Saturday, February 28, 2009


It’s Lent and time to think about the things we should be repenting of. Of course too often we think in the narrow terms of sins with a capital S that we ought to abstain from, but in this post I am thinking about ordinary things which are not sins in themselves which nonetheless require some serious Christian critiquing as they become sins when done to excess. I am currently writing a book on work from a Christian perspective and it has been sobering and depressing doing the research on work and pastimes in America.

When we are not busy working, guess what our two favorite national pastimes are to pass the time--- TV watching and shopping, and of course the one feeds the other. The average American adult spends two years of their life watching commercials!!! No wonder we do so much shopping. For those born after 1980 however a slightly different form of pastime seems to have emerged--- spending time on the computer or cell phone… and shopping. With TV watching one can be completely passive, but texting or calling or doing things on the computer of course require a modicum of activity, but it is only a modicum. It is not a surprise that Americans are increasingly obese.

We do not generally spend our leisure time in something that could actually be called physical activity, much less exercise. And then there is the problem of the food we eat, in response to the stimulus of advertising--- fast food or junk food which only reinforces the disastrous cycle of passivity, inactivity, binge eating of bad food, followed by a spate of work. Of course the medical industry and the insurance industry has had an increase in business as a result of this disastrous turning away from good food and good exercise as well as good work. But I would hardly call that a good thing. America has the worst infant mortality rate of any developed nation, and the lowest average life expectancy, even though we have probably the best doctors, medicines and hospitals in the world. And it is all our own fault.

One of the most depressing things I have done in recent years is attend the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro N.C. It was not depressing because it was the Southern Baptist Convention as those folks were gracious enough hosts and good Christian people. No, it was depressing because I got to see up close and personal the devastation of what obesity has done to southern ministers, their spouses and also leading southern lay persons. Though I certainly did not take a head count or do a scientific survey it was clear from scanning the audience on repeated occasion that at least 70% of the audience was overweight, and at least 50% was considerably overweight, with perhaps 30% of that group being to the point of morbid obesity. It was simply depressing. Very depressing. And before you remind me that some of obesity is hereditary, which is true in a distinct minority of cases, I would suggest you go spend time in an African country other than South Africa and see how many obese people you run into--- its only a tiny percentage of the population. This is not because they have better heredity! Heredity is not an excuse in the vast majority of cases.

Obesity is a horrible Christian witness to a culture already known for its conspicuous consumption, and its TV shows like ‘The Biggest Loser’ where we actually watch the death struggle of grossly overweight people as they try to get down to a manageable size. It is clear that here in the South we have entirely forgotten that gluttony is a sin, not to mention it is a further sin when we throw away enough food every day to feed various whole small countries. America consumes over 70% of the world’s consumable goods, but it amounts to only 310 million out of six billion people in the world! Sometimes the numbers do tell a story, so here are some U.S. numbers worth pondering as we head for the 2010 census—

Total population-- 303,824,640 (July 2008 est.)
Age structure:

0-14 years: 20.1% (male 31,257,108/female 29,889,645)
15-64 years: 67.1% (male 101,825,901/female 102,161,823)
65 years and over: 12.7% (male 16,263,255/female 22,426,914) (2008 est.)
Median age:

total: 36.7 years
male: 35.4 years
female: 38.1 years (2008 est.)
Population growth rate:

0.883% (2008 est.)
Birth rate:

14.18 births/1,000 population (2008 est.)
Death rate:

8.27 deaths/1,000 population (2008 est.)
Net migration rate:

2.92 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2008 est.)
Sex ratio:

at birth: 1.05 male(s)/female
under 15 years: 1.05 male(s)/female
15-64 years: 1 male(s)/female
65 years and over: 0.72 male(s)/female
total population: 0.97 male(s)/female (2008 est.)
Infant mortality rate:

total: 6.3 deaths/1,000 live births
male: 6.95 deaths/1,000 live births
female: 5.62 deaths/1,000 live births (2008 est.)
Life expectancy at birth:

total population: 78.14 years
male: 75.29 years
female: 81.13 years (2008 est.)
Total fertility rate:

2.1 children born/woman (2008 est.)
HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate:

