A couple months ago, almost exactly, I stepped onto a scale for the first time in a long time. I generally just don’t care about what I weigh. I want to be able to run and play soccer and I can look in the mirror to see if I’m doing ok with my fitness. But the previous few weeks, I noticed I felt creaky in the warmups to my workouts. The short, 400m runs felt a little painful in my joints, like I needed a warmup for the warmup. In addition, I noticed that the previous soccer season, I felt very slow. I’ve never been fast, but I felt slow. It made me timid, afraid to be aggressive because I’d probably get burned by other guys’ speed. So I thought, “Oh. I wonder if I’m just a bit heavy.” I looked in the mirror and confirmed that this was likely. So I had a number in my head that I thought I was at, a number that felt heavy. I stepped on to the scale.
I was 10 pounds over that number.
I felt disgusted and horrified. I was working out most days of the week and had for years. Something needed to change because this was unacceptable. I decided I wanted to lose 25 pounds. I wanted to drop ten percent of my body weight and then rounded up a bit. Before I could shy away from such a goal, I told my wife. I know that I’m 31 and working on this kind of thing is only going to get harder. I’m perpetually injured already and that’s not going to get better with age.
To be honest with you, I really wanted to lose 10 pounds. I thought that’s all I’d actually be able to do. I even told my wife that I’d like to drop 10 pounds and then I’d “work on” the rest. But in the deepest part of me, I never really thought I’d get there. I’m a pessimist by nature, and also not very disciplined. So I thought the odds were pretty low.
Two months later, I have lost 24 pounds. I now feel reasonably confident that I can get to my goal.
As I reflect back on my experience, I wanted to write about some things that struck me as important. Not because I want you to copy me and not because I’m particularly interested in starting a health and fitness blog (very not interested in that). But because I think there are principles there that are useful not just for dropping pounds, but for moving towards spiritual health. I’d like to use these things as a helpful metaphor. So here are some things that have helped me:
Eat less junk. I know. Revolutionary discovery. If you asked me, I would have told you that I don’t snack very much, that I don’t eat much junk. But I’ve realized that I am inclined to fill gaps in my day with sweet carb-y things. I cut all of that out. Which, to be honest, wasn’t even that hard. Adding broccoli to replace it was hard. And sometimes saying no to delightful treats from Black Mountain Bakery was, indeed, very hard. But, by and large, paying attention to eating less things that I know that I don’t need, was not that hard. But it has made a big difference.
It is amazing how much we do this spiritually. We consume vast amounts of garbage. Not that what we consume is overtly trashy or anything like that (though it can be). We just spiritually consume filler. Inconsequential nonsense. And it adds nothing to our lives. Recently, I put an app on my phone and iPad from Covenant Eyes to filter my Internet and provide visual accountability for me. I didn’t feel like I really needed it that bad. But the filter is so sensitive at times that I found that sometimes mundane, innocuous stuff was blocked. But I also found that that stuff being blocked made me stop and think, “Wait. Do I really need to read this though?” And the answer is usually no.
Eat less junk. It really works.
Eat good stuff. One thing I realized I needed to do was pay attention to how much protein I was eating. I was working out pretty hard, but never really feeding my body the protein it needs to build muscle. Also, protein (and fats) helps you feel full. So by paying attention to my protein intake, I created better conditions for saying no to all the delicious bread I wanted to consume. I even snacked more, making sure I had a high protein snack in the afternoon, which helped me eat less at dinner. Again, this is not revolutionary. But it worked.
Similarly, having regular attention on the Bible has conditioned me to crave more and more what I ought to crave. I’ve put a Bible reading-plan app on my phone that I usually don’t actually use to read the Bible, but reminds me to read that day. The regularity of seeing that reminder has slowly but surely taught me to miss the Bible when I do not read it. In addition, I am trying to pay better attention to my spiritual appetites and find what I’m hunger for, what’s hitting the spot for me. I do well to read spiritual memoirs and reflect on the practices of the saints at large. My appetite is being trained in the right direction with sustained attention. Attention I’ve lacked in my life.
Get objective feedback. I needed to step on the scale. My own eyes saw myself grow heavier, but very slowly over time. I was able to see what I was doing well and dwell on that without ever considering where things might be going wrong. But the numbers on the scale do not care at all what I am doing well. It is just going to tell me the truth. The truth stung me that day. And I needed that sting.
My wife and good friends can do this for me. They can say, “This is not good enough.” And while that truth stings my pride and can often make me angry (which they’ll also address), I know its spoken in love and also works lovingly. Sometimes we need to be jolted by the truth and freed from self-deception. And that truth has to come from outside of ourselves, because we’re prone to tell ourselves the lies we want to hear.
