Thoughts on Legalistic Dieting and Fitness from the Diet of Worms – Toward a Theology of Health and Fitness

The more I read of Christians trying to advocate for physical fitness, the more I am burdened with the need to safeguard the Gospel against developing a new legalistic set of rules to follow. There are various diets advertised as being the most Christian or certain body types or external images put forth consciously or subconsciously as the most pleasing to God.

Having been through bulimia with Aubrey, on the one hand, and having seen my own self-righteousness toward her, on the other hand, has made us both adamant to want to safeguard against these errors, or at least to contribute to the conversation, because we know that these new burdens make terrible slavemasters. We are of the belief that the Gospel brings greater freedom to pursue the pleasures of God in our bodies, which may require greater discipline for some and may require others, at times, to enjoy a ButterBurger with cheese and the flavor of the day with friends.

Often these thoughts flow out of our conversations with the idols of our heart in the daily grind or interacting with the thoughts of those who enjoy working out as a hobby similarly to us, which makes the bitter taste of anything but the Gospel all that much more potent in our daily lives. We have unfortunately tasted terrible flavors in our journey together when it comes to the physical body.

One such conversation came up after I was listening to a podcast where an overweight man was asking if he would be disappointing to God if he took up a new fitness goal and failed yet again to meet his goals. The interviewees gave very helpful answers, though I don’t yet completely understand the fullness of their theological viewpoint in the abbreviated interview, but they had answered that the overweight man could not disappoint God in his fitness goals.

Though I found their encouragement helpful and don’t want to misrepresent them (as I’m currently awaiting their book in the mail), I thought it would be a good occasion to redirect our thoughts to the Gospel yet once again, primarily because the undercurrent of self-righteousness regarding one’s ability to be fit compared to another makes me feel yucky, among other vibes, and there seems to be a lot of false guilt floating around in the Christian subculture.

With that in mind, a few proposals:

  1. All of us disappoint God if our fitness goals are pursued humanistically (Romans 3:23).
  2. Christ has perfectly and continues to perfectly satisfy the Father in every way (John 8:29).
  3. If in every way, then Christ perfectly satisfies the Father even when it comes to fitness and health.
  4. If all of us disappoint God if pursued apart from Christ, and stand actually condemned by God, then our only hope for pleasing the Father is by being in Christ.
  5. If, therefore, we are in Christ, there can be no condemnation (Romans 8:1).
  6. If we are hiding in Christ, there can be no boasting in achieving certain fitness goals, nor self-bought righteousness for being healthier, nor ongoing guilt for not meeting our goals (Ephesians 2:8-9).
  7. Whenever these false thoughts arise, there is no other hope for the Christian other than to plead the blood of Christ before the Father, for when the Father now looks on the formerly condemned sinner, He now sees them cleansed in the blood of Christ; He now sees the Son, perfectly pleasing, when He looks upon them (Hebrews 10:19-22).
  8. As a result, Christians are freed to pursue pleasing the Father, knowing that He graciously looks upon their tainted obedience through the lens of Jesus Christ, and is pleased with them (Philippians 1:13).
  9. Thus, a Christian seeking to pursue pleasure in God and glorifying God with his/her body, whether in health, disability, or self-sacrifice, can rest in God’s pleasure as they pour out their lives for His sake (Romans 12:1-2).

Practically speaking, I recall a time visiting a church in Chicago with a very overweight pastor, whom I had great trouble listening to or respecting at the time, seeing his morbid obesity as an external marker of indwelling sin in his life. How can I listen to a preacher whose life is marked by the sin of gluttony? Yikes! 

Yet the Gospel abolishes this self-righteousness. Sure, the pastor’s weight probably reflected ongoing sin in his life, or possibly another diseased state. But he is no different than I, condemned if he stands on his own, or perfectly accepted if hiding in Christ, striving to please the Father, but failing if he stands on his own daily efforts (please reference Aubrey’s writing about living under guilt when in the thick of bulimia).

Whether too unhealthily thin and struggling with purging, self-righteously standing in the middle, or morbidly obese, all fall on their own merit or stand exalted, if hiding in Christ.

But what about those who seem to have struck the perfect balance? Whose bone density is better than an elephant’s? Whose HDL and LDL are better than a Siamese cat? Perhaps they are the most godly?

Perhaps not … Indeed not, if we believe in the Gospel.

What then?! Indeed our vision of others must change. Our vision of ourselves, our goals, must change. If we ever look disapprovingly at someone else’s body … or look enviously at another’s … or do the same to ourselves in the mirror or on the scale, we are simply not believing the Gospel.

However, when we realize we come empty-handed, overwhelmed that all we have and need is the Christ, fully approved, now seated at the Father’s right hand forever, we are freed to enjoy Him and pursue Him in all things, pursuing fullness of life, so that we might experience more of Him while we yet remain.

We will discuss how the Christian does indeed, by God’s grace in Christ, please God by his/her meager efforts at obedience, but for now, a reminder that Christ is all we have from Martin Luther (thus the Diet of Worms in the title):

Yet even now, at times, I feel that old mire sticking to my heart; under the influence of which, I would willingly so act towards God, as to take a something with me in my hand to him, for the sake of which he should give me grace according to my righteousness [such as my weight, my pants size, my fitness level, or my perfect diet]. And scarcely can I be brought to commit myself with all confidence to mere grace only. And yet it must be so, and cannot be otherwise. The mercy-seat must stand and prevail alone (seeing that he has set himself before us as the only refuge) or no one shall ever be saved.

…And I have no other consolation, no other help or hope of salvation, than that Christ my mercy-seat, who never sinned, who never was defiled with iniquity, who died for me and rose again, now sits at the right hand of the Father, covers me with the overshadowing wings of his protection; so that I doubt not, that through his benefits and intercession, I am safe before God, and delivered from all wrath and terror of judgment. Thus, faith sets nothing before itself to trust in rashly, but remains pure in all things by resting in Christ alone (via Shane Lems, from Martin Luther, “Sermon VIII: Concerning the Sum of the Christian Life,” in Selected Works of Martin Luther, 542).

And so let us cast off the new legalisms found in pop Christian fitness (oh to think there is such a thing!). And let us not measure our godliness or that of others by the scale, by the size of our jeans, by the amount of weight on the bar, by whether or not we decided to enjoy Culver’s today, but ever and always only by the blood of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us.

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