What first comes to mind when you hear the word “self-control”? Most of our evangelical minds instantaneously turn to sexuality. Now, 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, at least when it comes to issues beyond that of sexual sin.
It is said that whenever Christians gather you know 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). And in doing so, we’ve been desensitized to our lack of self-control in regard to food.
Now before you pick up your stones think with me for a second. Over my first semester at seminary, I saw my overall well-being get worse. Once I stopped working out and started eating out more the quality of my sleep deteriorated, which meant that I was tired throughout the day and my ability to get work well dropped off. 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.
Now there isn’t necessarily a correlation between nutritious eating, exercise, and spiritual disciplines. But what if there is? If I had been working out and eating well, I would’ve gotten better sleep, which would’ve allowed me to wake up early in the mornings like I like to do; if I would’ve been in the Word and prayer in the mornings, I would’ve been more effective, humanly speaking, at killing sin; if I had been killing sin, my communion with Christ would’ve intensified; if I would’ve gotten better sleep and eaten better, I would’ve 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 rolls on up to 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 most of 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 (assuming he has one now). Pastoral burnout is a real issue and I think one contributing factor to burnout is health. When things get stressful its 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, its 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, far from it. But I believe that poor health, which generally but not always, can be chalked up to lack of self-control. This lack of self-control destroys any 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 (yes, need to) to practice self-control in all things. I have had the privilege of watching 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 for food. Our Christian subculture has grown desensitized to its sinful effects. Is not God to be desired more 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 Christians care about the truth. So 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 in light of the glory of God, your effectiveness, and in order to kill sin.
Something Christians need not do is demonize certain foods. God did give us all foods to enjoy. So, Christian, enjoy food and God’s good gifts. But 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-controlled eating and a pursuit of overall health will be for our good and will only serve to strengthen our communion with Christ.
A word of warning for those in ministry: it isn’t cool to spend more time in the gym than on sermon prep or with your family. If your biceps are stronger than your exegesis, you’re doing it wrong. Pastors don’t need to be the fittest people because if they are it is probably at the expense of another crucial aspect of their 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.