4 Truths Fat People Can Teach the Church
I judge fat people.
I assume they’re lazy and weak-willed. I want to bring attention to their obesity in case they weren’t yet aware. I’m tempted to lecture them about obesity’s effect on our health care system. I want to remind fat people of the statistics - I’m especially critical of fat people who frequent fast food restaurants. I want to ask “Are you sure you want to be here? Do you really want to super-size that?” America is a free country but I will absolutely judge the diet of fat people. I also don’t want to sit next to a fat person on the plane. I recall a news story about Samoan airlines charging customers not by seat but by pound. I remember thinking how novel and practical an idea that was.
Being of Asian descent is also a disadvantage in accepting larger people. Relative to white people, I am a small, skinny Asian dude and my body type is normative for Asians. I am genetically predisposed against gaining weight. It is therefore easy for me to judge people because of my genetics. To make things worse, Asian culture is also very opinionated and coercive in regards to outward appearance. Your body does not belong to you but to your parents and your family community (church included). That’s why it’s socially acceptable for a family member or acquaintance to publicly draw attention to one's weight. The person believes she is doing you a favor.
National Public Radio’s This American Life recently re-broadcast the episode Tell Me I’m Fat. I started listening and remembered hearing it before but on the second iteration, listening with a different set of ears. A couple days earlier, I had a conversation with a friend about how the world - secular society - is much better at loving marginalized people than the church. We attempted to explain the reasons behind the gap.
My friend suspected it’s because the church - and specifically American evangelicalism - is not willing to make the necessary sacrifices to love the marginalized. I had a different suspicion: We as Christians have a much lower sensitivity to marginalized people groups. We’re much better equipped to make moral evaluations about people and in doing so, lose sight of the centrality of God’s acceptance in Christ.
This podcast helped me recognize how the world understands certain aspects of the gospel better than the church. Here are those gospel realities:
1) God looks at the heart not outward appearance
The podcast has a segment about Oral Roberts University and their weight program from the 1970s called “Pounds Off. Oral Roberts, the founder of the school, noticed some overweight students and made it clear that one of the goals would be to ensure physical discipline. The criteria for returning students to re-enroll was to ensure your body fat percentage was under the target - 25% for men and 35% for women. didn’t lose a certain amount of weight, you could not re-enroll in the university. I appreciate that the podcast’s intent is not to denigrate Christianity but to use this extreme example as a proxy of how our culture sees obesity. It’s socially undesirable.
1 Samuel 16:7 is a well-known verse regarding God’s selection of a young shepherd boy, David, as the future anointed king of Israel. God sees the heart whereas man sees the outward appearance. Unfortunately, we Christians are more human than divine and are quick to use the outward appearance to judge the heart. We naturally make assumptions about attitude and perspective based on someone’s skin color, dress, and of course, weight.
2) Being fat involves marginalization and God has a heart for the marginalized
I’m on a journey towards better understanding the marginalization of those who identify as LGBT. And yet being lesbian, gay, or bisexual has a hidden dynamic. It’s something that can be kept from plain sight. However, like race, one cannot hide being fat. It is every bit as visible as skin color.
And thus, Elna Baker’s segment was the most poignant for me. If you only have time for a 20-minute segment, listen to this one. Elna was obese throughout childhood, adolescence, and into her early 20s. Dissatisfied with her dating life, she employed a combination of weight loss medication, diet, and exercise to lose 110 pounds. Elna immediately noticed how people responded differently to her. As a fat person, she had been invisible. The male attention she now received as skinny Elna was exponentially greater than when she was fat Elna.
In a recorded conversation between her and her husband, Elna elicits his acknowledgement that he would not have fallen in love with her if she had still been fat. Her husband’s evasion of the question and her persistence in getting him to answer plainly is painful to listen to. And then her husband drops this doozy of a comment: “The real Elna is the skinny Elna". That’s a powerful statement. It’s akin to saying fake Elna was invisible and now skinny Elna is visible. To have less flesh is to be seen and to have more is to be overlooked. And God has a heart for those that our society overlooks.
3) The gospel includes setting marginalized people free from guilt, shame, and condemnation
The factors involved in obesity are complex. Here’s a graphic depiction that highlights all the factors contributing to our obesity epidemic. And yet legalism and other caricatures of Christianity would over-generalize the root of obesity as a lack of self-control. This leads to generous heapings of guilt, shame, and condemnation on obese people. It’s as if obese people are the only ones who struggle with self-control.
I wonder if being fat is the social equivalent of a tax collector in the Ancient Near East. It doesn’t mean you’re directly sinful (at least not in the same way as “sinners” - likely a reference to criminals and prostitutes) but it does mean you’re stigmatized as having an association with sin - gluttony and sloth, which are indicators of the lack of self-control. I do not begrudge physical fitness and health as important to one’s well-being and yet it is only one byproduct of self-control and discipline.
Guilt, shame, and condemnation around physical appearance seems to affect women differently than men. The podcast is voiced exclusively from the vantage point of women. The male perspective is conspicuously absent. Because physical appearance has greater emphasis for women, the stigma of obesity hits women much harder. I sense a greater percentage of obese men than obese women are accepting of their weight, due largely to this reality and also that men tend to care less about people think. Our culture (and throughout history, almost every culture) places a higher premium on the outward appearance of women than that of men (on the other hand, I would argue male height functions like female weight in the dating market. Being a short guy poses a greater obstacle to mating success than being a fat woman - evidence here).
4) The core of the gospel is God’s acceptance in Christ not sin, behavior, or weight management
I remember asking a Christian what the goal of the Christian life is. He said to sin less. I remember thinking I would be tremendously disappointed if my tombstone read “He sinned less”. It’s just not a very inspiring epitaph. The goal of discipleship cannot be to sin less. That was hardly Jesus’ metric of success. The metric was faith and its resulting obedience. It means a righteousness born of faith.
Therefore, the goal of the Christian life cannot be sin management. And if that’s true, then the goal of the Christian life cannot also be behavior management. Certainly one might argue behavioral modification is a by-product of the gospel. As we are filled with Spirit, He manifests Himself in us as self-control.
And yet the fruit of the Spirit is not self-focused - the fruit is emotional health and loving relationships. It is impossible to fully exhibit the fruit of the Spirit with any single character quality in isolation. Love, gentleness, patience, and goodness are meant to be expressed in the context of community. And one’s body shape is nowhere the ultimate arbiter of one’s capacity to love another person.
In Philippians 3:1-11, Paul addresses a division in the church arising from a group’s emphasis on the Jewish ritual of circumcision. He expresses his commitment to place no confidence in the flesh - that is, to forsake reliance on one's physical credentials. Paul’s physical credentials include his eighth day circumcision and a godly lineage. And yet he considers his physical credentials an obstacle to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ and having a righteousness that is not his own. When we create divisions based on physical credentials, we implicitly place our confidence in the flesh - or the lack thereof. It is an insidious form of self-righteousness and the opposite of the total righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus. The problem with spiritualizing weight management (as opposed to general health) is its emphasis on a possible by-product of the gospel while missing out on the centerpiece of the gospel itself - the acceptance we have in Christ.
I look forward to the day at the end of this age, when all of God’s elect are gathered from the four corners of the globe; it will be a sight to behold not only the range of skin colors but also all the different shapes and sizes represented from every tribe and nation, as we are assembled together before the throne of the most high king.