PART 1: A TESTIMONY – FROM SAVED TO SINNER
In a world where how you eat and exercise is more of a moral choice than an intuitive one, trying to eat and train to please God and optimise athletic performance can feel as difficult as juggling fireballs while trying to give an award winning performance of Sawn Lake; you are trying to execute two completely opposing tasks perfectly at the same time. Thats an intense position to be in, especially if you care deeply about pleasing God and improving as an athlete. It can be a stressful and far from graceful balancing act for the driven Christian athlete.
I have definitely found myself there throughout my life as a Christian, an athlete and well… a human being in the post-modern era. My mind has morphed its way through a changing landscape of thought on this topic through varying seasons of life. How I fuel and exercise my body have been coming in and out of the foreground of my concerns. Recently, I have jumped back into training as the Lord has opened doors to study and run competitively for a university XC and track team in California (I know, it’s a hard life but somebody’s got to do it). I subsequently have had to get back into the training mindset and then winded up with a tear in my labrum and have just had to undergo a hip surgery. I have been immobile for 3 weeks with another 9 weeks looming large until I am back to running, by which time I will be on a plane to LAX at the unfittest and probably the most out of shape I have been in years. Oh the irony.
I realise that if I want to recover quickly and make a solid come back, being aware and about the details of what goes into my body and monitoring my physical activity will make a big difference. After that, of course it is no secret that these little details will continue to largely determine my performance as an athlete. However, perhaps most pressingly, I am aware of the danger that these things pose to a me, Christian pilgrim, who is commanded to keep my eyes fixed on the Lord and not on earthly things. What place does nutrition and training have in my life as a driven (injured) Christian athlete?
This question has set me off on a quest to discover how to view nutrition, athleticism and the limits of human performance through a Biblical lens. In this unchartered territory I have found myself asking questions such as: What does God think about manipulating nutrition and body size to optimise athletic performance? What do I do when I am disappointed that my body does not look or perform the way I want it to or when it is injured? How do I, as a driven athlete, keep from getting out of focus as a Christian? Is wanting to be the best and reaching the height of my physical limits as an athlete a worthy or achievable goal to pursue in this life, or is that an exclusive activity for the world and not for Christians? Didn’t Jesus say we are not supposed to be seeking after what we are to eat and drink and how we look (Luke 12:29) so is it bad to look into these things? Surely God wants me to be more concerned about competing for souls than competing for running records?
I hope, for my sake as much as anyones else’s, to be able to answer some of these questions and any others that are bound to come up along the way. But before I attempt to give you the “5 steps to becoming a…” list – that I know you all came here to read – and, more importantly, attempt to muscle through what the Bible has to say about this topic; I hope you will endure me a short while as I start with a note of personal testimony. I hope that my own experience in this area will serve to encourage you and to illustrate the points I will be making in the consequent episodes.
Saved to Sinner.
First of all I became a Christian at 19 at University. I was depressed, not exercising at all, drinking red wine and eating buckets of Bree every night and not to mention – smoking like a chimney. I was going through the philosophical phase typical for the average British university student freshly back from trotting their way around South-East Asia on their “gap-yar”: I was still hungry and unsatisfied, looking for answers to my existence and the meaning of life. Much to my frustration, the answer was a bit more illusive than I originally hoped. It couldn’t be found while hopelessly gazing at the navel of my inner-being sipping coffee in one of Brighton’s vegan, hipster cafes, nor grasped by debating the essence of existence with the dude behind the dingy bar of Cassablanca’s Jazz Club after a few tequilas. No thought or talk could make sense of my existence nor could it make sense of this annoying, clinging guilt at the back of my mind.
I felt guilty and dirty but I wasn’t a ‘bad person’; a fairly harmless, typical, slightly hippy 19 year old student. But my conscience always convicted me. I knew I was sinful and sensed I was accountable to God for that. Worse…I knew that if I admitted that before God I may have to do something about it, and the thought of the inevitable embarrassment of failure in that area paralysed me from moving towards Him; I realised I could not and did not want to even attempt change. But I still had this guilt hanging around me… and that was the trouble.
The gospel changed all of that. I was invited to church and I went, inwardly hoping all my problems would be solved and Jesus would suitably lower the standards so I could climb on over, and He would make me all cosy and self-fulfilled inside and I could get on with a guilt-free life. But when I really listened to the all too familiar gospel, I realised for the first time I hadn’t fully grasped ever the radical implications of what it meant for me. It was saying the standard is even higher than I thought and Jesus had perfectly executed it on my behalf. Positionally, it mattered little what I did or how I felt. It was about what was true and what had been done for me. When Jesus said “it is finished” on the cross He invited me to reposition myself from under God’s judgement into a plethora of His grace without lowering the standard He demanded. Sweet! Positionally I now understood that I was no longer guilty because Jesus had died the death that this sinner deserved and lived the perfect life this sinner was unable to live. I was positionally freed from guilt before a Holy God.
