Overweight? Lifestyle Disease? Sin is the Problem

Yes, I know it’s a provocative title that may bring up strong emotions. Take a deep breath and stick with me for the whole post. Sin is the problem; however, your personal sin may or may not be the cause of your problem. Let’s think through the problem of lifestyle illnesses using our common Christian worldview as the base from which to begin.

God made the world and it was very good. Then came the fall. Sin was introduced into humanity and into all of creation. As Christians, we hold that this introduction of sin into creation has corrupted God’s order of things and is the underlying issue that explains our worldly problems and suffering. It follows that all illness, including the so-called lifestyle diseases, is ultimately derived from this corruption.

Now “lifestyle disease” is a broad term. What are we talking about? Most common chronic diseases or conditions in Americans are related to our lifestyles, some more and some less. The majority of our (very high and growing) U.S. healthcare expenditures are for the treatment of these lifestyle-induced conditions. Obesity, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, degenerative arthritis, heart disease, high cholesterol, and even the majority of cancers are all related to our typical American lifestyle.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Sometimes, for example, high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels occur in individuals that are “doing everything right.” Certain genetic mutations affect cholesterol metabolism and result in very high blood cholesterol causing affected individuals to experience heart attacks at a young age (in their 20’s and 30’s). No matter how much these patients improve their health habits they are not able to compensate for their “bad” genetics. Similarly high blood pressure may run in families and lifestyle modification may not be that helpful.

This is not too surprising. In this world, bad things do happen to us regardless of our behavior. That’s a major theme of the Book of Job, and as you recall, Job had some pretty severe medical problems through no fault of his own. Jesus also corrects our notion that our personal sin is the cause of all of our medical problems in the story of the man blind since birth (John 9:1-3).

However more often, in my experience, we do cause our own problems. We live lifestyles that do cause our diseases, and we know it. The vast majority of people who are overweight with lifestyle diseases do not have an underlying uncorrectable genetic problem. They simply have harmful habits. They (and me too) are chronically engaged in behaviors that are harmful to us. Why would we do that? Sin.

Consider Paul’s statement:

The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.     Romans 7:14-22

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Haven’t you asked yourself something like that when trying to live differently? Questions like “Why can’t I stop eating junk food?” “Why can’t I stick to an exercise program?” “Why can’t I lay off the beer?” are a few examples. I believe most of us have had this experience. I know I have.

Now this sounds like bad news. My personal sinfulness is causing or contributing to my problems? Yep. Bummer. But wait; there is some good news here. Think about it. You’ve likely had these problems or struggles for a long time and haven’t been able to overcome them or to “cure” yourself. This is why. Man cannot overcome sin by himself. The good news is we are not by ourselves.

Jesus is with us. Jesus provides the salvation from sin that we can’t achieve on our own. He frees us from the power of sin, and we are no longer to be enslaved by it. But we still have to do the work of resisting. As Paul describes, our sinful nature is still present within us, and we must be willing to turn from this old nature to Jesus and our new nature in the Holy Spirit. As we turn to Jesus over and over again, and the Holy Spirit works in us, gradually we do get better. Sin loses its grip. That’s discipleship and sanctification in action, and it applies to your health too.

Unfortunately, we don’t always do the work of discipleship. A Christian counselor once told me that a (presumably Christian) client was not willing to give up an unhealthy food addiction because in her words, “it’s the only emotional support I have.” My first thought was “how sad.” Despite her faith, this person has an ongoing spiritual problem. Jesus did not come and die for us so that we could get our emotional support from chocolate ice cream.

Too many of us have this problem. Myself included. I am not immune to comfort foods and the siren song of modern lifestyles. I also sometimes struggle to live in the manner that I know is good for me. More and more, I am able to call on God to help me. I’m following Jesus the best I can. I’m not catching up to him but I am changing for the better. You can too.

Material vs. Spiritual Wellbeing

Life can be a struggle.  Sometimes it’s a material struggle.  You might be short of money and food, or not have a decent place to live. In my life, more often it’s been an emotional and spiritual struggle with stress and other negative emotions. Why am I worried so much? Why am I not fulfilled? Why am I not happier? Maybe you’ve experienced this as well. In our culture, it’s easy for these issues to merge, and we may seek fulfillment or happiness through our material circumstances. But it just doesn’t work.

