Thursday, March 08, 2012

When Health is an Idol

95appleI used to watch The Dr. Oz Show religiously. Actually, I’d record it so I could rewind and jot down information on supplements to take, medical tests to demand, and the right type of lip balm to keep my pout healthy year-round. While no human physician has a fail-proof prescription for perpetual good heath, I thought Dr. Mehmet Oz’s seemed pretty close.

Then the unthinkable happened: Dr. Oz was diagnosed with a precancerous polyp in his intestine. He told People magazine, “This was a shakeup for me. I have done everything right.”

I, too, thought I was doing everything right. Along with watching Dr. Oz, I worked out more than 10 hours every week, which included teaching two hip-hop classes at my gym. I meticulously planned my meals to have a nutritionally exact balance. I weighed, measured, and recorded every bit of food I consumed. I had a schedule for drinking specific quantities of water, a schedule for taking supplements throughout the day, and a schedule for eating high-potassium foods at regular intervals.

Then I, too, got sick. 

Idol Exposed 
One morning last December, as I tried to rise from my bed, my body went limp and I tumbled backward. The room appeared to be spinning. I soon found out this was vertigo, a symptom brought on by an inner-ear problem. My sense of balance was affected for several weeks afterward. It felt like I was standing on the deck of a boat that was being pushed to and fro by choppy waters, complete with the feeling of seasickness.

Life suddenly became a lot simpler. My finicky diet and exercise program were out. I had to eat takeout food because I couldn’t stand up long enough to cook a meal. The gym cancelled my hip-hop classes because I certainly couldn’t dance.

Almost immediately, I recognized that God was using this minor medical condition to reveal that health had become an idol to me.

My health and fitness activities weren’t sinful, but the way I’d engaged in them was. I spent more time on diet and exercise than anything else last year, almost the equivalent of a full-time job.

But it wasn’t just that I’d put in long hours at the gym. In my devotion to building a better body, I’d neglected relationships with family, friends, and God. I’d also become emotionally invested in my health. I’d rejoice when I ran at a faster speed on the treadmill, and praise myself when I lost a pound. These are normal emotional responses to fitness triumphs, and such feelings aren’t necessarily sinful. Yet I knew I’d sinned in my heart—I’d wrongly treasured health (Matthew 6:19-21).

Worst of all, I’d praised myself more than God. Even when I thanked God for my physical well-being and strength, I simultaneously gave myself a congratulatory pat on the back and took much of the credit. Getting sick reminded me that I wasn’t entitled to good health, no matter how hard I worked for it. Indeed, every blessing comes from God—including our health.

Unhealthy Obsession 
Exactly how did I cross the line from healthy habit to health nut? It began from positive peer pressure: With our country facing an obesity epidemic, it seemed like everybody in America was on a diet. At the time, I was healthy but slightly overweight, having put on a few pounds during grad school. I hadn’t been the least bit concerned about my size, but when the media began warning about a correlation between excess weight and illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, dieting seemed a smart thing to do.

Plus, I wanted to be a good example for future generations. I sat teary-eyed through many an episode of The Biggest Loser and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, saddened that there were overweight children who didn’t know that French fries were made out of a vegetable called a potato.

Most importantly, I felt that if I became a stellar athlete, I might have more opportunities to share my faith at the gym. So I plunged into a hardcore diet and exercise program.

Soon enough, there was a ton of health information at my fingertips: restaurant menus that listed nutritional values; phone apps to count calories; bathroom scales with sensors to detect the body’s muscle, fat, and water percentages; and television shows like The Doctors and Dr. Oz that translated medical jargon into layman’s terms.

Easy access led to hyper-vigilance. I soon believed that by knowing enough and doing everything “just right,” I could almost guarantee a long, pain-free life for myself.

This is classic New Age thinking—that the individual has the power to control everything in her body and her life. Unfortunately, this New Age philosophy is held by a number of health advocates, and it may be central to the advice they provide.

