Imagine approaching someone at church, looking her over, and telling her which sin patterns you think she’s stuck in—based solely on her physical appearance.

As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s not an uncommon experience for the overweight Christian.

I was 25 when a respected older woman in my church invited me to participate with her in a Christian weight-loss program. She promised this “biblical” diet (it wasn’t) would help me give my sin to the Lord and shed unwanted pounds. She thought mutual accountability would be good for both of us. Wouldn’t I like to join her?

Ouch. And no thank you, I would not.

Her invitation was presumptuous. Why had she assumed I was actively a slave to food-related sin? Of course, I knew the answer: I was overweight. Neither of us was fit and slim like many of the other women in our church, and she wrongly assumed both our problems were the result of sin.

At that point in my life I was over my ideal body weight—a postpartum, busy pastor’s wife with a sluggish thyroid—but I was not living in ongoing, unrepentant gluttony or sloth. What I needed in that season was a cup of coffee, a listening ear, and a friend who understood what I was and was not struggling with.

Too often, instead of helping Christians who are overweight, we unintentionally hurt them and create guilt and shame. We can do better.

Truth About Obesity

In the recent Huffington Post article “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong,” Michael Hobbes reports:

About 40 years ago, Americans started getting much larger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. More Americans live with “extreme obesity” than with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and HIV put together.

Hobbes states that the medical system has failed to offer patients a range of resources, support, and compassion. Rather than considering emotional, physical, and socioeconomic contributing factors, doctors simply blame fat people for being fat. Obesity, we’re told, is a personal failing: just stop eating Cheetos and take a walk! But condescending and cursory suggestions offer little tangible help and rarely result in lasting change.

Inside the church we can take this callous attitude one step further—assuming that the more overweight someone is, the more sinful he or she is. Extra pounds become scarlet letters, marking saints as idolaters, gluttons, and sluggards.

Extra pounds can become scarlet letters, marking saints as idolaters, gluttons, and sluggards.

As a Christian who’s struggled with my weight all my life, my chief goal should be gaining holiness, not losing pounds. And while pursuing a healthy body as a means of stewardship is part of my progress in holiness—that I must choose to take up every day—my weight isn’t a measuring stick for my growth in godliness.

As someone who’s been hurt by well-meaning Christians who simply don’t know how to help, I concur with Hobbes’s conclusion that often “the biggest problem is our [negative] attitudes toward fat people.”

In the church, I’m afraid we’re often no more cautious or compassionate than the medical system when it comes to shepherding the growing demographic of overweight saints and sufferers in our midst.

Loving the Christian Who Is Overweight

As an overweight Christian, here are some helpful ways I’d like to see church members, lay leaders, and pastors engage with people who are overweight or obese:

  1. See me, not a sin. My extra weight may or may not be tied to indwelling, unrepentant sin. Don’t assume.
  2. Ask yourself if you are the right person to help. Weight is a sensitive subject. Just because you can see my extra pounds doesn’t mean you’ve been invited to speak into a problem. Consider your relationship with me and the role you’ve been called to play in my discipleship or accountability.
  3. Listen and learn. Avoid the temptation to “fix” physical problems with spiritual answers, or spiritual problems with physical answers. Listen first, pray for discernment, then ask how you can help.
  4. Don’t shame me. Encourage me. If I am struggling with habitual sin, shaming me isn’t the best way to help. (Yes, I know my body is a temple, but thoughtlessly tossing Bible verses is hurtful.) Remind me of the gospel and that my worth isn’t based on what I look like. “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14).
  5. Appreciate the burden. Grieve the trial. Understand that sin involving food is complicated in ways that differ from drugs or other addictions. We all must continue to eat daily. Every time I enter church, nourishment and temptation sit on a table near the welcome desk. Show me grace, understanding, and compassion by comforting me in my affliction (2 Cor. 1:4).
  6. Help me not to stumble. By design, food will always be a part of church. Communion, fellowship meals, and celebratory feasting are all part of our life together. And yet, not all church events need to be an opportunity for over-indulging. Be sensitive in considering which ministry events need food, and eliminate the distraction of food from events where it isn’t integral. Not every Bible study meeting requires punch and cookies. Consider contributing delicious healthy options for those trying to exercise self-control at the potluck. If you know I’m attempting to abstain from something, don’t lead me into sin by telling me “it doesn’t matter” or offering permission to indulge. It is “wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats” (Rom. 14:20). Protect me by encouraging my self-control.
  7. Be patient. Don’t expect my lifelong struggles to be solved immediately because of one conversation. Or a few conversations. I may wrestle against this part of my flesh for years to come. The key to helping me is encouraging me to remain engaged in the fight for holiness and to not give up. Point me to God’s forgiveness when I fall, and encourage me when I stand against temptation.

To be clear, this isn’t a request to overlook sin. It’s not a bid for “body acceptance” at the cost of holiness. This is simply a plea to see people, not their pants size. The obesity “crisis” in our neighborhoods and churches is growing. Let’s be prepared to respond with countercultural empathy and compassion.