Health has become a national obsession. Never before have so many worried about it. For some, the worry leads to frequent examination of the latest food research. this motivates an endless pursuit of foods with the best nutritional value, the lowest fat content and the least carcinogenic contamination from additives or the environment. And of course, the regular jog, power walk or aerobics is a must.
Predictably, a strong backlash has come from those who resent “those health nuts” who spoil everything and take the joy out of life. The anger turns to passive aggression, often expressed in ramped-up overeating, the choice of unhealthy comfort foods and refusal to exercise. The result is that though medical science is able to keep us alive longer, we are less and less healthy.
The health movement, however, continues to thrive. We now have health specialists in the medical field. Wellness groups of one sort or another abound. A huge and lucrative industry has emerged around the obsession with health. It ranges from nutrition-loaded drinks, to vitamins, to drugs that fool us into thinking we are now “healthy” by eliminating our pain. Numerous commercials prey on our guilt about our own unhealthy behavior, and some mislead about the results as well as the safety of this food or that drug.
This incessant obsession with health, as well as the confusing information (and misinformation) about it, challenge us to raise two important questions: What does it really mean to be healthy? and How do I become healthy?
Most ideas about what it means to be healthy are one-dimensional. The merchandisers of health claim their product will deliver health, and it may indeed help us feel better physically or emotionally. Others may say the only thing that is important is spiritual health while failing to connect it with our physical and emotional life. An atheist dismisses the supernatural as fiction, urging us to claim health through the self-realization of mind and body. But none of these is full health.
What is Full Health?
To answer this question we begin with how God created us. God has made us, at one and the same time, spiritual, emotional, social and physical creatures. Our bodies, our feelings, our relationships are not disconnected from our spirits. We do not live as spiritual islands. God also made us persons with bodies, a range of emotions and a need for relationships with others.
None of these aspects of our lives is peripheral to our health. God cares about the health of our bodies. Why else would His Jesus have been such a generous healer? He cares about the health of our emotions. Why else would His Jesus have healed the emotionally deranged, given comfort to the grieving and confronted those living in apathetic complacency? He cares about the health of our relationships. Why else would His Jesus tell His followers the world would know they really are His disciples if they love one another?
The One Binding Ingredient
Our health is not simply a matter of the condition of our bodies alone or the state of our minds alone or the richness of our relationships alone or personal spiritual experience alone. It is all of these, and none of these alone. A healthy person is someone on a journey in which he is moving closer and closer to what the Old Testament calls shalom, often translated “peace.” The word describes a condition of physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being. A person living in God’s shalom experiences what it means to live as God created him to live. He is not perfect in every way, but he is on the way.
What is this way traveled by those who have embraced the shalom of God, the life of full health? Jesus calls it entering the Kingdom of God and living by its radical values, summarized by Jesus Himself as loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. This simple summary is the core of everything we call health.
When we love God, and our neighbors as ourselves, our spiritual life can be integrated with our lives and with each other. As those who are loved by God, we are free to value ourselves and invest in the health of our bodies. Our loving one another will bring wholeness to our relationships and begin the healing of our damaged emotions.
We now begin to see what health really is. Love binds together every dimension of our lives. That is why the apostle Paul calls love the greatest thing of all (I Cor. 13:13). Love is what finally matters (Gal. 5:6b). The healthiest people on the planet are those who know they are the beloved of God. They love God with all their soul, mind and strength. They love the neighbors that are close (family and friends) and those that are far (the marginalized, the persons with appalling lifestyles and values and the misunderstood foreigner). And they love themselves with a humble self-acceptance. These are persons who are whole. They are truly healthy.
Why Do Problems Persist?
This profile, however, seems out of touch with the truth of what we see and know of human behavior around us, and even what we know of ourselves, if we are honest. Few of us are fully healthy in all the ways we have described. So, does Christian faith call us to an impossibly idealistic life? And what would it say of God if that were the case? What kind of God calls us to a life He knows we are incapable of living?
Let’s get even more specific. If the Church is supposed to be the place where truly healthy people reside, why are there so many Christians who are still spiritual infants? After years of participation in congregational life, why do they show little sign of the spiritual depth to which Jesus calls His disciples? Why do so many Christians fail to get along with one another and sometimes act hatefully toward their brothers and sisters in Christ? Why do so many who claim to follow the Jesus who said to love your enemies demonize those who do not agree with them or who follow a different religion? Why are Christians, like everyone else, subject to the same emotional problems and mental illnesses as others? Why do so many Christians get sick and die early, become handicapped and increasingly immobilized?
