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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Biggest Loser and Self-Sacrifice

            My wife and I occasionally watch The Biggest Loser (NBC, Mondays 8/7c), a show about the physical and emotional transformations of people who are significantly overweight and who undergo intense training and counseling by coaches trying to get them to a breakthrough.
            This show has been important to me for two reasons. First, I constantly struggle with my weight and self-image. I’ve always been a large guy, but I constantly wish I were thinner, more in-shape, and (vainly) better looking. The Biggest Loser is a reminder of the struggle necessary to be transformed and the hard work that can lead to great accomplishments. The show is something of a drum-beat that motivates me to get up and get moving.
            Secondly, The Biggest Loser offers pastoral insights into the spiritual and emotional lives of people who are struggling, depressed, and out of control. They are counseled and pushed to the edge of what they think they can handle by increasingly demanding coaches Jillian Michaels, Bob Harper, and Dolvett Quince. Although there is not an explicitly spiritual overtone to the challenges and encouragement that the coaches offer, this is most certainly a spiritual program. Its goal is no less than the transformation of the contestants physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I do well to witness these admittedly edited transformations; they help me consider the raw emotional hurt of people that is so often masked at church.
            On a recent episode[1] the characters faced the challenge of leaving the ranch (the place where they live, eat, and workout in front of the cameras) and moving into a rented house where they would have to shop for themselves and develop a workout routine using normal consumer equipment rather than that at the ranch’s gym. One contestant willingly accepted this challenge, leaving the routine of the ranch to test his willpower and commitment once he was on his own.
            The good news is that this contestant (as well as the teammate he took with him off site) lost a good amount of weight once they returned to the ranch. What struck me as odd, though, was an exchange between this contestant (his name is Jackson) and two of the trainers. The conversation[2] at the weekly weigh-in went something like this:

Jillian: “I’m proud of you…but you did it as a martyr. You did it like you were saying “I have it together; none of you do. I will fall on the sword.””
Jackson: “This wasn’t about falling on the sword. It didn’t matter who I was “saving””
Dolvett…”You’ve gotta save yourself.”
Jillian: “THANK YOU!”
Dolvett: “Jillian’s right; make sure you do things for you, first.”

Let me firstly say that I get it. There is a good tradition in ministry that self-care and the spirit are related.[3] We must, as believers, maintain a healthy level of self-care and self-respect in our developing discipleship to become the people we are called to be in Christ. There was something about the above interaction that seemed wrong to me, though.
            In weight loss it is essential to break through the emotional and spiritual boundaries that people build up to protect their hearts from harm. A significant portion of The Biggest Loser season is dedicated to the back stories and emotional baggage of the contestants. After all, watching people work out for four hours wouldn’t make for a good reality program. I can attest to the reality of eating to feel better and to get through stressful situations. The comfort of eating is an easy way to feel better about a rough season in life.
            What Jillian and Dolvett consistently mean in their “take care of number one” advice is that in many cases, people who are severely overweight have fallen into a pattern of self-disrespect and externalization of stress and relationships to the exclusion of their own health, both physically and emotionally. This is good, sound advice for people struggling to gain control of their addictions and self-image.
            In the episode in question, though, the issue was not about the internalization of emotion and personal responsibility. Rather, the issue Jillian and Dolvett had with Jackson was something related to his “gameplay” as a contestant on The Biggest Loser. Jackson decided to “sacrifice” himself during a challenge that ultimately sent him from the ranch. His plan went something like this: if he, rather than another contestant, were exiled for the week to fend for himself, it would protect some other, weaker contestant from that fate. Further, if Jackson was successful as an exile, it would demonstrate how much he had learned and give him some evidence of how he would perform on his own should he be sent home for good. So there was some altruism involved as well as some personal evaluation.
            Jillian’s concern was that Jackson’s sacrifice endangered his presence on the ranch and was an unnecessary risk. Jackson, in her view, should have done everything possible to guarantee his place on the ranch with the trainers for another week. The self-sacrifice of the contestant is a bad thing: the trainers’ fear is that Jackson is still in an emotional pattern of taking care of those around him before he meets his own needs.

            My reaction to the Biggest Loser situation comes from my Christian commitment to self-sacrifice. If the life of the disciple of Jesus is anything, it is the “taking up” of a cross to follow the Christ.[4] There is a sense of self-sacrifice in the nature of discipleship because there is definite self-sacrifice in the Incarnation. We must remember, if we are following Jesus, that he is walking toward the cross.
            When Jillian Michaels berates Jackson for his “falling on the sword,” she is not attacking the altruistic and kenosis of Christianity; rather she is being true to her desire for the contestants to deal with their own internal issues before they address those of their neighbors. She is doing the same thing every flight attendant in America does – she reminds us to secure our own oxygen mask before we see to the masks of the people beside us.
            From the perspective of a disciple of Jesus, though, such advice is unacceptable. The nature of following Jesus is, by definition, the giving up of our desires to do something other than follow him. It is the giving in to the leading of the Spirit, the painful giving up of our sinful habits and the turning toward the new life we are offered in Christ Jesus.
            Two issues surfaced in my mind while considering that conversation on The Biggest Loser. First, there must be room in the discipleship planning of our congregations to address the internal self-care issues of those on the discipleship journey. Self-sacrifice is the very essence of the Gospel, but it does not necessarily mean caring for others to the exclusion of caring for oneself. Before we can deny ourselves we must know ourselves. Self-care is the avenue by which the faithful discover their weaknesses, their gifts, their habits, and their addictions. It is through the contrast of our hearts’ desires and the truth demonstrated in Jesus Christ that we learn what repentance is. We would rather not, though. Jillian’s warning to Jackson is as real for us as for him, if even wrong-headed: we must care for our own spiritual houses lest they be overrun as soon as we turn our backs.[5]
            Secondly, we must not flee from suffering in the name of altruism. The self-giving savior did not live, die, and live again to avoid some unpleasant situation. The incarnation is testimony of just the opposite: Jesus came to a world that neither knew, wanted, or understood its God and suffered on that ungrateful world’s behalf. When Jackson volunteered to leave the ranch, he was indeed practicing altruism by protecting a different, potentially weaker contestant. However, it was not a choice that prevented his participation in “suffering.” His exile from the ranch guaranteed a harder path than those he left behind and risked his eventual dismissal from the contest. In choosing a harder path, Jackson demonstrated something that Jillian couldn’t see – he was placing compassion for his neighbor above his own progress, even his “success” as a contestant. There is far too much in the New Testament about the disciples giving up life for the sake of Jesus for us to miss the point of that sacrifice – we are called to faithfulness even through suffering. When we avoid the difficulties of faith in the name of not hurting someone’s feelings or in the name of not rocking the church boat, we have radically departed from the self-giving example of our master.
            I’m not usually one to find much of a theological point in reality television (other than clear examples of the doctrine of Total Depravity!), but in this case I couldn’t resist. We must walk the line, much like Jackson, between arrogance and self-awareness[6] in our discipleship. We need to deal with our hearts as they are laid open before God as well as living the self-sacrificing altruism he demonstrated in Christ Jesus.

[1] “Face Your Fear,” originally aired on 2/25/13
[3] Among other things, pastoral self-care is essential to survival in ministry, especially in area dealing with mortality on a regular basis. See Michael R. Stuart, “Practicing contemplation for healthy self-care” in Chaplaincy Today 28 no. 1 and Sally Canning, “Out of balance: why I hesitate to practice and teach “self-care”” in Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 30 no. 1.
[4] Cf. Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34.
[5] Cf. Matthew 12:45.
[6] See Casino Royale, my favorite Bond movie yet.

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