I am not good at balance, but I am aware of the need for it. We all make hundreds of choices every day that are small in themselves, but have cumulative importance as they either keep us in balance or shift us toward vulnerability to sickness, burnout, or other distresses. Sometimes we discover what we have needed by going for weeks, months, or years of having tried to live without it. Burn-out or breakdown shows what we have been missing. One way that God cares for us is to lead us into a balanced life.
Essential to a balanced life for well-being and responsiveness to God’s calling is attention to the physical body. Gregg Allison observes that “evangelicals at best express an ambivalence toward the human body, and at worst manifest a disregard or contempt for it.” He notes that “a proper theology of human embodiment corrects a much-overlooked aspect of Christian living and church education: Physical discipline in regard to eating, exercising, resting, and avoiding harmful substances is an important component of life in the human body” (8). Who has the time for these things?
Christians are tempted to live unbalanced with respect to bodily well-being, perhaps through the excuse that “the spiritual life is more important than the body” or the criticism that energy spent on bodily well-being is indulgent and wasteful. I have shared this Gnostic, disregard-for-the-body view of human life, emphasizing the spiritual over the physical. I have tended to view my body as a vehicle or instrument for doing work and getting around in life. I view my car the same way. By contrast, God has designed human beings to function as a unity, as in dualistic holism (John Cooper), so that neglect of the body will make for an unbalanced whole.
I offer recommendations for each item in Gregg Allison’s list of four aspects of physical discipline that are important for us, and I add four more items that contribute to a balanced life.
Feeding the Body
First, the proper care of the body involves good food and drink. We have a dizzying array of options for food and drink in the affluent modern era. Whenever we eat or drink, we are faced with an expanding number of choices. Moreover, nutritional misinformation has caused much confusion in recent decades. We are advised (from different experts) that fat is bad for us; no, that’s not right, it’s sugar that is the danger; wait, no, it’s too many carbohydrates; wrong again—the problem is meat, or, someone else will say, not enough meat! People preach the evils of gluten, fast food, dairy, and industrial agriculture (grain-fed animals, pesticides, genetically-modified vegetables, excessive fertilizer). We are promised gains for health by eating organic vegetables, a vegetarian or vegan diet, or a high-protein diet. The contradictions seem to multiply every month with seemingly respectable scientists lining up in support of the recommendations.
Added to this confusion about what makes for good nutrition is the array of health problems that are increasingly connected to nutritional problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, liver dysfunction, and Alzheimer’s. Clearly, what we eat matters for the well-being of our bodies. Some foods and drinks are denounced as toxic, such as sugar and alcohol. Other foods seem to make us able to transcend bodily weakness, such as coffee and tea (with caffeine), sugar, and other energy drinks.
Hydration at the level of eight cups of water a day was suddenly promoted at the end of the 20th century as necessary to well-being. Consequently, many people cannot seem to go anywhere without a water bottle in hand (the so-called 8x8 recommendation qualifies as fake news). Additionally, we are told that we should have all sorts of purification and additives in our water that will make us better bodily, so that tap water is highly suspect.
The proliferation of documentaries and fad diets promoted through the internet can make the entire prospect of discerning what is proper feeding of the body exhausting and dizzying. For my part, I have noticed that I eat too much, since the food offered to us in restaurants and elsewhere is a much larger quantity of calories than I need on a daily basis. I have experienced that I do better when I limit sugar to 24 grams a day (= 6 teaspoons) or less. Sugar has a toxic effect on my children, so I limit sugar for them also. I feel best when I eat lots of vegetables, raw or lightly steamed, and a variety of grains, meats, and beans.
Of course, giving attention to good food takes time to shop and cook. Our fast-paced world inclines us to fast food, but we may do better if we fast from hasty living and eating by slowing down to enjoy food and the longer time that good quality food will require of us. Proper attention to good food and drink is essential to the good health of a balanced life for everyone.