Get objective feedback. No. Not a typo. The same thing, but different. Throughout these past two months, I’ve had various instances where I felt that I had failed that week. I wasn’t disciplined with what I ate all the time or I didn’t feel like I had progressed. I just expected to see that I gained weight. I was seeing evidence of that gain in the mirror and, although I didn’t want to care that much, I was kinda bummed about it. And you know what happened every time? The numbers didn’t lie. I’d done better than I thought. I wasn’t reading the mirror appropriately. I was inflating my failures and not my successes. And the scale calmly said, “Good job. You’re fine.”
Like I said, I am a pessimist. I tend to see the worst about everything. My self-analysis fluctuates between enlarging blindspots to hide things that annoy me, or insisting that I have the worst ever human being. But outside feedback, people telling me I’ve done well and providing real evidence that it’s true… it’s invaluable. Lies have a hard time living in the light of the truth.
Get encouragement. I knew that part of making my way towards what I felt was a monumentally large number (25 pounds) was making small strides each week. I never dropped 10 pounds in a week. I never dropped 5 (though one week I did 4.5). Sometimes I did as little as one. But I knew I needed to see small steps each week to make progress. The thing is, though, it’s easy for me to mock so modest a gain. Fortunately, I have a wife who is a wonderful encourager. I would tell her that I’d lost 1.5 pounds that week and she would high five me and tell me I was doing great and… you guys… she seemed… honest? Like I never thought it was fake cheerleading. She was honestly cheering for me and happy for these tiny steps. I felt so proud and boosted to have her pumping me up like that. She believed in me to do more and try harder at the gym. Like believed in me more than I did. I would come home surprised at what I was able to do and Erin would say, “Of course you can do that. You should try to do more next time. You’re stronger than you think.” People at the gym, people who didn’t really know me or what was going on, would encourage me to try harder and I responded to everyone’s encouragement. I’d try. And you know what? They were right! I really was stronger than I thought. They believed what I couldn’t.
There is no difficult interpretation for this. Spiritually, we need these kinds of relationships. We need people telling us that “better is better” and marginal gains, small lessons learned, a slightly better understanding of God’s goodness… these are wonderful things to celebrate. In the face of overwhelming darkness, we need friends that will acknowledge our grief, grieve with us, but also help us to see those small moments to be thankful for. Because there’s always some small flower pushing up through the cracks.
I have been shrinking physically, but these small practices in my body are teaching my heart what the benefits of discipline are for the follower of Jesus. I think Paul’s usage of the athlete analogy (1 Cor. 9:25) is not just incidental. Training our bodies has lots of correlation to training our minds and our hearts to think the thoughts of God and conform to the image of His Son. The reality is that Jesus does not want to leave us, will not leave us as he found us. I know I’ve been so discouraged at times by the distant target that I can not hit from where I’m at. But the progressive power of small changes that God works in us, the small choices we can learn to make, they eventually make large changes.
Erin asked me the other day if I’m going to cut this out and stop losing weight because I got to my goal or if I’m going to keep going. And to be honest, I was stumped by that question. Because now, I don’t feel like I’m doing something special. Now I just feel like I’m… doing life. I haven’t been doing anything extreme, really. I’ve been making more of the right choices. Maybe now, I’ll let myself be less fanatical about having a donut (sweet, sweet donuts) or two. But working out every day and eating right is just a good idea. I really don’t care about my weight. I don’t feel the need to be a certain size or number or anything. I just want to be a healthy father, a healthy husband. My life is being changed into a different kind of life.
And isn’t that what God wants for us? To have our minds perpetually renewed, our hearts forever turning more easily towards him?
I’ve been shedding weight. There’s less of me walking around these days. But I tend to think that’s a good thing. As my life becomes more submitted to the hand of God, I don’t want to have more and more of me. I want to have less of my kind and quality of life, and more of the kind and quality that has the Infinite as its source. I want to have more of Jesus’ life and less of mine. It’s good to shed this earthly weight. To shoulder the cross. To be transformed and renewed. This is a slow and gradual thing, a big thing accomplished by small habits.
I really don’t know that I’ll have the strength to be the kind of person I should be. In fact, I know I don’t have the strength. But Jesus nourishes me with whats really good, tells me the truth I need to hear, sends friends and his Holy Spirit and… he’ll finish with me. He’ll complete the work he started. I don’t trust my dedication to the task.
I do trust his.