Occasionally, I reflect on how much easier my physical life is compared with that of people in other times – perhaps the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, or frontier Americans in the 1700’s. I have so much more that they did. My house is clean, comfortable and air conditioned. It even has a swimming pool in the backyard. I have electricity, running water and indoor plumbing. My job is not heavy labor and it pays well. I could go on and on. Living in America in my particular circumstances, I am sure that I am materially better off than the vast majority of individuals living in the rest of the world. In fact, it seems likely to me that I have a better deal than 99% of people who have ever lived.

Despite this abundance, my life is not all smooth sailing.  Inside I struggle.  How can I be truly at ease with life and its ups and downs?  What do I need to help me feel fulfilled and at peace?  Clearly it’s not material things. Otherwise I’d have it by now. Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes that nothing we can do or have here on earth will fulfill us.  We know as Christians that only God can give us the peace we seek.

As I continue to follow Jesus, I am getting some of that peace. The internal struggle goes on, but it’s less intense, and I have someone to help me. Material things seem less important. At the same time, I am more grateful for what I do have. It been a slow process, but it’s nice to realize I’m better than I was and still improving.  I plan to keep walking.

Let’s go together.

Our Bodies – Fearful Complexity in Service of Wonderful Simplicity

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
 Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.      Psalm 139:14 ESV

Are you confused about how to be healthy and well? Intimidated by study after study showing the positive or negative effect of this or that particular food or vitamin? Overwhelmed by the sheer complexity? I think many people are.

Our bodies are very complicated. Human physiology is intricate, and everything is seemingly connected to everything else. There’s a lot to learn and many of the concepts themselves are difficult. I remember having an extremely hard time in medical school grasping just how the kidney tubules regulate the concentration of urine. Eventually I got it, but it sure wasn’t easy. And that’s just one small part of the big picture.

Even worse, there is a lot more to know now than there was back then. Medical research continues to identify new neurologic and biochemical processes and connections that are important to our biology. New health discoveries or facts are regularly reported in the mainstream media. It’s tough for anybody to keep up, much less to make sense of it all. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t have to understand everything in order to be healthy.

I’m not a technology expert, but I have an iPhone and iPad that I use frequently. Both are very complex devices in themselves, rely on numerous complex applications, and somehow keep themselves in sync through an extensive network of wireless transmitters and receivers. Although they have awesome functionality, the really great thing about them is how easy they are to use. Using them is almost completely intuitive; little to no instruction is required.

How did Apple do that? Great design. Steve Jobs demanded great design. He insisted that things must be easy to use, and so he put the iPhone’s internal complexity in service to simplicity for the end user. It worked! Beyond the functionality, customers find elegance, simplicity and beauty in the design of Apple’s products and they’re selling like hotcakes.

God did that for us. Yes our bodies are complicated, but caring for them is really pretty simple. Eat natural foods, more plants than meat, no junk food; exercise a bit; rest; know God; pray; enjoy relationships with your family and friends; don’t smoke or otherwise abuse your body, and you will likely be very healthy.

Your body also has wonderful self-healing mechanisms. Mostly it recovers from illness or injury on it’s own. Cuts heal. Infections resolve. Broken bones mend. Sometimes medicine or surgery may be needed to help, but in the end it’s always the body that does the final mending through its own complicated and completely natural internal mechanisms.

Really, it is simple to “operate and maintain” our bodies. Should we expect less? After all God is the ultimate designer. He created the universe and all that’s in it and it was very good. Our bodies are designed to be “low maintenance” and “easy to use.” The complexity of our internal physiology is used by God to give us bodies that “just work.”

Our problem is not that health is too complicated. Our problem is sin. Sin has corrupted all of creation and, because of that, we do fall ill through no fault of our own. However, sin has also corrupted us, and we do make a lot of bad choices bringing sickness upon ourselves. How many of us can maintain that simple formula for healthy living? Not too many. But we’re working on it.  That’s what Health Discipleship is all about.

So if you’re not as healthy as you like, take heart. Know that health is simple and that you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

 

Discernment: What is Helpful? What is Harmful?

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.  1 Corinthians 6:12 ESV

“Not all things are helpful.” Now that’s an understatement! As I have grown in spiritual and emotional maturity, I have come to see more and more ordinary aspects of American daily life as harmful for my health. Many common foods are harmful to my physical health. Consumerism and materialism are harmful to my spiritual health. Television and the media are, on balance, harmful to my emotional health.

