What Food Is For

Soul. Body. Soul

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The 80/20 Rule and Spiritual Health

*NB – This post is not a bait and switch attempt to turn this blog into a cheesy diet accountability blog, I promise.

It’s a humbling thing for a food science student to be confronted one day with her own nutritional hypocrisy by way of her “sudden” difficulty in buttoning her pants. For about 15 years, I’ve employed what amateur knowledge I’ve gained about health and fitness to maintain a reasonable weight and proportion. But in a spectacular bit of irony, since I’ve started my grad school program to become an official member of the food police, instead of just an amateur, my clothes have been sending subtle, and then not so subtle, hints that that I’ve been doing too much with the learning, and not enough with the applying. I’d love to blame all of this on the slow decline towards the dirt that seemed to begin the day I turned 40. But the plain truth is for the past year I’ve been violating pretty much every one of the most basic and undisputed principles about maintaining a healthy weight. Don’t do late night carby-snack binges while studying? Check. Don’t substitute regular exercise with cycles of nighttime sitting and studying followed by sleeping in too late to hit the gym? Check. Don’t medicate emotional distress, caused by a cornucopia of trials, with too much rich food and wine? Check and checkmate.

About a month ago, when I found myself once again one morning setting aside those jeans that just hurt to wear in favor of an oh so comfy stretchy skirts, I decided to suck it up and step on the scale (then breathe out until I nearly passed out, just so the readout wouldn’t be inaccurate from all that excess oxygen weighing me down). The number I saw was a number I hadn’t seen in quite a few years, one that meant my drivers license was committing serious perjury. A few moments of simple math calculating months passed times pounds gained times years of life (prayerfully) yet to come, meant this trajectory needed to stop, fast, before further metabolic aging anarchy rendered it impossible.

If you bet I stepped off the scale brimming with confidence that all my newly acquired education was going to help me own this weight loss thing, you’d be wrong (and you’d owe me a donut). It wasn’t so much the raw data about various nutrients and metabolism that filled me with trepidation, as much as the emerging data about the relative impact diet and exercise have on improving or maintaining any kind of health marker. The science about losing weight being a matter of eating less/better and exercising more is well established. But recent studies have shown that the relative contributions of those two things are far from equal. While exercise certainly matters, diet – what we choose to eat or not eat – matters waaay more. Five times more. Put another way, losing weight/improving health seems to be 80% about what you eat, and only 20% what you do.

I’d already supported half of that argument with my own, one-person study. The life of an adult student is can quickly become a life of sitting if you don’t consciously make it something else. My growing discomfort in my clothes was the signal that I was an at-risk student, so over the course of several weeks I had worked make my workout time slightly longer and more intense, trying to channel my inner 20-something college girl, while still clinging to my poor eating habits like an emotional life preserver. Two weeks later, the results, or lack thereof, testified that exercise-only was not the solution. It was time to get to work on the nutritional of the health and fitness equation, and remind myself that self-control is not a rare, exotic fruit of the Spirit borne only by a few, specially graced, super spiritual saints.

I’ll skip over the way God used to steer me to the eating plan I chose to follow (except to note that it’s really strict – no planned cheat days or fake food substitutions – my time-saving “nutrition” bars full of weird sugar substitutes and synthetic vitamins were out). I won’t be liveblogging my meals or graphing my weightless, because see above 🙂 . I’ll even skip, for now, all the spiritual lessons I’ve been reminded of as I’ve seen how so many of my eating impulses have been driven by hunger that is emotional or spiritual, not physical (because that deserves a post of its own). But all I will say is that, in this study population of one, the 80/20 rule has unquestionably held true.

It hasn’t been easy at all. I’ve had cravings for verboten things (almost always in the midst of stressful or sad moments). Going out to eat has been a bit of a pain, so we don’t do it (so our wallet is staying fatter – double win!) The kids have had to be placated with after-dinner ice cream more often (because the cookie and scone manufacturing line has been shut down temporarily). But two weeks in, I am stronger and more alert, my clothes are no longer depriving parts of my body of their right to freedom of movement, and the numbers on the scale are moving in the right direction far faster than I expected.

There are lots of spiritual applications to make about this outcome, of course, but my main point is simply this: that the same ratio of 80% intake to 20% output has borne the same kind of results in my spiritual life as well (which is what pushed me over the edge into testing the same concept with my eating and exercise in the first place). When I have put regular, methodical intake of and meditation on Scripture at the center of my spiritual life and growth, I have been spiritually healthy. When I let “doing” dominate my schedule and starve me of Scripture time – even holy doing like investing in my kids’ spiritual or academic development, or intentional date nights with my husband, or faithful study for school, or scheduled sanctification/service stuff at church or meeting for coffee with girlfriends for fellowship or hanging out with my neighbors for “missional” wine and cheese – notsomuch.

There are a lot of other spiritual directions we could follow with this thought. We could think back to Mary and Martha and note how this is not exactly a new problem. I could encourage my dear, overworked and overtired mom friends with babies and toddlers and preschoolers to not pursue their kids’ spiritual or intellectual health at the dangerous expense of their own. (And if you’re one of those, really, that’s an important word). But the meditating I’ve been doing on this has largely been in the context of the church as a whole.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been digging into Galatians in preparation to help teach for the first time in our nighttime women’s’ Bible study. Its central theme involves Paul lovingly and passionately confronting a church who has been overcome by “gospel-amnesia” in a dangerous way and in a disturbingly short amount of time. And it has me wondering if my generation, the one who has been revelling in gospel-rediscovery, aren’t at risk of the very same thing. It has me wondering if in the midst of all of our talking about the gospel, and blogging about the gospel, and doubling down on doing the gospel through all kinds of programs that aren’t programs because they have the word gospel in them, we’re starting to forget how the gospel actually is applied. We’re becoming all about the 20 percent of working out the gospel, and beginning to forget about the 80 percent of getting the gospel into us, through the deep feeding and meditating on God’s Word. We’re lamenting that our churches are full of sluggish, overfed people, and we think that the answer is upping the speed on the gospel treadmill and getting everyone to work a little harder.

What if we applied the 80/20 rule to our churches?

What if the reason our church bodies are full of sluggish pew sitters (if your church still has pews –here in California they’ve mostly been repurposed for restaurants– Selah on that one a little), is not because of how the quantity of what we’re being fed, but because of the relative content?

What if we dialed backed on the missional this and the doing hard that and the scheduled sanctification disguised as “working out the gospel”, and dialed up our spiritual diets?

What if we dialed down anything that was about the 20 percent, and found ways to up the 80 percent of the life-giving, life strengthening, whole counsel of God? 

And what if our people got a little cranky, and it felt a little too hard, but we kept going anyway, because old unhelpful habits die hard, and better spiritual health takes time?

And what if, after a committed season of this, all the change that we were trying to work up through so much spiritual working out without the right spiritual food, happened on its own? What if, for example (oh, the craziness), the entire reason that God is permitting the sudden chokehold on parachurch ministries in places like colleges and schools, is because He wants to move through actual students, who have been fed God’s Word so well at their own actual churches and in their own actual homes, that it spills out from their lives in a way that makes the attempts of some academic bureaucrats to stifle it look like a hilarious scene from a John Hughes movie?

Just some food for thought.