What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word, “self-control?” Many of us would instantly think of sexuality. This isn’t a bad instinct… far from it, actually. We do need to have self-control with our sexuality, before and during marriage. Yet there is something lacking in our definition of self-control especially when it comes to issues beyond those related to sexual sin.
It is often said that whenever Christians gather, you can be sure that there will be food. Ask any Southern Baptist about their after service potluck and you’ll hear stories about how they ate so much of Miss May’s sweet apple pie that they thought they were going to explode. Are these kinds of food wrong? Sinful? By no means! But, as Christians, I believe that we have taken advantage of the freedom we have in Christ to enjoy all things, including all foods (1 Timothy 6:17; Mark 7:19). In doing so, we’ve been desensitized to our lack of self-control with food.
Now before you pick up your stones, think with me for a second. Over my first semester at seminary, I noticed that my overall health was getting worse. Once I stopped working out and started eating out more, the quality of my sleep deteriorated. This caused me to be tired throughout the day and my capacity to get work done decreased as well. It was within the realm of possibility for me to workout but I didn’t. I could have eaten foods that were more nutritious but I opted for the quick meal out. All of this negatively affected my spiritual life. As I lacked self-control and discipline (a four letter word in evangelicalism for some reason) in terms of eating and working out, so went my spiritual discipline.
We often assume that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between nutritious eating, exercise, and spiritual discipline. But what if there is? If I had been working out and eating well, I would have slept better, which would have allowed me to wake up early in the mornings, which I enjoy. If I would have been in the Word and prayer in the mornings, I would have been more effective, humanly speaking, at killing sin. If I were killing sin, my communion with Christ would have intensified. If I were sleeping well and eating better, I would have had more energy throughout my days. On and on the cycle goes.
Do you see what I mean? Lack of self-control in little things causes lack of self-control in bigger things. Lack of self-control isn’t just a problem with our sexuality, it is a sin that pervades our lives and it has dire consequences.
We’ve all heard the statistics. Most pastors won’t make it past the first five years behind their pulpits. Pastoral burnout is a real issue and I think one contributing factor to burnout is health. When things get stressful, it’s much easier to hit up the drive-thru than make a nutritious meal. When the counseling sessions, hospital visits, persistent sin, and frustration with your congregation builds up, it’s easier to check out than head to the gym. Remember our cycle? When we lack self-control with what we eat or how we spend our time, we end up with a negative feedback loop. Built up stress only produces more stress; deteriorating health only produces poorer health. Then what happens? Pastors get tired, they “burn out” of the ministry and leave their pulpits and flocks to another shepherd who goes through the exact same cycle.
This isn’t the only cause of pastoral burnout, but I believe that poor health can generally (but not always) be related to lack of self-control. This lack of self-control can destroy the effectiveness we might have had if we had just eaten a chicken breast with broccoli rather than the 64-ounce soda with a cheeseburger and fries. Our lack of self-control with food has consequences. We lose effectiveness because we don’t have the energy we need; we lash out at our families because we’re too stressed.
So, what are we to do?
Christians need to practice self-control in all things. It has been encouraging to watch my three bi-vocational pastors with families pursue healthy lifestyles. They may not do it perfectly, but they are seeking to practice self-control with what they eat and how they spend their time because they recognize that their self-control, or lack thereof, has consequences. We need to stop giving in to every desire we have for food. Our Christian subculture has grown desensitized to its sinful effects. Is not God more desirable than food? When we give ourselves over to sloth and gluttony, we look like the world, not like Christ.
Christians also need to be good consumers of research because we care about the truth. While science fluctuates, we can practice common sense. We know what foods are more nutritious than others, so pick up the water and deny yourself the 64-ounce soda for the sake of the glory of God, your effectiveness, sin’s death.
Christians need to avoid demonizing certain foods. God did give us all foods to enjoy. So Christian, enjoy food and God’s good gifts. Remember, though, that your life is more than food and your stomach is not your god (1 Timothy 6:17; Matthew 6:25; Philippians 3:19; 1 Corinthians 6:13).
This may not be a popular idea within evangelicalism because we love food. But I believe that self-control with the way that we eat and the pursuit of overall health will be for our good and will serve to strengthen our communion with Christ.
A word of warning for those in ministry: it isn’t wise to spend more time in the gym than on sermon preparation or with your family. If your biceps are stronger than your exegesis, you’re doing it wrong. Pastor, don’t let an obsession with your fitness be at the expense of another crucial aspect of your ministry. We don’t need pastor-bodybuilders but pastor-theologians. But to do the work of ministry, to have the energy to do so, we must practice self-control in all things, including food.