Strong faith in Christ does not seem to be a magic wand that in one fell swoop heals our spirit, emotions, relationships and body. We are not yet perfect. Far from it.
So what does this mean for all our unhealthy ways? Does it mean that shalom, full health and well–being, is reserved for eternity only? Is our only recourse in the present life a simple “grin–and–bear–it”? I think not.
Taking True Measure
Life is a journey, and every day is different. Each of our lives is an unfolding story, and each day is a new chapter. Every journey and every story has a beginning. The fact is, our journey begins in a world that is not only imperfect, but fallen. As we are born into a sinful world, we cannot live our story without being affected and even infected by it. Through no fault of our own, some of us are conditioned early on to be hateful and mean. Others treat us in cruel ways and damage us emotionally. Some are raised in loving but over–protective, self–serving families and come to look upon “outsiders” as threats. We all inherit genetic codes that make some of us more susceptible to certain life threatening diseases. Some even begin life with disease or handicap. And even the best of parents and other early influencers in our lives are also on a journey and are not yet perfect; to the extent that they pretend to be perfect, they are teaching their children to hide their imperfections and not address them. We are affected and infected by all this.
We are not, however, victims. In whatever way we are damaged, corrupted, impaired, belittled or conceited by influence or birth, the journey toward health is one we can choose. No one is responsible for where his life on this earth begins. We are all responsible for where it ends.
This brings us to the second important question: How do we become healthy? Perhaps the question is better phrased: How are we becoming healthy? The best way to approach our health is to think of it in terms of progress rather than perfection. We need not be ashamed of the process of healing, pretending a state of health that is far from reality. The journey toward health can only begin when we know and admit where we are when we begin and where we are along the way.
We all begin the journey at a different place. Spiritually, some begin in total or relative ignorance of matters of faith; others begin in an environment of toxic faith; still others in a place of healthy spirituality. Emotionally, some begin the journey with deep hurts and the scars of abuse; others begin in a setting of rigid expectations and ensuing guilt feelings; still others in a place where feelings are honored and shared honestly. Relationally, some begin the journey in broken relationships and social isolation; others begin with a background of dysfunctional or addictive human interaction; still others in a place where relationships are open and affirming. Physically, some begin the journey with serious health issues, whether present at birth or brought on by an accident; others begin in an unhealthy condition brought on by their own unwholesome lifestyle and lack of self–care; still others in a place where they have enjoyed a predominantly wholesome body life. Where some begin in a place where they must battle very difficult odds, others are positioned with fewer obstacles. What progress means for one person—and how it is best measured—is different for another person. For example, we may think a person with certain emotional issues is mentally unhealthy and should have made more progress as a Christian by now, but the reality may be that he has come a long, long way from where he began his journey. He needs both our encouragement and our honesty to help him on the way to health.
If our health is a lifelong journey, what are the resources available to us on the journey? Spiritual health is nurtured in many ways, but some of them are crucial: regular engagement with Scripture, attentiveness to the life and teaching of Jesus in particular, practice of the spiritual disciplines that help us live the life of Jesus and seeking the counsel of a pastor, spiritual guide or mentor. Emotional and relational health is nurtured by spending enjoyable time with family and friends, choosing healthy and helpful relationships, removing oneself from dysfunctional and damaging relationships, being part of a caring fellowship, pastoral counseling to address specific issues and perhaps professional therapy to deal with persistent emotional pain and paralysis. Physical health is improved by eating nutritional rather than comfort food, moderate exercise and relieving stress with relaxation, enjoyment and creativity.
Beginnings and Endings
Where does spiritual health fit into this total picture of health? It is part and parcel of the whole, more so than anything else. There is a spiritual dimension to everything in our lives. Our spiritual health affects our emotional, relational and physical health, and can be affected by them. A healthy spiritual life will give strength and foster healing in these areas, as an unhealthy spiritual life will spread illness everywhere. For example, a person can suffer excruciating pain from a spreading cancer in his body, but his healthy spirit, born of a deep relationship with a loving God, will make of the cancer a defeated enemy, even though the defeat may have to await the Resurrection. In the final analysis, we who know ourselves to be the beloved of God and who love God with all our hearts, will make the journey to full health.
When we reach the end of our earthly life and stand on the edge of eternity, we will have brought with us an emotional life still not fully formed, some relational hurts still not fully healed and a body now diseased. And then something amazing will happen: our spirits, now caught up fully in the love of God, will bring us—every part of us—on to completion. We will then begin another journey, only this time we’ll travel in full health.
Until then, we travel this earthly life attentive to the health of our spirit, our emotional life, our relationships and our body—preparing ourselves to be fully whole.
By Commissioner Phil Needham