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"Woe unto you who are full, for you shall hunger." Luke 6:25

When I was young, I could eat like a pig and still stay thin as a rake. It had something to do with a high metabolic rate.

At some time in my young adult life I commented, after reading the above Bible verse, that there must be no fat people in heaven. I overlooked at the time that the passage was worded in such a way as to include thin people like myself who were constantly "full". To my way of thinking, I was not guilty of gluttony, as long as my body was able to burn up everything that I ate (or able to cast it out as waste).

Then around middle age, I developed arthritis, and was unable to continue running competitively, as I had done all my life. My metabolism dropped and my weight soared. I put on more than 11 kilos (about 25 pounds) in a single year, and a further 11 kilos in the next few years after that. My weight was soon up to 87 kilos (190 pounds) and rising quickly. Nothing seemed to stop the increase in weight, and I looked like being genuinely obese in another ten years.

During this period, I tried a number of different diets without success. I prayed seriously about my condition as well. Being overweight was terrible for my self-esteem, not to mention my health. But I had a feeling that maybe I was being punished for my youthful self-righteousness toward others who were overweight.

At one stage I worked on a whole new theology, which said that God wanted me to be fat, as a sign of his blessing, and I just had to learn how to accept it without feeling guilty.

Certainly it was humbling to look like a hippo instead of a gazelle, and that humiliation in itself must have been good for my spirit. I consoled myself by remembering that even Jesus was accused of being a glutton, because he apparently ate whatever was given to him... unlike the more anorexic John the Baptist.

During this period, I discovered a modern day paradox: The poor are fat and the rich are thin, simply because food manufacturers dump all the fatty stuff on the poor at reduced rates. The rich maintain their slim figures by just eating the breast meat or the leanest cuts, while the poor are told that chicken wings and pork rind are the way to go. Palm oil, the worst sort of vegetable fat, is sneaked into nearly every type of processed food, so that those who are not educated in the advantages of canola or olive oil will be the ones who consume all the worst sort of fat.

I faced a moral dilemma when it came to justifying expenditure on everything from diet drinks to low-cal salad dressings at the same time that others in our community were eating the cakes and sausages that had been donated to us for free. Did being "poor in spirit" mean that I was obliged to eat whatever was given to us, even if it was going to make me fat? Maybe so.

All of these issues consumed me. The result was that I felt guilty for being fat and guilty for trying to be thin. But the most last-ing resolution that came out of it, was never to be self-righteous toward fat people again. I was experiencing just how difficult it is to resist temptation when fried chicken or donuts are being passed around, even knowing that it will result in a significant strain on the bathroom scales the next day.

The theory that some of us just have it in our genes to be fat, while others do not, was suddenly appealing. My younger years aside, I decided that I had been predestined to be fat in my later life. I could look on it as a blessing or as a way of making me humble; but either way I was fat, and I was likely to stay that way for the rest of my life. At best, I could just fight to slow down or (if I was very lucky) to freeze the weight gain where it was.

But all of that (apart from the resolution about not being self-righteous toward fat people) changed this year. The experience has been a profoundly spiritual one, which I would like to share. I would like to do so in a way that does not come across as being sanctimonious; unfortunately, it may still sound that way. Please forgive me if it does.

It all started with thoughts about the Tribulation... (For those who are not acquainted with such a term, it is a period mentioned in Bible prophecy, when Christians will be persecuted for their faith, and when we will not be able to buy or sell anything without compromising with a godless world system, a compromise which could cost us our souls.) For many years I had tried to accept that, "when the Tribulation comes" I would be prepared to die for my faith. I would be prepared to suffer that others might be protected. I would be prepared to go without food so that others could eat.

But such thinking was always about something I would be prepared to do at some vague time in the future. What was I doing right now to prepare for such disciplines? Would I really go hungry so that others could live, if I wasn't prepared to go hungry so that I myself could live a longer, healthier life now?

I had lived more than half a century with hardly any idea about what it meant to be hungry. I had tried fasting on a few occasions, and it made me feel very spiritual while I was doing it; but I always returned to gluttony when it was over. It was almost like I felt that I had earned the right to overeat because of my heroism in missing a few meals six months or a year ago.

What I needed was a daily inner strength to face the kind of things that will come during the Tribulation. We prepare for just about everything else in life... getting an education, buying life insurance, joining retirement funds. So why not prepare for the Tribulation?

I tried this new approach, and it only took a few days for me to realise that my inability to lose weight was little more than a reflection of my inability to go without food for any reason. I would tell myself that I was going to skip a meal (or eat only fruit or fruit juice or bread or boiled vegetables or whatever) as preparation for the Tribulation; and yet halfway through the meal, or halfway through the day, I would start breaking my own rules. What good would a whole life of Christian theory be if, faced with a choice between starving myself or causing someone else to go without, I should ultimately opt for the second choice. All the evidence seemed to suggest that my moral character was just that weak.

Obviously the little disciplines I had tried unsuccessfully to put myself through were in no way a threat to my health. Quite the opposite! And yet I did not have the willpower to follow through with them. How would I ever endure something that was really life-threatening.

Remember, that I am not talking about dieting as such here. I am talking about an imaginary sacrifice so that someone else could live. With that picture in mind, I failed repeatedly. That gave me the shock that I needed to make some serious changes. I could see that my faith was useless if it only worked when things were going well (as they have for me, for virtually all of my life). I needed a faith that would work in the face of starvation.

And when I saw myself in that light, I started to pray desperately.

