The Fat Nutritionist, one of my favourite bloggers, posted today sharing her brilliant insights in the ways that we use health as a marker of success and how that affects people who are inherently “unhealthy.” Check out her post at When health is not on your side..
Health is the newest hierarchy that our culture has developed. We human beings seem to have an inherent need to find ways to rank ourselves. Wealth has long been a primary status hierarchy. Race has tragically been used too often to create a hierarchy of differences. Gender, of course, is still used to prove that one type of human being is better than another. But health is the current hierarchy fad, and we are being led to believe that it is something we can earn for ourselves. As The Fat Nutritionist writes,
By this definition, if you have good cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, and no notable illnesses or conditions, then you’ve achieved health.
There is, according to this definition, no reason that we can’t raise ourselves up on the health hierarchy. All you have to do is take care of yourself, right? Exercise and eat right and you will be Healthy. But, as she rightfully points out, that isn’t always possible.
I can’t help but look at the issue through my theological glasses, of course. Sometimes, Christians seem preoccupied with the importance of Health. The whole “Less of me and more of Jesus” approach to weight loss is a great* example. I think we might claim not to be worried about outward appearances (i.e. the ugliness of fat) but about the inward importance of physical health. I’ve heard the argument that we need to be physically healthy because then we will be prepared to do whatever work the Lord might ask of us (such as going on a foreign mission). I’ve heard the argument that being healthy is a way of honouring God in our bodies (we’ll ignore the context of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, which is sexual morality not physical Health). Of course, there could be an argument that striving for health is a way of loving ourselves well.
I’ve often wondered how people with disabilities and illnesses feel about these arguments. The person with Multiple Sclerosis doesn’t know from day to day if he will be able to “do whatever work the Lord might ask.” He needs to trust that the Lord knows him and his weaknesses and won’t ask him to do something that his illness prevents. And the Lord is trustworthy, so he can rest assured that will be the case. The person with bad asthma may not be able to exercise to “honour God in her body” because she risks triggering a severe attack that will leave her weaker than ever and risk her life. She honours God in her body by serving Him faithfully in whatever way she can, knowing that will be enough for our good God of mercy. Striving for health might not be possible for the working poor. They spend all their time working just to make ends meet and then are often only able to afford “junk food.” I am confident that God recognizes their situation and is pleased that they are doing their best with what they have.
“Well,” you might be thinking, “but that all makes sense. The person with Multiple Sclerosis, the person with asthma, the working poor all have problems that are not their fault. What about the person who gave themselves Type II Diabetes or high cholesterol or overweight or whatever? They did it to themselves. They should feel bad. They did something sinful.”
First of all: did they? How do you know? Are you sure that you aren’t judging someone by their appearance without knowing the whole story?
Second: are you sure that unhealthy habits are actually sins? I’m not.
Third: so what? Do you think that God loves the fat person less? What about the person whose sweet tooth led to diabetes? What about the person who loves rich, greasy food and gave themselves a heart attack? Do you really think that these people are less important to God than healthy people?
Health is just another hierarchy. Christians are called not to consider ourselves better than others based on race, class, or gender (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28). Paul hadn’t seen a world where we treated one another differently based on perceptions of Health, but I think if he had, he would’ve added “healthy nor unhealthy” to his list. Actually, I take it back. Paul did see such a world. He saw a world where lepers and people with “imperfections” (anything from birthmarks to physical and intellectual disabilities) were cast out of society and had to live in squalor on the outside of the cities. He also knew a Saviour who walked amongst those people, who healed some of them of their diseases, and who promises that all are welcome in the Kingdom of God.
Our bodies are broken by the Fall. Some are broken more than others. Some are broken because they haven’t been loved well by themselves or by other bodies. But our broken bodies are a part of our humanity and our humanity is a gift from the God who made us in His image. As Christians we are called to love one another and to value others above ourselves. There is no room for judgment based on Health in that call.
One more quote from the excellent post linked above:
The reality is that health is not an achievement. It’s something you already have, and it looks a bit different for every person. Health is a dynamic resource that each person carries with them, in some form, through their entire life. …By coping well and caring for yourself, in whatever way works best for your unique habitus and challenges, and by living a life that matters to you, you are cultivating the health that is already yours.
As Christians, I would encourage you to take the health you have as a gift from God. Recognize that your body is broken but that the effects of the Fall are temporary. That doesn’t make our brokenness any easier to handle, but it will give us hope, leading us to care for ourselves and live our lives well based on our unique health resources. Recognize also that, even if you are temporarily Healthy, you have not achieved something that makes you better than anyone else. Beware of pride. There is nothing wrong, of course, with doing things like exercising or eating well, because those things make us feel good and could give us strength and energy. But they aren’t a form of righteousness and they never will be, just as eating some cake is not a sin (I will concede that eating ALL THE CAKES could be considered a sin, but gluttony is not the topic of this post). Most of all, loving your body is good, but loving other bodies is better. By that I mean that we should take care of our brothers and sisters and love them as they are, not as what we think they should be.
If you haven’t already, go read The Fat Nutritionist’s post. It was awesome and much better thought out than mine.
*and utterly humiliating. Christians can be so painfully cheesy sometimes.