0.6% (2003 est.)
HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS:

950,000 (2003 est.)
HIV/AIDS - deaths:

17,011 (2005 est.)

noun: American(s)
adjective: American
Ethnic groups:

white 79.96%, black 12.85%, Asian 4.43%, Amerindian and Alaska native 0.97%, native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander 0.18%, two or more races 1.61% (July 2007 estimate)
note: a separate listing for Hispanic is not included because the US Census Bureau considers Hispanic to mean a person of Latin American descent (including persons of Cuban, Mexican, or Puerto Rican origin) living in the US who may be of any race or ethnic group (white, black, Asian, etc.); about 15.1% of the total US population is Hispanic

Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%, other or unspecified 2.5%, unaffiliated 12.1%, none 4% (2007 est.)

English 82.1%, Spanish 10.7%, other Indo-European 3.8%, Asian and Pacific island 2.7%, other 0.7% (2000 census)
note: Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii

definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 99%
male: 99%
female: 99% (2003 est.)
School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education):

total: 16 years
male: 15 years
female: 16 years (2006)
Education expenditures:

5.3% of GDP (2005)
Two things stand out to me from these numbers: 1) we spend less on education than any other industrialized nation; 2) we spend more on health care than any other industrialized nation, and yet our life expectancy and infant mortality rate is poor compared to other developed nations, and even compared to some third world nations.

In my view Christians could do something about this, if they cared to, by bearing witness to their culture by living a healthier lifestyle. Diet, exercise, and meaningful work that glorifies God and edifies other human beings is what we should strive for.

Maybe its time to stop eating so much of the Gospel bird at our church potluck dinners—by which I mean Southern Fried Chicken ya’ll. Too many of us are living to eat, rather than eating to live, and while what we consume may not make us ‘unclean’ (see Mk. 7 and what Jesus says), it can certainly make us unhealthy, unhelpful, and unproductive.

Let’s not be like the famous story about Oscar Wilde, who was noted for his lethargy and lavish lifestyle. When he was asked if he would like a bon bon at a London party with the words “Can I tempt you with a bon bon, Mr. Wilde?” His response was “Madam, I can resist anything but temptation.” On another occasion he was asked by a reporter—“Sir what do you do when the temptation to exercise comes upon you?” His retort was “I lie down until the temptation passes.” Oscar Wilde is not a role model for Christians in America, and its time we realized it.


Robin Dugall said...

Ben - usually you throw out a provocative blog post that soothes the soul...this one is disgusting! As usual, truth hurts! I just returned from what some call the "fat city" of the USA - St. Louis. One of the ways we know that "sin" is out of control and that we are an over-indulgent, narcissistic culture is by the waist line. Keep up the good work!

By the way, what are you working on now? writing wise?


Ben Witherington said...

It is sad that more aren't disgusted with the seven deadly sins, two of which, greed and glutton, seldom get any attention any America. I am working on a little book on work in the light of the Kingdom, and have just finished the draft of a little one on worship in the light of the Kingdom.


Bill Barnwell said...

I'm going to take a wild stab in the dark here and guess that nearly 100% of the obese ministers you saw at the Southern Baptist meeting have no problem regularly flapping their jaws about the evils of social drinking, in part because it is "bad for you." While one can make an abstaining position based on a couple of decent points, few things annoy me more when overzealous and highly overweight believers start lecturing others on personal health issues or treating the body as "God's temple." Very few care to note the inconsistency, instead they joke about gluttony from the pulpit and half the congregation laughs and finds it cute because they are in no better situation in regards to their health and weight. It wouldn't be quite so funny if he joked about any of the other so-called deadly sins (especially lust), and probably less funny still if he joked about responsible alcohol usage.

Avey said...

Appreciated the article. First thing I noticed on the second photograph was the comparitively slim male in the background wearing a Leeds United shirt!

I think giving up LUFC would not provide additional disciplines towards God in this case. God probably receives a lot of prayer from Leeds fans at the moment!!

Dan said...

Makes me want to give up FOOD for Lent!

Chaplain Mike said...

What's the definition of fat? Someone larger than me.

paul said...

