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6 Spiritual Lessons I Learned from a 21 Day Nutrition Challenge

Last spring I blogged about the spiritual lessons I learned during my first three months at Nelson’s VO2 Performance Training gym. Recently our trainer invited us to complete a 21 day nutrition challenge.  I completed the challenge a few weeks ago.  Here’s what I learned.

1. In order to grow I need a plan.

I learned very quickly that a major reason the 21 day nutrition plan worked was simply because it was a plan.  It was a strategy for eating.  For years I’ve had the intention to eat healthier, but intentions without a plan are about as helpful as a car without an engine.  It’s been said that “a failure to plan is a plan to fail,” and that truism came into greater clarity for me through this challenge.

Spiritually speaking, we may have lofty and noble intentions to “grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), but if we don’t create some kind of growth plan, we shouldn’t expect to see much progress.  It’s tempting to “wing it” when it comes to spiritual growth, but without a plan we all drift towards reflexive living (which reinforces the status quo).  Our moment-by-moment moods and cravings set the agenda instead of a pre-determined strategy that has been decided upon in advance.

Intentions are very important, but without a plan even the most basic disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, and serving others will be driven by our moods rather than our will.  As Christians, however, we are not called to glorify and honour God when we feel like it or when the mood strikes us.  Discipleship to Jesus requires a strategy and disciplined course of action.

What would such a course of action look like?  I create a plan each month that is based on Jesus’ command to love God heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving your neighbour as yourself.  You can read about it here.  Try it or adopt another plan, but don’t think that a casual approach to spiritual growth will get you very far.

2. Structure seems limiting (at first).

Initially, the nutrition challenge and the structure it imposed on my eating felt very restrictive.  This was due to the fact that I had become accustomed to a “go with the flow” approach to eating.  I valued the freedom that came from basing what I would eat on what I was craving at any given moment.  This freedom, of course, had led me down a deeply unhealthy path.  The new eating plan brought that negative momentum to a screeching halt.

The plan we were given was precise and strict.  It outlined what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat.  While there were some options regarding food choices, most of the decision points around food were removed.  A new liturgy of consumption was introduced.  Every week Heather and I bought exactly what we needed, spent a few hours Sunday prepping our meals for the week, and then organized them in the fridge.  This meant that every day we simply had to eat according to what had been prepared.

Within a few days the structure that initially felt so constraining became liberating.  Without having to troubleshoot what I would eat for lunch or a snack, I could simply grab my prepared meals from the fridge and get on with my day.  I spent $0 on lunches out and $0 on impulse snack purchases.  As a result I ate cleaner then I had during any other three-week period of my life.

At first glance, the prohibitions within the Bible (i.e. “thou shalt not’s”) seem restrictive.  Because our culture tends to define freedom as the absence of restrictions, we can miss that fact that a total lack of restrictions doesn’t result in freedom, but chaos.  Basketball is enjoyable to play and watch, because of the rules (i.e. restrictions).  A gourmet recipe can only be enjoyed if the chef has adhered to specific restrictions during its preparation.  Likewise, God’s commands and instructions are the very things that—rather than restricting us from the life that is truly life—open that life up to us.

Timothy Keller has it right: “True freedom lies not in absence of restrictions, but the presence of the right restrictions.”

3. Gluttony slows and weakens.

Another insight the nutrition challenge gave me was just how gluttonous I was.  There was a huge gap between my perceived caloric needs and my actual needs.  On paper, the amount of food the plan indicated I was supposed to eat (while working out at VO2!) seemed ludicrously small.  There was no way this was enough food for me to sustain basic energy for my day!

But even by the end of day one, it was clear that I would be ok.  The plan provided more than enough food.  I felt fine—better than fine.  I felt energized and experience increased mental alertness.  This caused me to cringe at how gluttonous my food intake must have become over the years, that I was finding this kind of physical vitality and mental acuity to be a novel thing.

