Evangelicals Beat Spiritual Anorexia

I love the picture of the 400 pound man wearing a smile of triumph and a T-shirt bearing the inscription, “I beat anorexia.”

Anorexia is no laughing matter. People die from it, and even those who deal with it successfully go through a long period of struggle for them and their loved ones.

Of course, the joke is that the man in the picture not only beat anorexia but is light years away from the danger zone. Imagine holding anorexia seminars for frequent fliers at the all-you-can-eat buffet. You could assure them that their culinary hangout was providing them with a safe space.

The extremes of anorexia and obesity remind us that life is filled with dangers on the further reaches of both ends of the bell curve. We have the spendthrift and the miser, the health nut and the fast food fanatic, the neatnik and the slob, the speedster and slowster, the hypochondriac and medically indifferent.

In Matthew 16:6 Jesus reminds us of extremes in the spiritual world, warning His disciples: “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” In Mark 8:15 He cautions, “Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Since these gospels are recording the same incident, apparently Jesus spoke of the leaven of the Pharisees on one hand and that of the Sadducees and Herod on the other hand.

The Pharisees were so fixated on righteous living, especially as stipulated in their tradition, that they ignored God’s ultimate concern for loving people. They didn’t care about the disciples’ hunger or the healing of the man with a withered hand but only that the disciples and Jesus kept their Sabbath regulations. Living at the opposite pole, the Sadducees and Herod maintained a safe distance from overdoing the law, ignoring its moral teachings almost completely.

We also encounter danger moving too far in either of these directions. For example, in past generations some Christians were so opposed to women using makeup that like the Pharisees they unnecessarily imposed hardships on their daughters attending public school. However, the other extreme of ignoring biblical morality as did the Sadducees and Herod is also possible.

In Jesus’ day the Pharisees were the more aggressive party, often challenging Jesus. As a result, Jesus dealt with their error much more frequently than that of Herod and the Sadducees. Perhaps Scripture gives more attention to the extreme of the Pharisees because it is more subtle, posing as spirituality, while the antics of Herod and the Sadducees where blatantly ungodly.

Because of the scriptural focus on the error of the Pharisees, it is easy to lose sight of the opposite extreme, concluding that the only threat to the Christian life is legalism. That perspective may not have been too troublesome during times when the church was leaning in that direction, or even today if one belongs to an Amish sect.

However, we live at a time when the leaven of the Sadducees and of Herod are overwhelmingly more predominant. With the church riddled with people using pornography, with many if not most evangelicals viewing movies containing nudity, with divorce and cohabitation rampant in the church, and with attending church twice per month being considered normal, like the 400 pound man with the “I beat anorexia” T-shirt, we are a long way from being threatened by legalism.

Despite the current predominance of the leavened by the Sadducees and Herod, evangelicals tend to ignore its incursion and continue to fight the threat of legalism as if it were looming large and ready to pounce and devour at any moment if not beaten off by continual vigilance. We find books assuring us that we need not “perform” to please God as if most evangelical women were on the verge of reverting to culottes and men were getting measured for black shirts and pants. It seems that every other evangelical on twitter describes himself as a “Grace freak,” and “Grace fanatic,” assuring us that his defenses are raised against the legalistic hordes that are storming the church gates.

Just as anorexia is no laughing matter, neither is legalism. However, for the overwhelming majority of evangelicals, their ongoing battle with legalism is tantamount to the 400 pound man fighting anorexia. They are light years away from the danger zone. Perhaps they should have T-shirts made that state, “I beat legalism,” and then stand next to the 400 man who beat anorexia to be photographed, wearing the same victorious smile. Or maybe we should take a new look at the holiness of God and say with Isaiah, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”

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