Ben - I became really convicted by this over the past year.. so much so that in January I stood before my congregation and asked for their forgiveness for being such a horrible model for them. It's so "funny" how we rail on so many sins... but wink at gluttony. For me... food is so often my "god." I run to it for comfort, to celebrate, to ease my worry... it's been like this my entire life.

So as a part of my resolve I have done several things: I have a nutritionist who is teaching me how and what to eat. I log my food (an actual quote from the first time I sent her my food log: "Have you ever heard of fruit?"). I work out regularly. And I have quite the accountability group. 450 people. Each week I have been putting my weight on the screen as I begin my message. I really struggled with this... because I never wanted to "use" my congregation for my purposes.... but the witness has been powerful. Several have started eating better, exercising, my nutritionist is now working with several women struggling with eating disorders (and they are getting counseling as well.)

I will never look like brad pitt. And really, my goal has little to do with weight. But I want to honor God with my body. I want to live my life (and eat my food) in such a way that God could sign His name to my day.

Thanks for going where few people dare tread.

Jeremiah Bailey said...

It sounds like Ben just hates the south seeing as being fat and owning guns are sins in his book.

The Journey Out... said...

A new reader to your blog...Thank you for the time you take to write what it seems many of us think about. hit the proverbial nail. In the OT the children of God were to keep the temple it isn't any different just much more personal. Having been raised in the developing world it always seemed a but strange to see fat missionaries working with those in poverty. I work hard not to eat more then my body requires...but it is always a struggle in the land of the plenty. May it always be.

Ben Witherington said...

Thank you Paul so much for being brave and sharing. Many of us fight the battle of the bulge, and the older you get, the harder it is.

And as for the person who suggested, not doubt somewhat facetiously, I might be hating on the South, nothing could be further from the truth. The reason I comment on these things is that I hate to see people literally killing themselves, when they are beautiful children of God. And that is precisely what so many of them are doing in their relationship to food.


Jeremiah Bailey said...

Yes, the comment was intended to be humorous. Nonetheless, I wonder if God really cares if I eat fried chicken. I don't see a particular reason he should. The traditional OT passages about gluttony seem to be multifaceted. The image, at least in my opinion, is someone who refuses to do anything but indulge himself.
They won't work or contribute, and they disobey their parents. I'd like to see an exegesis of a text that would justify saying obesity is somehow incompatible with Christian faith.

Michael Estes said...

I, like Paul, became convicted about this four years ago, and I wanted to encourage Paul. You can do it. Four years ago, I weighed 240 lbs. (and most of it was really bad weight). Today, I weigh 185 lbs. I feel like a totally different person.

I wish more people would really think about this and take it to heart.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jeremiah:

It's easy enough to do. You can for instance get there on the basis of Paul's theology of 'enough', say for example in Philippians, or the NT critique of the rich (see the parable of the rich man and Lazarus), or the theological fact that our bodies are God's temples, and frankly we are accountable to God for what we do with it. There is the issue of witness to an obese culture, and a variety of other things. If you study what is said about the glutton, he is not simply associate with the sluggard of Proverbs fame, but is more widely criticized, for example in some of the Pauline lists in the NT. The other way to look at this is by asking the question--- does God want you to abuse your body, have a stroke, and become useless to your family and others even before you are old? Obviously the answer to this question is no.


carson said...

I thought this quote was helpfully related: "I doubt not but it is our duty to use so much exercise as is necessary for the preservation of our health, so far as our work requireth; otherwise, we should, for one day's work, lose the opportunity of many." -Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor

Perhaps the key motivation to pursue physical health is to better promote the glory of God. Longer lives, greater energy, personal integrity--all these, by God's grace, strengthen us for the work of building His kingdom. May we in ministry not value health for the sake of vanity, but for the sake of serving Christ more fully.

Carrie said...

Thanks Dr. Witherington. This was a great read. And your books sound AMAZING. Can't wait!

Ps, Using your Acts commentary right now... sooo good.

Marc Axelrod said...

This is a very heavy burden - sorry, I couldn't resist.

But you're 100% right. It's a terribvle witness to the world when we let our bodies blow up like balloons.