Gluttony is condemned throughout the Bible, both because a. it is an abuse of the body, and b. it is an unjust pattern of consumption (I am consuming more than I need at the expense of another who doesn’t have enough food).  I guess I’d always recognized that this was an area of struggle for me, but I hadn’t really seen it as that much of a problem until my nutritional intake was realigned to what my body actually needed.  Once that realignment took place I was surprised and shocked by my previous levels of over-consumption.

This has given me pause to consider how gluttonous patterns have infiltrated other dimensions of my life. I believe following Jesus means a commitment to a life of simplicity, because such a life intentionally fights against the impulses of greed and gluttony.  Over-consumption slows and weakens, not just in my ability to be physically healthy, but spiritual healthy as well.  What other patterns of over-consumption need reform in my life?

4. The body resists change.

Adopting the tenants of the nutrition challenge was straightforward enough, behaviourally speaking.  Do X and Y.  Repeat.  However, physiologically, my body put up a fight.  Day five was rough.  Four straight days of eating clean while avoiding my regularly scheduled high carbohydrate intake led to the low-carb flu.  Like a two-year old that wasn’t getting what it wanted, my body was throwing a tantrum.

As we seek to follow Jesus faithfully, our “flesh” (the word the Bible uses to refer to our innate sinful impulses and desires) resists transformation.  We may put together the perfect plan, even one that is tremendously spiritually healthy, but we will likely find our flesh in revolt.  It prefers the status quo, so when we seek to effect change in our lives, we will encounter resistance.

To grow as a disciple of Jesus is to invite change and profound growth, and my nutrition challenge helped me to understand that all change is a war against the status quo.  It also helped me to anticipate that the first enemy I should expect to face in that war is myself, or rather, forces within my own flesh that will revolt once it becomes clear I’m heading down a new and healthier path.

5. Garbage in, garbage out.

I’ve read many studies and heard lots of anecdotal evidence underscoring the effect of the food we consume on our moods and physical vibrancy.  This challenged showed me just how dramatically my food intake shapes my emotional and psychological outlook throughout each day.  With each successive day of clean eating, I had more sustained physical and mental energy.  I had greater self-control, and I experienced greater optimism and better moods overall.  This was such a radically divergent experience from my previous modus operandi, where I slammed back lots of crappy food, reaping inconsistent energy, poor mental focus, weakened self-control, and increased pessimism as a result.

The 21 day challenge helped me to see again the importance of what I choose to put into my body.  Over the course of the challenge Philippians 4:8 came to mind often.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Physically, we cannot ingest crappy food and expect to reap vibrancy and health.  Spiritually, we cannot ingest crappy food (that which is false, ignoble, wrong, impure, ugly, shameful, degrading, etc.) and expect to reap spiritual vibrancy and health.  Garbage in, garbage out as they say.

6. Just because a craving exists doesn’t mean you should satisfy it.

Cravings are inevitable.  Sometimes they are good.  The can be the body’s way of indicating the deficiency of a key nutrient.  Often, however, cravings do not lead us into greater health.

It would have been disastrous if I had sought to satisfy the many cravings my body presented to me during the 21 day challenge.  Eating clean and eating often went a long way to ensuring I felt satiated most of the day, but cravings still came unbidden and unwanted.  When they did, I had to actively resist them in order to usher in greater health and strength.  I could not have grown healthier while simultaneously satisfying my cravings for sugary treats.

We live in a culture that encourages us to pursue the satiation of our desires at every turn.  Whether the desire is rooted in food, sex, or another arena, the desires at work within our hearts are seen as natural, good, and to be embraced.  But like our physical health, our spiritual health cannot be strengthened while we seek to respond to many of the cravings that exist within us.  In order to gain spiritual health and strength we must actively resist many of the cravings that we face.

In Galatians 5 Paul writes:

“live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:16-17)

Just because a craving exists doesn’t mean you should satisfy it.