Let’s imagine that the average church is roughly representative of the UK population as a whole. It might not be strictly true, but it’ll do for the purposes of this discussion. That assumed, one in four of us in every church across the UK – or 25 per cent of the adult population of the country – is now overweight or obese.
Big deal, you might say. But it is – or it should be. Being overweight or obese can shorten our life expectancy, increase the chances of us getting Type II Diabetes and certain types of cancer, of having a heart attack or a stroke. It costs the NHS millions of pounds every year to treat illnesses that could perhaps be prevented if we all looked after ourselves a little better.
So where does that leave us as Christians? Should the Church be doing something about it – looking to its own and leading by example, perhaps? And why does talking about weight sometimes feels a little like trying to deal with the proverbial elephant in the room? Despite the growing obesity epidemic and the health-related problems that go along with it, even trained medical professionals say they find it hard to suggest to patients that some of their health problems could be alleviated if they lost some weight.
Why? Because it’s an emotive subject. Because, of course, the simple answer would be for all of us to consume a little less and do a little more. But being overweight or obese is often much more complicated than that. There are underlying body issues, hurt, rejection, pain, self-esteem – all feeding into this most complicated of problems. With the best will in the world, it can be like walking into an emotional time bomb.
So if doctors find it hard, how should we in the Church address it, if we address it at all?
There’s no denying it is hard. Weighing in – excuse the pun – on the weight issue is tricky. For some, it can seem to be adding to the increasing pressures that already exist within our society, that exhorts us to be thin. Except this isn’t about thinness – or fatness. It’s about health. And isn’t it interesting that, within this context of increased media pressure, the problem is getting worse and not better?
In the 60s, people were far less exposed to the media. Models were on average bigger – and yet the proportion of the population estimated to be obese was one or two per cent. Fast-forward to 2015 and we’re surrounded by a constant bombardment of size zero models, teeny actresses, unobtainably photoshopped images staring out at us. And yet we’re bigger than ever. All that pressure it seems is only serving to make us less healthy. And let’s be clear – this is a health issue, and not a size one.
So what is the correct biblical response? There are some who quote the “your body is a temple” verse and get all legalistic about being healthy; or others that treat those of us that are a little squidgy round the edges as less-than, somehow. And there are those that get all legalistic about the freedom we have in Christ, the love-me-as-I-am train of thought that justifies that anything goes because of the liberty we have been given; that use their freedom as an excuse to not take responsibility for looking after their bodies and their health.
The truth is: there’s truth in both. The Church absolutely has a responsibility to love, to accept unconditionally, not to judge.
But we also have a responsibility to look after what God’s given us. To use it wisely and for God’s purposes – as we would our money or our time or our talents. We sometimes call it ‘stewarding’. A little bit of jargon that essentially means to look after the resources that we have, considering them not ours to own, but God’s gifts to us, to manage well, to invest, to use to do good and for His purposes.
And our body is a gift from God, too. So whether we are actively abusing it or simply just neglecting it, the truth is it will not last us as long or as well as it might. And we might not get to do all the stuff that God has for us to do here on earth.
So within that, yes, I do think we have a responsibility to address the issue of health – both individually and as a community of believers. Not that our weight in itself becomes the big issue, but that we are adequately educated and encouraged to see our physical health as something that needs looking after and investing into as much as our spiritual health does.