
It’s an issue to which the Church needs to be part of the solution.
Body and Soul
Throughout scripture, there is a unique tension in the relationship between the body and soul. In the Old Testament, good health—which is closely linked with access to abundant food and high harvest yields—is frequently associated with God’s blessing. But, in the New Testament, things get more complicated.
Following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit finds a new earthly dwelling place. Instead of residing in the “Holy of Holies” inside of the Temple, where only select members of the religious community can access, human bodies of believers become living temples.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul underscores this idea, writing, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” Though he’s primarily warning against sexual immorality here, the principle is clear: Our physical bodies matter to God. We are, after all, made in His image.
Beyond the fact that they serve a supernatural purpose, Scripture also tells us that our bodies (“the flesh”) can be in conflict with the spiritual nature God desires. Along with emotions that can lead to actions taken in anger, vengeance, greed or fear, Galatians also warns of “sins of the flesh” like “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery.”
Paul writes, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.”
That’s partly why the concept of fasting has so much power. Not only are we demonstrating discipline to focus on communicating with God when we intentionally deprive ourselves of food for predetermined periods of time, but we are taking power over basic physical desires, and instead becoming reliant on Him.
Finding the Balance
Good food, nutrition and health are important to our personal well-being. Our bodies have been designed by God to operate in specific ways. And, God wants us to enjoy food, feasts and bounty. They are constantly used as metaphors for His favor.
But, the reason why we are encouraged to fast and warned to avoid the sins of gluttony and drunkenness is because the tension between enjoying God’s blessings and succumbing to the power of the flesh is always present.
Spirit and flesh work together, but are also at odds.
That’s why, in the current health crisis, the Church has such an important role.
Slowly and inadvertently, we’ve let the tension of body and spirit become imbalanced. The numbers indicate that we are making more and more unhealthy choices, that not only take a physical toll on our bodies, but can also lead us to forget about an important spiritual principle: Discipline over “the flesh” is linked to spiritual growth.
For each individual this looks differently. For someone, it may be choosing to fast more—and taking time for spiritual nourishment. For someone else, it may be choosing to take more time to enjoy real fellowship that comes with feasting and having good meals together—to slow down more, and enjoy God’s blessings.
The Church’s role should be helping the Body of Christ navigate this tension, and understand the spiritual consequences of the choices we make regarding our bodies.
A number on a scale is not an indication of spiritual well-being. Like with every area of life, God offers grace where we struggle—and we need to offer and receive grace, too. God calls us to live in ways that we can experience consistent spiritual growth. He isn’t a body shamer.
But, if research indicates wide-scale problems (like 97 percent of us being “unhealthy”), it may be time to reexamine how we, as Christians, are addressing them.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.