I’ll write more about some of the specifics on these issues in future posts. For now, my point is simply that our American culture and environment are filled with things that aren’t good for me. Now you and I may not have the same weaknesses, but I guarantee that you have some, and many things out there aren’t good for you either. It’s your job to figure out, or discern, what is helpful for you and what is harmful.

Discernment can be a hard job. The world will try to convince you that bad is good, or at least that bad is “not bad.” Cigarettes were once marketed as good for your health until it was clear they weren’t. The tobacco companies’ fallback position was then to simply deny the harm of their products. It was all lies, but it was also remarkably effective. This example represents only the “tip of the iceberg” of the world’s practice to deceive.

Discernment can also be frightening. Perhaps you have glimpsed that a great deal of your behavior is harmful, but the thought of too much or too rapid change is intimidating. If so, the good news is that you’re normal.   I have been scared that God was calling (or would call) me to radical change. As it turns out, I have changed a lot over the last ten years or so, perhaps even radically, but it was a slow, step-by-step process. I think that’s how God does it for most of us.

So, how to start? Always start with prayer. Ask God to help you discern healthy from unhealthy behaviors. Ask him to help you overcome any fear you may have, and remember that Jesus has set us free. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. That’s us!

Second, recognize that the world will lead you astray. Be on guard against advertising, “common knowledge,” and don’t equate “normal” with “good.” Research the issues for yourself. Talk with friends and relatives who seem especially physically, emotionally and/or spiritually healthy. Ask them what they do that’s helpful and what they avoid because they find it harmful. You’ll learn a lot and probably find some supporters too!

Now relax having sure knowledge of God’s immeasurable love for you and infinite power.

You can do it!

The Christian Worldview & Personal Change

As you know, I work in the healthcare field. One of my roles is to help design programs to help people change their lifestyles and improve their personal health. So I spend a lot of time looking at various wellness programs and employee health insurance programs trying to understand what works and what doesn’t. Frankly, most programs in most organizations don’t work very well for most people. There may be many reasons why not, but one thing I’ve noticed is that typically these programs are designed from the wrong worldview.

What’s a worldview? One online dictionary has these definitions:

  1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
  2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.

For our purposes, I suggest defining a worldview as “how things are” or “how things work” in the world. You might liken a worldview to a computer’s operating system. If you want to program the computer or add an application, you had better understand what operating system you’re dealing with. Trying to install Microsoft Office for Windows on an Apple Mac just isn’t going to work. Knowing the computer’s operating system allows you to use it properly. Similarly having the right worldview allows you operate effectively in the world. In our case here that means to design an effective personal change process.

There are many possible worldviews, but as followers of Jesus we should have a distinctly Christian Worldview (CW) as revealed to us from God through the Bible. However, in America that’s an uncommon position compared with what I call the American Secular Worldview (ASW). Let me compare and contrast some elements of these two worldviews:

ASW: People are just here. This world is all there is. Let’s make the best of it while we’re here. People have a right to be independent. My behavior, habits, choices are my own business.
CW: People are created by God. There is an unseen spiritual world and we should live in harmony with it and God. People are made to be in relationship with God and with others. God has an interest in my behavior, habits, and choices.

ASW: People are rational agents and human nature is inherently good. Given good information, people will make good choices. Social problems/bad circumstances cause people to make poor choices. People simply need more knowledge, tools and resources to live better lives.
CW: People are inherently flawed. Sin is the root of our poor choices and social problems. Most social problems can’t be “solved” through large-scale programs. Jesus is the answer for sin. Self-control is fruit of the Holy Spirit. Transformation and better lives happen “by the ones.”

ASW: Structure, discipline and constraints are bad. More choices and more freedom are good for people.
CW: People by and large can’t handle freedom. Most individuals are not in good control of their behavior. Accountability to a group is a practical necessity. Constraints and discipline are helpful in living a good life.

ASW: Physical illness is an independent event. People just get sick. There is no underlying reason. Mind and body are connected but it’s not that important. We can cure illness (even lifestyle illness) with more research, better drugs, and new surgeries.
CW: Illness exists because sin has entered the world. Most illness is lifestyle related and, in general, we bring lifestyle illness on ourselves through sinful behavior. People are generally not in good control of their behavior because they are not emotionally and spiritually well. Mind, body and spirit are inseparable and completely interdependent. No physical treatment will cure an illness of spiritual cause.