Mike Adams, editor of, is one health writer who believes a program of perfect nutrition does exist, and that illness only occurs because people haven’t tried hard enough to prevent it. In his article about Dr. Oz’s highly publicized cancer scare, Adams remarked that Dr. Oz got sick because his diet was rather mediocre. Dr. Oz is only considered really healthy by mainstream people who are ridiculously unhealthy by comparison,” Adams wrote, noting that Dr. Oz must take things “to a whole new level of health” —with a raw vegan diet and plenty of superfoods—lest he allow himself to get sick again!

This attitude is spiritually dangerous because it causes a person to wrongly believe she can be perfect (or really close to it), through her own efforts. Then, believing that her actions and thoughts dictate her life circumstances, she may begin to forget that it’s God who is truly in control. She may begin to forget that our world is infected with sin—that life really can’t be perfect. She may begin to forget that there’s more to life than personal striving in this present life. And she may begin to forget that every good and perfect gift actually comes from God.

Saddleback’s Health Plan
The health trend has touched many Christians: Church leaders nationwide are challenging their members to get fit, with some churches offering in-house diet and exercise programs. This may be a great thing … if these classes are focused on honoring God with our bodies. But it may be spiritually dangerous if churches allow New Age thinking to seep into their programs.

Last year, Saddleback Church hired a team of health celebrities to develop a diet and exercise program for their members. It was dubbed “The Daniel Plan,” named for the biblical story in Daniel 1. This celebrity team included my hero, Dr. Mehmet Oz, along with Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Daniel Amen—all three of whom are known for promoting New Age practices.

On his television show, Dr. Oz has promoted Reiki, a practice that suggests “healing energy” can be transferred from person to person. (Dr. Oz’s wife, Lisa, is a Reiki practitioner.) Dr. Hyman promotes a similar practice called healing touch, as well as yoga and meditation. Both men personally engage in these practices.

Dr. Amen, a graduate of Oral Roberts University, has promoted a Hindu form of meditation called Kirtan Kriya on his blog. It involves chanting and is from the Hindu practice of Kundalini yoga, the goal of which is to merge one’s mind into the “universal consciousness.” (In Hinduism, this concept of universal consciousness is viewed as being a deity, the god Brahman.) Dr. Amen also offers instruction on tantric sex, which is a component of the Hindu/Buddhist practice called Tantra—the goal of which is to connect with deities and recognize one’s own status as deity. Dr. Amen says he personally practices both Kirtan Kriya and tantric sex.

The problem with these practices is that the power source isn’t the one true God; rather, it’s oneself or other gods. In other words, these three men are regularly opening themselves up to demonic influence—and Saddleback Church has given these men top billing in their health program.

Saddleback’s leaders, including pastor Rick Warren, recognized that an association with these particular health celebrities would be controversial. The FAQ page on The Daniel Plan’s website lists the question, “Why did Saddleback Church choose to use these doctors, who have been linked to other beliefs?”Essentially, the church’s leaders wanted to utilize the celebrities to attract as many participants as possible, while carefully guarding against unbiblical teaching. (Their full response can be found here.)

I applaud Saddleback’s efforts to get its members in shape, as well as their intention to use a health program as an evangelism tool. But I see a couple cracks in their plan. First, some participants might take more of an interest in the ideas of Dr. Oz, Dr. Hymen, and Dr. Amen than in Saddleback’s own program. In this way, Saddleback might be inadvertently causing people to explore New Age thinking. And second, some participants might get the idea that it’s acceptable to blend New Age practices with Christianity, since this well-known church has entered into a very public partnership with these particular health celebrities. This partnership creates a dangerously fine line for Saddleback to walk.

A “Biblical” Diet?
Shortly before Saddleback launched The Daniel Plan, several Christian publishers had released diet books based on Daniel 1. Perhaps the most popular of these books is The Daniel Fast by Susan Gregory (Tyndale, 2010). Gregory started a blog in 2007 to discuss her experiences with fasting, particularly with a “partial fast” she created based on Daniel 1. After receiving tremendous response to her blog, Gregory wrote The Daniel Fast and three accompanying cookbooks.

