This is the season for resolutions. Studies have shown that each year almost half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions, a full two-thirds of which relate to diet or fitness, with weight loss being our most common resolution, by far.
It is not surprising that so many Americans would make resolutions relating to fitness and diet. A shocking thirty-five percent of American adults are now clinically obese and as a society we are suffering from alarming and escalating rates of diabetes and other illnesses directly related to poor diets and a sedentary lifestyle. According to the USDA, Americans today consume on average nearly 500 more calories per day than they did 40 years ago, with the increased calories coming almost entirely from oil, fats and grains.
So called “fast-food,” which is high in calories and low in nutritional value, now accounts for over 13 percent of Americans’ diets, up from only about 3 percent in 1978. As the Centers for Disease Control reports, “American society has become ‘obesogenic,’ characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods, and physical inactivity.”
By our poor food choices and physical inactivity we are not only diminishing our quality of life, we are quite literally killing ourselves. One recent study links a full twenty percent of American deaths each year to obesity.
The health crisis we are experiencing would be distressing to John Wesley. Throughout his 50-plus years of evangelism, Wesley consistently urged his followers to care for their bodies through exercise and through simple diets of nutritious food, never separating his moral instruction from his teachings on health, diet and wellness.
There are three principal reasons why Wesley placed such an emphasis upon good health and a nutritious diet.
1) God wants all people to be healthy
First, Wesley was convinced that it is God’s intent that all people be healthy. In Wesley’s theological worldview, poor health is a reflection of the fallen sinful state of the world. Wesley taught and believed that humans should strive toward the perfection (both physical and spiritual) that God intends. So it follows naturally that humans should strive to be and remain as healthy as possible, thus aligning themselves more closely to God’s will.
2) The human body is to be used for the advancement of God’s kingdom
Secondly, Wesley believed that the human body is an instrument intended by God to be used to do good for the advancement and benefit of God’s kingdom. Wesley argued that people are mere stewards of their bodies (like everything else they come to possess or control), which they are obliged to use to further God’s purposes. “Do all the good you can,” he famously said. Because an unhealthy body is less capable of doing good than a healthy body (a body “preserved in strength and vigour, a fit instrument for the soul,” in Wesley’s words) he insisted that there is a moral duty to try to remain healthy.
3) Consuming unhealthy food is a form of self-harm
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Wesley considered unhealthful practices, such as the intentional consumption of health-diminishing food to be a form of suicide and therefore sinful. “Our general rule is ‘Thou shalt do no murder,’” he wrote, “which plainly forbids everything that tends to impair health, and implies that we use every probable means of preserving or restoring it.”
Wesley’s reasoning is as valid and compelling today, of course, as it was 250 years ago.
So what should we expect from the millions of Americans who will enter 2015 having resolved to eat better and exercise more?
Unfortunately, as much as we Americans like to make New Year’s resolutions, we’re notoriously bad at keeping them. One-third of those who make resolutions abandon them in the first month. Over half don’t last six months and a mere 8 percent are successful at keeping their resolutions for a full year.
Clearly making a resolution is not enough. It’s not easy to change our behavior, no matter how obviously it is harming us. We live in a culture saturated with advertising designed to encourage destructive lifestyle choices, to which little if any moral stigma is attached. If in 2015 we are to choose an apple over a candy bar, a walk around the block over watching T.V., planting a garden over buying another video game, we will need to develop and exercise self-control. The good news, of course, is that if we decide to do that, we have an ally to help us.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he lists “self-control” as among the “fruit of the Spirit,” along with love joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and forbearance. Perhaps we should resolve to make 2015 a year in which we cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, and use the self-control that God has given us.
On New Year’s Day, 1766, Wesley wrote in his journal: “This is always a refreshing season, at which some prisoners are set at liberty.” For those of us who are prisoners to the consequences of inactivity and poor food choices, may we enter 2015 resolved that it will be a refreshing season of self-control and liberation. May 2015 be the year we chose to start treating our bodies like the temples they are designed to be.