ASW: Better technology is the answer. If we have technology we should use it. Knowledge comes from science. With enough research we will solve all of our problems.
CW: Wisdom and true knowledge come from God. Man is prideful when he believes he can solve all problems. Just because man has a technology doesn’t mean he should use it.

ASW: A person knows what is good for him- or herself. Their choices should always be supported.
CW: People often don’t know what is good for them.  We may deceive ourselves about our own poor choices.  Our call as Christians is to love others. We should always act out of love, which may mean not supporting others’ choices.

You can see how these two worldviews have very different implications for our thoughts and actions on personal change. This is foundational stuff. Study it. Do some additional reading on the Christian Worldview, and think about which worldview you typically operate from. I’ll be returning to these concepts in future posts.

Understanding God’s Love and Power Eases Anxiety

My pastor is currently preaching and teaching from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, so that’s what I’ve been reading lately. I’ve been struck by this passage right at the beginning where Paul writes:

I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called – his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him.  (Ephesians 1:15-19 NLT)

That’s just what I need – a fuller knowledge of God and an understanding of his love and his greatness.

Like many of us, I tend to worry about a lot of stuff – my children, work issues, the economy, politics, and more. Our media-saturated culture tends to reinforce this with many fear-inducing stories to keep us tuned in. Consequently, it’s easy to live in a perpetual state of low-grade (or high) anxiety, and that anxiety can fuel a lot of unhealthy behaviors. Stress eating would probably be one for me. Others might turn to alcohol, drugs or sedation with TV.

But really, what do I have to worry about? God loves me and God has all power! He can do anything! I know how much I love my children; I would give all I have to help them. And God is a much better and greater father than I. If I could just get that through my head, I could relax and let the worries go. But I just can’t do it by myself. God will have to help me.

So I’ve started praying a version of Paul’s prayer for myself: God help me to know you better and grant me an understanding of your great love for me and your unlimited power. Help me to relax in that understanding and to trust that you’ve got all of my issues under control.

I hope for you to be granted the same.

Following Jesus and Changing My Lifestyle

“Jesus came to save us.”  All Christians would agree with that statement, but too often it stops there.  A Christian might say, “I’m saved,” meaning that through their faith in Jesus they expect to go to heaven, but what about their problems here on earth? What about their sinful desires and actions, their bad habits?  Jesus also came to change us here and now.  He came to give us a rich, rewarding and meaningful life – now!

Dallas Willard has described the change we are to make in following Jesus as “regeneration.”  The idea is that we should be changing for the better, here and now, in all aspects of our lives.  Here’s how Dr. Willard expressed it, “Faith in the living Christ raises us above merely being delivered from the consequences of sin. We need a doctrine not only of justification but of regeneration.  We need a picture of our life in God that does not leave most of our life untouched.”

The point is that Jesus wants us to change.  The love of God makes it okay to admit our problems, faults and sins, but we are not to just stay stuck with them.  I believe we are supposed to get better – not perfect, but better. We do that by becoming “disciples” of Jesus or “following” Him.  Obviously “following” someone is not a passive process.

Again, here’s how Dr. Willard explains discipleship, “A disciple is a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do. A disciple is not a person who has things under control, or knows a lot of things. Disciples simply are people who are constantly revising their affairs to carry through on their decision to follow Jesus.”

I have found that, as I follow Jesus, I have developed an increasing love and respect for myself – not pride, but acceptance and gratitude mixed with a desire to be a better person.  Along with this has come an urge to be a better steward over my own physical and emotional health, and I’ve come to realize how much of “the world” is antithetical to Jesus, God and my own personal health and wellness.

A desire to live differently has been building inside of me, and I have received the inner strength to make positive changes. Be assured that the world pulls at me too, but I am learning to separate myself from people and things that will drag me down.  I am becoming a different person, a healthier person, in mind, body and spirit.

What about you?  Are you getting healthier?  Personally, I don’t think God wants people to have lifestyle diseases. And I am sure that God will help you change your lifestyle for the better.  That’s what Health Discipleship is all about.