January 20, 2014

Playing Your Way to a Better Marriage

Gary Thomas — 


photo: Marley Cook, Creative Commons

photo: Marley Cook, Creative Commons

An old, popular ditty says, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage!” Many women will tell you that along with the baby carriage comes fifteen pounds that might take them fifteen years to lose.

My friend Karen Yates faced the challenge of postpartum weight gain following the births of her first two children, but what really got her attention was that she also gained weight following the arrival of their third child—who came into their home via adoption.

One of the selling points for adoption is that a mom doesn’t have to gain weight to get a new child, but this wasn’t Karen’s experience.

“It was a tough time for me spiritually, and the adoption process wasn’t easy, so there was a lot of stress, which caused me to eat more.”

After Karen and her husband, Curtis, finally got little Daniel from Ethiopia, Karen had to deal with the shock of caring for three young children.

“My world felt very small. I felt trapped in my own house. I took care of everyone but felt invisible. I knew I was loved, but as a young mother you pour everything into your very needy young children. I wasn’t taking care of myself.”

How many young moms find themselves in exactly this situation?

They are pouring themselves out for their families, their kids, their husbands, their jobs, with the result that taking care of themselves—getting some time away to stay in shape and work off the stress—just doesn’t fit into their schedule, so they let it slide. At first, they can coast on previous fitness; eventually, however, that state is going to catch up with them. And when we get out of shape physically, it has other implications.

Karen’s spiritual diet soon mirrored her physical one: “You could describe it the way they describe an eating disorder—binge and purge. One week I’d be in the Word and pray a lot, determined to get on track with God and put him first. I got up at 5:30, even if I had been up several times during the night taking care of fussy babies. But then, inevitably, somebody got the flu, chaos would ensue, and the quiet times stopped for a week.”

After months of this physical and spiritual seesaw, Karen looked in the mirror and “didn’t think I looked very attractive, didn’t feel noticed, didn’t feel very beautiful with Curtis. I was no longer his girlfriend; I was his frumpy wife and the mother of his kids. It’s not that he made me feel that way; I felt it all on my own.” The worse she felt, the worse she’d do with her devotions, the less initiating she’d be toward her husband, and the less energetic she became with her kids.

The element that brought Karen out of this stupor may surprise some believers.

It wasn’t, at first glance, very “spiritual,” but it had seriously spiritual implications. She and Curtis didn’t go through marital counseling. She didn’t take a parenting class. She simply started playing volleyball again.

At first, she felt rusty and awkward on the court. It was a bit embarrassing, having been a fairly accomplished player earlier in life, to walk into an open gym. But she made herself do it, and the results proved dramatic.

“I noticed after a few weeks of going to the gym that being away from my kids, playing a team sport with other adults, not thinking about my duties at all, dishes, or grocery shopping—it just brought me joy. It added fun back into my life.”

The volleyball playing acted like rolling a boulder down a hill—it picked up steam for other exercise in her life. Karen noticed a little more energy, a little lighter spirit, so she started going for walks in the morning with the kids. She noticed her body getting stronger and thought to herself, “I can walk a little farther today, a little faster, maybe even trot for a bit.” And then those walks became mini-jogs and then full-fledged runs.

She started feeling even better about herself, and that gave her the motivation, energy, and initiative to become more disciplined about both what she was eating and what she was feeding her heart spiritually.

Because of the increased exercise, Karen also started sleeping better, which meant that she woke up with more energy and her mind was freer to pursue God.

What I love about this is that, as Karen tells her story, it’s clear that mind and spirit, soul and body, began working together.

Just as abuse of our bodies can gradually numb us to Christ’s presence, so caring for our bodies can warm us up to his initiating grace.

The newfound energy and confidence led Karen to address her eating habits. Karen’s burgeoning confidence led her to feel happier and more energetic as a mom and become more disciplined in her spiritual devotions; it even made her “feel better sexually”—which makes perfect sense if one’s body is getting into shape.

Karen warns that when women discuss body issues, they often enable each other’s unhealthy patterns by talking down women who are doing something about it, ascribing to them bad motives or painting them as shallow. Instead of gossiping about others, she recommends letting the physical fitness build the confidence necessary to also address other areas of life. “Most women—in fact, most peoplewant to be attractive to their spouses; they want to be good parents; they want to be their best. But becoming your best takes hard work and discipline. It isn’t easy.”

It also takes addressing soul and body, mind and heart. We can err on either end of the spectrum of neglect.

I asked Karen if she had ever been challenged about these issues from the pulpit, if a sermon may have encouraged her to consider pursuing her “volleyball therapy.” She became silent and was reluctant to speak until I pressed her. Finally she commented, “If a large percentage of Americans are overweight, there are a lot of Christians who are overweight too, including church members and pastors. I doubt a sermon like that would go over well.”

After pausing, she added, “People want to hear about grace and about how much God loves them, about how they’re good enough just as they are. There’s a lot of truth in that, but the message about weight in our churches is that it’s rude to say to someone that they need to lose weight—so we just don’t address it.”

Sadly this is all too true, even though the failure to address weight issues can keep people imprisoned in unhealthy habits and traveling a downward spiral, the kind Karen had found herself in. Talking to Karen now, sensing the joy, noticing the strength, listening to her insights, makes you wonder why we don’t want more Christians like her filling local churches and why we won’t address these issues in an attitude of grace and encouragement.

Remembering her old self, Karen can recall the shame—not just with people but with God too. It was the shame that kept her from being “useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.”

It may sound strange to prescribe volleyball for what seems like spiritual ills, but it’s difficult to argue when you talk to Karen.

Here, indeed, is a woman who is having her soul refined. She hasn’t arrived yet—none of us ever will—but she is certainly more useful to her Master and more prepared to do any good work. She’s now involved in an international ministry that promotes adoption. She has gone from feeling defeated individually, to helping others corporately—an amazing, biblical turnaround.

And that’s the promise of faith-based fitness. Those of us who have the courage to address this personal issue in our own lives will experience considerable results. Improving your physical fitness will increase your overall zest for life. You’ll have more energy for your marriage, for parenting, for your business.

And I also believe that being in shape means you will experience many benefits in your spiritual life. Like Karen, you may even notice improvement in sexual intimacy. Psychologically, the endorphins that follow a hard workout are an excellent way to manage stress and feel better about life in general. And I have had times of worship while exercising that are much richer than any I’ve known sitting in a large room singing choruses that some other writer has written.


(This post is adapted from my book Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul. I believe addressing motivational issues around physical fitness can have huge family benefits—for both marriage and parenting—so if this is an issue you’ve struggled with, I invite you to check out this book: http://tinyurl.com/kabawlc )

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