I could have said at the beginning of this article that the way to lose weight is just to pray. But it's not that easy. There are so many different kinds of prayer. What was needed in this situation was desperate prayer. And more than that, what was needed was desperation for the right reason... not so that I could maintain some kind of positive self-image, or so that I could live longer, but rather so that I could be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ.

My addiction to food was no different to heroin addiction (except that mine was legal, and it was largely unchallenged by the church). That addiction was the Achilles heel of my spiritual life, through which the devil would one day be able to destroy everything that I had ever done for God. My desperation was, indeed, a desperation that had come about because of a genuine concern about my eternal destiny.

But when I did start praying like that, I started making progress.

I must confess that even now I am keenly aware of how far short I fall of my original goal. Day after day I resolve to make drastic reductions in the amount of food that I eat, and I only end up making slight reductions by the time I finish with all of the compromises that come up throughout the day. Some days I do not make progress at all; I actually end up weighing more at the end of the day than I did at the start. But even those failures motivate me to pray more desperately about my spiritual condition. And overall, I am losing weight for the first time in my life. I am making progress at the same time that I am acutely aware of my weakness in this area. I still cannot, for example, resist food when it is offered to me; so I have to spend much of my time avoiding such situations (or paying for them afterwards).

I have lost over 11kg (about 25 pounds) in less than four months. And I am continuing to lose. I am hopeful that when I reach my ideal weight, I will then be able to maintain it for the rest of my life through constantly reminding myself of the important spiritual lessons which led to this weight loss routine in the first place. Maybe one day I will even be able to say "no" to temptations when they are waved under my nose, and not feel like I have climbed Mount Everest in doing so.

The verse I quoted at the start of this article said, "Woe unto you that are full, for you shall hunger." For fifty years I had been full; so it would be only fair that I should hunger for fifty years in return... or at least that I should eat only that which is necessary to maintain a healthy weight level. Far better fifty years of discipline now than an eternity of discipline in the next life. Consequently, I have learned to embrace hunger as a kind of penance during these past four months, rejoicing in the grace of God for having revealed this to me in this lifetime, so that I would not have to pay for it in some eternal way in the next. (I know evangelicals hate the word "penance", but if you prefer, John the Baptist asked people to give him some proof of their "repentance". I see my new life as proof of my repentance for all the years when I overindulged myself.)

You can see from my reference to eternal punishment for overeating that I have returned to a theology very much like that which I had in my youth, when I assumed that there would be no fat people in heaven. I do not see it as the watershed between eternal salvation and eternal damnation; but I think that there are many things that we do in this life for which we will be eternally rewarded, and many things for which we will be eternally punished. (For example, imagine being forced to stay fat for eternity, while others inherit beautiful, slim bodies). I don't know exactly how God is going to work it all out, but I want to learn as many lessons as I can in this life, so that I will not be forced to spend eternity learning them.

I still sympathise very much with people who are overweight, and especially with those who have tried one diet after another without success. What I am saying in this article is not intended to make them feel condemned. What I really want to do is to inspire them to re-examine their motives for wanting to lose weight. If they will do that, they may find a reason that works. Neither condemnation nor pride are good motivations in the long run. They may work temporarily; but as Christians, we need something more than that. What has worked for me is a positive "conviction" that God wants me to wage spiritual warfare against the "temptations of the flesh". These temptations of the flesh would seek to destroy my Christian witness if they could.

In our self-indulgent world, self-denial has come to be a dirty word. I agree that just whipping ourselves as an end in itself does seem pointless. And I confess that I cannot understand anorexics who literally starve themselves to death through an obsession with eating (or more correctly, with not eating). But there are times when self-discipline is sorely needed; and controlling what we eat seems to be one of the most conspicuous areas where discipline is needed in today's Western world. The fruit of taking a serious (and desperately prayerful) stand against my own lack of discipline in the area of diet has been nothing short of revolutionary in my spiritual life (not to mention the renewed confidence and vitality that have come with a return to my younger days in terms of body weight).

The Bible uses a metaphor to describe the sun. It says that the sun "rejoices as a strong man to run a race". (Psalm 19:5) Races are difficult for anyone who competes in them. But when you find yourself making progress, improving your times, and chalking up personal bests, then races become a welcome challenge.

The same can be true of spiritual growth. We can actually learn to welcome the challenge. Weight loss offers us an objectively measurable proof of progress with regard to our fear of hunger. Every day offers us a new opportunity to get out there and spar against hunger, going yet a few more rounds with it before giving in; and even then, we can aim to only give in slightly, so that we will not be deprived of yet another bout of hunger just before the next meal.

The reason diets had not worked for me before was because I was always looking for an "easy" diet, one which allowed me to eat as much as I liked of one food group, while cutting out another. I had carefully steered away from anything which actually "starved" me, because I was not prepared to do the one thing that is necessary to lose weight, and that is to "starve", or to experience hunger.

Gandhi said that people who have experienced hunger are the ones who experience the greatest pleasure in food. And I have found that to be true. But first we must be willing to experience the hunger. And we must learn to make hunger a significant part of every day of our lives. Tolstoy said that the poor know what it is to experience hunger three times a day, but that it makes them happier than the rich in the end, because they sit down to a meal with such clear consciences, and because they enjoy their meals immensely without overeating.

I have concluded that there is no "easy" way to lose weight. (Especially if we think of "easy" as the way that we found it easy to put on weight!) I see a need for people who are overweight to confront their fear of hunger with a positive motivation to do so for the purpose of developing Christian character, and not just for selfish reasons. I see that motivation as becoming a very satisfying experience in itself, which can result in making us more effective in every area of our life. It would be nice to be able to inspire others to try this same approach to weight loss.

(See also Willing To Be Made Willing?.)

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