The story in Daniel 1 focuses on a group of elite young men from Judah who are taken as captives to Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon decides that these special captives will be taught the language and culture of Babylon, so that they may serve in the royal palace. During their training, the king decrees that their diet will consist of the best food and drink available—the same meals that the king himself eats. But Daniel, one of the captives, feels that eating the king’s food would defile him. He resolves to eat only vegetables and drink only water, and convinces three other captives to do likewise. After 10 days, the appearance of Daniel and his friends is compared to those who were fed the king’s food. Daniel and his friends are found to be far more robust.

Here’s what troubles me about diets based on Daniel 1: These take current nutritional knowledge—that a low-fat, veggie-rich diet aids in weight loss and improves overall health—and suggest that the Bible backs up a vegetarian diet as a good model for healthy living through the story of Daniel 1.

That simple isn’t true. Daniel never states that this food choice was healthy. In fact, Daniel’s proposed diet is immediately deemed unhealthy by the king’s chief eunuch. The chief is certain that a vegetarian diet will leave Daniel malnourished, particularly in comparison to the other young men who were eating the very best food from the king’s table. There is no evidence in Scripture that Daniel had any faith in a vegetarian diet—his faith is in God alone.

The point of Daniel 1 is that although Daniel and his friends only ate vegetables, they were supernaturally made “better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food” (1:15, emphasis mine). The result was God-given.

While a vegetarian diet might sound healthy to us today, Daniel didn’t employ this diet for weight-loss, general health, or any other personal purpose. (One of my friends observed that you don’t see many books on the “John the Baptist Diet” of locusts and wild honey!) It wasn’t even about improving his spiritual health—which is how Susan Gregory has purposed her program. Daniel did this as an act of conviction, and it showed the Babylonians the depth of his faith and the strength of his God.
This passage should cause the Christian to marvel, “God is in control of life and health!” Daniel 1 shouldn’t be used as a proof text for any diet plan because that’s not its purpose. Such usage detracts from the God-given miracle and the glory that God is due.

A Spiritually Balanced Diet
About 15,000 people have registered for The Daniel Plan at Saddleback Church. Participants report losing a collective quarter-of-a-million pounds since its kick-off in January 2011. Susan Gregory’s website has received more than five million hits, and sales of The Daniel Fast remain strong.

So what’s my problem? Why am I sounding an alarm when so many Christians are getting healthier?

I think Saddleback’s partnership with New Age practitioners, and the misuse of Daniel 1 to promote a diet plan, demonstrate how good intentions can cause Christians to make dangerous compromises. I, too, had good intentions when I started my rigorous diet and exercise plan. It shocks me how very easy it is to take a God-given blessing like health and make an idol out of it.

The Apostle Paul states that “while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8, esv). Diet and exercise do have value—as long as we don’t become more passionate about our bodies than we are about our God.

We sin when we obsess over diet and exercise. Similarly, a poor diet usually reflects a sinful attitude: When we have the means to meet our body’s nutritional needs but refuse do so, it’s like defiantly telling God, “I don’t care how you created my body to function. It’s my body, and I’m going to sit on this couch and put whatever I want into my mouth.” In both cases—eating whatever we please or striving for dietary perfection—food becomes an idol that’s more important than God.

Diet and exercise offer us the daily opportunity to practice self-control. Eating should be a act of worship for Christians: Along with regularly giving thanks for our meals, we should commit to consuming healthy foods out of respect for God’s design of the human body.

And we need to constantly testify that good health—and good food—are gifts from God. We should make our food choices with the thought, “My body is a gift from God. Thank you, God, for the health and strength I have today. Thank you for your daily provision. Every good and perfect gift comes from you.”

1 comment:

Tina said...

Very interesting Holly and good to keep in mind since I'm trying to lose weight (per my doctor's orders because of health issues). Thanks!