Being a bit slow I struggled (and still very much do) to connect the dots on how this was supposed to translate into a new way of thinking and living for the rest of life. My awakening to the presence of a holy and mighty God birthed in me a desire to please Him. However, my perfectionistic thoughts and tendencies muddied the pure waters that sprang from the well of my new birth in Christ and I became extremely self conscious before God. There was this new awareness that now every decision, conscious thought and action was being seen and judged by a holy, terrifyingly mighty God. The feeling can be similar to the experience of having a proverbial Muma looking on over your shoulder as you play a game of ‘Operation’ (see here for a description). Ever feel like that? Anxiously you try and do it right, don’t touch the sides, it’s a test and you are shaking at every move. ‘just don’t mess it up you idiot!’ you tell yourself as you exhale sharply to blow the beed of sweat off of the tip of your nose. The tension builds. Looking back over your shoulder you nervously look at the Bible for some sign of approval or reassurance that you aren’t going to get clobbered and that God still accepts you; was that a frown? A smile? You know you are going to fail, you can’t keep it up any longer you may as well just get the inevitable sinning over and done with and then; quick look down! Look down! Briskly walk on and try not to meet the Eye… awkward…
Sad, but this was the reality of the relationship I had with God for a lot of the time. When I didn’t sin we were good, but I thought experiencing guilt over my sin was a sign that I needed to pull myself together and buck up. Christ’s salvation hadn’t seemed to make me blissfully content, perfect and ready to go like it had with everyone else. And to my terror I found I was finding myself even more of a sinner each day! I experienced much shame over this which was hardening into self-loathing, anger and frustration.
I am a very performance driven person – typical runner – and I felt like I was a hopelessly failing at the Christian life. My experience had left me cold and I had an unsatisfied craving to actually succeed at something (and thus conveniently enjoy basking in the warm glow of my self-made glory). This is where sport and food (sorry, ‘nutrition’) come into it. Becoming a Christian also gave me the desire to take care of my body a bit better and loose some weight, so I jumped on the vegan bandwagon (again; a typical student) and I decided to pick up a pair of running shoes and give it a bash! I loved both of these things at first. I felt so much better physically and mentally than I had done in ages. Running gave me a sense of relief and freedom from the pressure I was under, looking better periodically lifted some of clouds of self-loathing and removing animal products out of my diet turned out to be far easier than removing the sin out of my heart. I proceeded to drive myself to ‘succeed’ more and more in these areas to keep feeling the emotional pay-off’s of success. I set targets and goals for myself for running, food and weight loss and that became my own sort of self-made religion.
This road lead to an out of control eating disorder and exercise addiction, with which I would have to grapple with for the next 3 years. An abrupt halt occurred at what could have been the start of a very promising running endeavour. And ‘normal’ thoughts regarding food, body and exercise became impossible to adopt.
I had walked into a trap. The warm glow of success became a scorching heat of expectation. See, I had attached a kind of moral stigma to what I ate, how I looked and how far and fast I ran. I wasn’t conscious of this at the time, but in reality I took the power to define my worth out of the hands of a loving God who paid His life for my sin, and I entrusted it to my food and exercise choices to potentially save me from the hounding companions of guilt and worthlessness. It was good when I succeeded but by default these failure in these areas (intentional or not) harassed my conscience when I didn’t meet my ever more demanding expectations. Mistakenly I replaced Christ my gracious Saviour as the solution to my guilt for a religion where I could save myself by the means I chose. And that was very detrimental.
Through the journey of my demise I have learned that Christ is the only Saviour sufficient for the remaining sin I face in my life as a weary Christian pilgrim. He offers me a very quick, much much easier, far far less gruelling way to do what I was trying to do. To Christinas like me who still struggle with sin and experience the guilt which accompanies a pricked conscience, He says “come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) and tells us “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1John 1:9 . I needed not to partake in the man made religious sacraments of running and food to cleanse me of my guilt – “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” Romans 10:4. Simply, I needed to partake of that Divinely given sacrament of abiding in Christ, the Bread of Heaven, by confessing, repenting and believing on Him and what He has done – even in the face of hounding guilt. If only I had chosen that way my life may have looked far neater, simpler and quicker. But hey, hind sight is a lovely thing isn’t it?
Going on from here…
The journey has taught me a lot about God’s design for food and the human body; what it really means to worship God with my body; and how He wants me to care for it (surprisingly the Bible has lots to say about that!). In a culture where we are continually being fed masses of information on sports nutrition and training methods, making break-through scientific discoveries about the human body and continually pushing the boundaries of human endurance through to new realms of possibility, it is important we learn from God how to use these gifts in a way that doesn’t devastate our lives and stunt our joy but brings us closer to Him.
This has looked different through different seasons of my life and I often need to review and re-adapt the principles that I have learned in the light of God’s word and my current circumstances. Now that God has graciously opened up the doors to athletic opportunity where I must adopt a training mindset – I sense the need to dig right back down to the roots of what the Bible instructs on these things to make sure I am setting off on a solid foundations, thinking rightly and setting godly expectations to set me on the right course so that I can continue along the road with confidence as I venture into unchartered territory.
So I hope that this little series of excerpts about Biblical eating and training for a driven Christian athlete may encourage you if you are one who is on a similar voyage and senses the same battle going on within your own soul. I hope that as I write and learn along with you, we may be witnesses to the great redemptive power and purpose of God in this area of our Strava-Insta saturated post-modern world.
But OK. Enough for now. I will leave you with a little teaser to get your brains going for next time from the King Himself:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Matthew 6:25