THE BLOG
08/19/2013 04:23 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

Meet the Bible B.A.B.E.S.

Guideposts

By Barb Swanson, Edmond, Oklahoma

Appeared originally in Guideposts.

Twenty women sat at round tables inside the fellowship hall of my church that Monday evening, looking at me expectantly. Smiling, but I could see doubt flickering in their eyes. I knew what they were thinking: She's going to teach us how to lose weight?

I couldn't blame them. I was wondering the same thing. Where I'm from, we love God, music and food. All that food got to be a problem. I'd been a big girl—five feet eight and 130 pounds by sixth grade—and that number on the scale crept up as I got older.

I put on 25 pounds in high school, gained the freshman 15 (well, more like 20) in college. I married Dale and we had two children. Now the kids were in high school and I was still carrying the baby weight, despite trying every diet known to woman.

Even though I was wearing the most slimming outfit in my closet—black slacks and a long top—I knew it couldn't hide those extra pounds. I felt totally exposed standing in front of these women who'd signed up for our new weight-loss group.

Who was I to think I could help them when I couldn't help myself?

One of them—my friend Sam—caught my eye and nodded. "Look how everyone encourages one another in your Bible study," she'd said to me a few weeks earlier, when we were commiserating over our perennial New Year's resolution to lose weight.

"You're accountable to each other and that helps you all stick with it. Maybe that would work for weight loss. It's not like anything else has."

I took a deep breath and outlined the 12-week program that Sam and I had come up with.

We'd eat sensibly: three 300-calorie meals a day, three 100-calorie snacks. Exercise three to five hours a week. Keep a daily food-and-exercise journal. Meet weekly to weigh in, share our challenges and successes, discuss a topic like setting goals or avoiding pitfalls. And we'd pray for each other.

"Now let's go around the room," I said. "Tell us a bit about yourself and how much you want to lose by the end of our twelve weeks."

For some, it was a modest 10 to 15 pounds. Others, 50 pounds or more. My turn. "I've been overweight pretty much my entire life," I said. "Especially after I had my kids. I've tried every diet imaginable. So we're in this together. I need your help and prayers to lose forty-five pounds and keep it off."

Time for our first weigh-in. Sam and I had hung beach towels at the back of the room to give the women privacy. We wrote down everyone's weight. Then we gathered in a circle and I said a closing prayer.

"Lord, we know all things are possible through you," I said. "Give us the strength to stick with our program. And the assurance that we're not alone in our struggles." Everyone seemed upbeat when they left. "I knew we could do this," Sam said. "That went really well."

If only I could say that about my first week on our program. By Wednesday afternoon I was starving. I ransacked the pantry for a bag of chips. Nothing. Then I remembered. I'd talked Dale and the kids into getting rid of all the junk food.

I called Sam. She was having major sugar cravings. "I just want to give in and grab a doughnut," she said. Uh oh.

I did what I would have done if someone in my Bible-study group hit a roadblock in her spiritual journey. I turned to Scripture. "Remember Ecclesiastes 3:11," I said.

"‘He has made everything beautiful in its time,'" Sam said. "Okay. I feel better. I guess I needed to hear that."

We hung up. I was dying to dash out for a burger and fries. But what kind of group leader would I be if I did that? Instead, I found a crisp apple in the fridge, my afternoon snack, and went for a long walk.

At our meeting Monday I cautiously stepped on the scale. I'd lost five pounds! I let out a shout. Every one of us had lost weight. I talked about goals, the importance of having realistic expectations, but I don't know how much people paid attention, we were so giddy with success.

I managed to get through the next week without cheating food-wise, and even started to like the regular exercise. I couldn't wait for our meeting. I hopped on the scale and...huh? One pound. I'd lost one lousy pound. All that work. And for what?

A lot of the others had barely lost any weight either. A couple had actually gained. "This is impossible," one woman said. "I hate my body," another moaned. "Sometimes I wonder how anyone, even God, can love someone who looks like me..." I saw heads nodding in agreement.

"We can't give up," I heard myself say. "Some weeks are going to be harder than others. There's no quick fix. It took years to develop our unhealthy habits and it's going to take time to change them."

That was met with forced smiles. I didn't know what else to say. We finished the meeting with a quick prayer.

Sam and I had started this program because we wanted everyone to come away from our weekly sessions uplifted, like after Bible study. Not down in the dumps, like they were now. What was missing?

I thought about it all week long. I could totally relate to those women hating their bodies, hating themselves. I used to feel the same way until.... A memory kept coming back to me.

The next Monday, even before our weigh-in, I shared a story. "Last Easter, I was onstage with our worship team, dancing and singing. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done. Not because I didn't know the notes or the steps but because all I could think of was how fat and ugly I thought I was.

"And then something amazing happened. It was as if a huge tangled knot—my insecurities, my self-disgust—was suddenly pulled out from within me. And in its place was pure love. God's love for me as I am, as he made me...beautiful in his sight."

I paused. The women looked stunned. "Now I know why I'm here, leading this group," I said. "It's to tell you this: You don't need to lose weight to be loved. Lose weight because you're loved. And become the best you that you can be."

After that I focused less on the numbers on the scale and more on how God was at work in me, in the women around me. I could see the change. Not just in our bodies. In self-image. In attitude. In the way we celebrated each other's victories and prayed each other through challenges.

As the Bible tells us, "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2).

At the end of the 12 weeks I'd shed 25 pounds. We'd all lost weight. More important, we all felt more healthy, energetic and positive. I didn't want to quit. Neither did the others. The very next Monday we started another 12-week session, with twice as many women.

That was nine years ago. Today thousands of women in multiple chapters have reaped the benefits of our weight-loss group, following the same basic principles as that first class.

We call ourselves BABES: Beautiful, Accountable, Babes, Exercising, Sensibility. People often ask me why my program works. The answer is simple: It's about love. God's love, the one thing you can never get too much of.