11/29/2011 01:17 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

Every Body Matters: Strengthen Your Body to Strengten Your Soul

A friend of mine described a typical Christian conference as "50 souls saved and 2,000 bodies overfed." Every few months, a new study seems to indicate that Christians and weight gain are as inseparable as the bread and cup at communion.

What's going on? And does it matter?

While "gluttony" is listed in most ancient lists of the "Seven Deadly Sins," rarely do we hear contemporary preachers addressing this failing. One Christian executive guesses why: "We've been taught about lying and stealing and coveting; about lust and alcoholism and smoking and drug abuse. But many evangelical pastors who preach against these things are visibly overweight or obese. I don't say this to judge them -- I struggle with the same thing. But sometimes I wonder. Sure, they may have conquered the online porn, but it seems like they're 'medicating' with food."

To be fair to the pastors, the Bible does not say a lot about gluttony in comparison to its rejections of materialism, oppression of the poor, and abusing others sexually. As a general stewardship issue, however, the Apostle Paul's words are particularly challenging: "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

This is, on the face of it, an astonishing statement. According to the Apostle Paul, we don't own our bodies; they are not ours to abuse or care for according to our own perceived wants or desires. From this perspective, physical fitness isn't primarily a matter of wanting to look good or of not caring how we look; it's a matter of stewardship -- taking care of something entrusted to us.

Though this is a message de-emphasized and all but neglected today, the great Christian writers of the past, from all generations and various Christian traditions -- Chrysostom, Jerome, John Climacus, Fenelon, John Wesley, William Law, Henry Drummond, to name just a few -- spoke with great force and fervor about the negative spiritual effects of a gluttonous and slothful lifestyle.

It was from the ancients, then, that I developed my own conviction that this was an area I needed to address. Growing up skinny, I rarely thought about it, but when weight started to cling to me in my mid-thirties, I realized it was "game on." This wasn't an easy battle for me to confront, however; I have a pathetic and juvenile sweet tooth. Put me in front of a bowl of M&M's or a plate full of tortilla chips with salsa, and most seven-year-old boys will have more discipline than I do.

Like so many battles, however, I discovered that this one would be largely won or lost along the basis of motivation. Stewardship toward God moved me from not really caring whether my jeans were size 32 or 36 to seeing my body as an instrument of service to God, entrusted to me for an end higher than my own comfort or indulgence.

Like many others -- secular and religious -- have found, I discovered that physical fitness affects so many aspects of life, from stress, energy levels, vitality, intellectual engagement and -- I now firmly believe -- spiritual fitness.

So I go to war against gluttony not because I want God to love me more, but because God, who already loves me perfectly, warns me that gluttony and excess are my enemies -- regardless of how good they may sometimes feel. I go to war against gluttony not to build a body that others admire, but to maintain a soul "prepared for every good work" that God can use to bless others. I go to war against gluttony because those who have walked closely with God -- from the early fourth century all the way through the nineteenth -- warn me that overeating dulls me to God's accepting presence, makes me more vulnerable to other sins, negatively affects my relationships with other people, and robs me of the joy rightfully mine as an adopted, deeply loved, and accepted child of God.

It's time that today's believers start thinking about how our faith affects what -- and how much -- we put on our plates.

Article adapted from "Every Body Matters: Strengthen Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul" by Gary Thomas