The Gospel of Perfect Health

logoThe line between good stewardship and dangerous worship can get fuzzy. We know it’s true of our finances. Being good stewards of your money can easily turn into an idolatrous worship of Mammon. The same can be true of our physical health and external beauty. Being good stewards of our body can easily shift into the gospel of perfect health. In such a distorted view perfect health becomes our heaven, our salvation, our ultimate goal in living. Health and beauty, then, displace God as what’s most important. Three key principles can help us avoid the false gospel of perfect health.

For starters we need to recognize that “perfect” doesn’t exist in a broken world. We live in “vandalization of shalom,” to quote Cornelius Plantinga. The consequences of the fall surround us at every turn and those who think they can achieve perfection in the body are deluding only themselves. Health and beauty will eventually fade. The truth is that exercise professionals are regularly changing their minds. Ask any two professionals what you should do in the gym, which exercises are effective, and you’ll get two different answers. Should I drink water or sports drinks? Should I use the elliptical to spare my knees, or should I use something with more natural body motion? Is the old adage “no pain, no gain” really true? The answers to these questions and more will likely depend on the professional and their training background. Here’s the reality: some exercises aren’t good for you, and some routines aren’t good for you, but professionals can’t all agree on which ones. The same is true of diets. Are all GMO foods bad? Should you eat gluten? Is a coffee good for you or bad for you? The truth is medical professionals, nutritionists, and food science researchers can’t agree. Here’s the big picture: perfect health is an illusion. The curse of sin is returning us all to dust, sooner or later. To be sure being a good steward of your health is important, but exercise and good dieting don’t achieve all that we think they do or intend them to.

It’s not of course that good health is a bad thing. Our desires don’t start out as idolatrous. We just want more energy, more stamina, and strength. We don’t want to be overweight, or underweight. We don’t want all the health risks and complications that come with not taking care of ourselves. Often we just want the consistent discipline and routine. But these noble desires can morph overtime. My friends in the fitness community talk frankly about how consuming it can become. Fitness and health can become obsessions, dare we say addictions. The focus can quickly and easily shift from being “healthy” to being worshipped. Ben Bartlett writes quite frankly of his own experience with this reality. In a beautiful piece for Christ and Pop Culture Magazine he writes:

However, there is also a dark side. As my health increased, I began taking notice of other things. I started spending more money on my clothes, and paid more attention to my hair. I fished for compliments from my wife. When I met with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, I chose clothes that highlighted my physical changes. I poured time and money into fitness books, equipment, programs, and resources until I finally realized that my body had become my number one hobby and leisure activity. And when I really parsed my own thoughts and motivations, it became clear that my strongest internal desire could be worded like this: “if only somebody would worship me the way I worship myself.” (“My Spiritual, Fitness Transformation,” in vol. 2, issue 8)

At the most fundamental level the gospel of perfect health is about self-worship. It’s not about being good stewards anymore, it’s about crafting my body and my image in such a way that others will worship me. Self-worship, however, will never satisfy. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, speaking for God:

for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.(Jeremiah 2:13)

The gospel of perfect health, self-worship, is a broken cistern that can hold no water. The more you try to draw water from it to quench your thirst the drier your mouth becomes.

We should recognize too that the gospel of perfect health tends to contradict the call of the kingdom of God. The call to follow Jesus invites us to accept poverty, hunger, and suffering. Our master did not live a perfect life. He did not pursue the ideal image of himself. He calls us to lay down our lives too. Bartlett quotes J. Oswald Sanders when he writes:

“Many think that if they had abundant wealth, absence of sorrow and suffering, good health, a good job, unrestricted gratification of appetites, and kind treatment from everyone, that would be blessedness indeed. But Jesus completely reversed that concept and substituted many of the very experiences we would like to sidestep- poverty, mourning, hunger, thirst, renunciation, persecution. True blessedness is to be found along this path…”

We need to, then, guard our hearts against the gospel of perfect health, for it calls us to follow a different path than the very one our Savior walked.

It’s not that good health is bad. I want to reiterate that point. There are some of us (I have in mind myself) who should work harder at being good stewards of our body. We can spiritualize our laziness and self-indulgence. But the gospel of perfect health is deceitful and it will take even the best of intentions and drive them into places of idolatry. Be careful, be on your guard, friends. Keep these principles before you and resist the temptation to find salvation in the gym or in the organic food aisle. The gospel of perfect health is disastrous to your soul.

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