When I dieted, I’d think about food all day. I tried many things, but for me the easiest was to divide every single food into strict categories: “good” and “bad,” “clean” or “unclean.”
Those days I did well under the good/bad system felt great. I identified myself as a healthy eater, someone who knew enough about nutrition and cared enough about herself to do the “right” thing and eat her veggies. On the good days, I was smug.
But the bad days were excruciating. If I succumbed and ate something bad, that knowledge would sit heavily on my mind. I felt guilt, as if I had sinned. I would think about how I could atone for this sin: I could be good the next day or exercise, for repentance. I would skip social events to avoid bad foods. I would panic in the weeks leading up to travel or visiting family, knowing that bad food was unavoidable.
In pop culture this is called “dieting”—and about 45 million Americans diet every year. In psychology these habits are called “eating disorder behaviors.” We have a name for it in theology too—one that is at the heart of the Lutheran tradition. In theology we call this “works righteousness.”
Every part of our lives becomes good because God—who loves our whole selves—delights in us, not because we are perfect in what we do.
Martin Luther was no stranger to the joy thief called works righteousness, though his experience with it came from religiosity instead of diet. His good days looked less like clean eating and more like pious living, with daily confession, endless prayer services, almsgiving and fasting. I’m not sure what his bad days looked like, but I know he held high standards for himself and felt great guilt and shame when he inevitably didn’t meet those standards.
Luther’s perfectionism and guilt resonated with me when I read about them in seminary—just not when it came to religious devotion. The religious scrupulosity he lived with still exists, but I think it’s less common, in part because of his bravery. He did his best to free himself and others from pious perfectionism, and we’re all better for it. But works righteousness still rages in our hearts; we still want to be our own saviors, and we are still furious when we fall short of the standards we set for ourselves.
However works righteousness shows up, the answer is grace. Luther came to know that our whole lives become an act of righteousness when lived in faith. In this he even included daily activities: “trade, walk, stand, eat, drink, sleep, and do all kinds of works for the nourishment of the body or for the common welfare” (“A Treatise on Good Works”). Every part of our lives becomes good because God—who loves our whole selves—delights in us, not because we are perfect in what we do.
There is grace for our bodies too. My preoccupation with dieting emerged because I wanted to be good enough that I would be loved, and I was sure I would be loved once I was healthy enough, thin enough. There is no grace in dieting.
Your whole body, whatever its shape, has already been made good by God’s love.
The good news for our bodies is that God loves them all—thin and fat, healthy and sick, young and old, and everywhere in between. And because God loves our bodies as they are, we are freed to live without the works righteousness of dieting. Luther didn’t have to earn God’s love with his piousness, and we don’t have to earn love with our endless cycles of dieting, guilt and shame.
The new year is a hotbed for dieting, when many of us make resolutions. Six weeks later, when we inevitably can’t change our lives on a whim, Lent comes, and many of us use it to re-up our resolutions. For many people, Lent becomes a Jesus-sanctioned diet. Since Jesus fasted for 40 days, we give up sugar, soda or bread, or whatever we think will help us shed a pound or two by Easter.
In doing so, many of us are falling for the old lies of works righteousness. Our Lenten disciplines then no longer bring us closer to our loving God, but drive us further away. We forget that God loves us already, and we try to earn that love with good works.
This Lent, give up dieting instead of food. When the joy thief begins to whisper, “If you eat clean, you’ll finally be loved, whole, worthy”—resist. Your whole body, whatever its shape, has already been made good by God’s love.