“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”—Mark Twain
We grimace at the author’s sardonic wit, for he has captured in one line our ambivalence about what it means to achieve or maintain personal health. And for a faith movement that for 150 years has promoted healthful living, it doesn’t help our moralizing that the cigar-smoking, bourbon-drinking humorist lived to age 74 in an era when the life expectancy for White males was less than 50. Our sense of justice tells us that mocking wit and bad habits shouldn’t be so rewarded.
But good health, as we are coming to understand, isn’t simply a morality tale about good choices made by persons with advanced willpower. The complex interplay of factors well beyond anyone’s personal control—ethnicity, environment, education, heredity, access to health care, and half a hundred cultural factors—may predispose us to either living well beyond the typical life expectancy, or slightly lowering that number by the tiny data point that represents one life.
It’s certainly worth celebrating that the life expectancy of the average Seventh-day Adventist on the world’s most affluent continent is nearly 10 years beyond that of the general population. A consistent, church-wide emphasis on choosing better diets, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and encouraging a lifestyle characterized by healthy habits of more sleep, exercise, good hydration, and fresh air has resulted in what some term “the Adventist health advantage,” a phenomenon recently highlighted in numerous high-profile media reports.
There’s no ultimate value in merely living longer if we aren’t also living better.
But it’s also right to ask if the extra decade is actually an advantage if it doesn’t result in people living out the abundant life that Jesus taught us we should expect as His followers. Are we known as Christians who both experience and express the “joy of the Lord” across our fourscore years? Are we flourishing in warm, hospitable relationships that cross traditional divides of race, ethnicity, and language? Are we warming to the people whose ideas or opinions may, on one level, “leave us cold”? Is there among us a discernible and attractive culture of grace and inclusion—especially for those who haven’t shared our advantages in education, supportive families, or access to adequate healthcare?
There’s no ultimate value in merely living longer if we aren’t also living better—becoming believers known for compassion and commitment to others’ well-being. The Gospels never once record that Jesus put His healthy lifestyle above the needs of broken, hurting people, for it was sinners and not His personal reputation He came to save. And so He taught that it was the “weightier” matters of the law He values most—love, justice, and humility—for they bring the peace with God and peace with others that lays the foundation for flourishing and abundance.
These are the “healthy habits” we learn only in community—in church—where we see modeled the gracious, other-centered life that is our only true fitness for the kingdom. Rubbing shoulders with others who don’t share our social or political views, who haven’t had our life advantages or made the choices that we’ve made is a kind of “holy friction,” designed by Jesus to work off all our rough and pious edges. In the fullest sense, we are never healthy by ourselves, but only in the community of grace-dependent men and women who are being saved by Jesus.
The church I want to belong to is healthy in every way, living with abundance and generosity, “fit for human consumption,” and because of grace, also fit for kingdom living, beginning now.